For 40 years, Shelly Goodwin has had bragging rights over her little sister. In 1983, she was named the first female student body president of Southern Utah University, a position they both coveted as they grew up on the campus where their father worked.
But Mindy Benson has finally bested her.
On Friday, Benson was named the first female president in the university’s history, taking the helm of the school they both continue to love.
“I don’t think either one of us thought we’d have this legacy,” said Benson as she accepted the position.
She choked back tears as she mentioned the friendly sibling rivalry and how her sister and other women led her here. Goodwin — which is her married name — came onstage to hug and congratulate her little sister, along with Benson’s nieces and nephews. They were all decked out in SUU T-shirts.
This university, Benson said, has long been important to her family. And she’s looking forward to leading it.
She had been serving in the position in the interim after former President Scott Wyatt stepped down exactly a year ago Friday.
And while she makes history as a woman at the head of SUU, she also joins a cadre of three other female university and college presidents in Utah — two of which are also firsts at their institutions (Astrid Tuminez at Utah Valley University and Noelle Cockett at Utah State University). It’s been part of a wave of women taking the highest positions in higher eduction in the state over the past few years, as there has been upheaval and turnover in leadership.
Now half of the eight public institutions here are led by women, including Deneece Huftalin at Salt Lake Community College, too.
And on Friday, SUU also got its first female chair of its Board of Trustees with Jodi Hart-Wilson, who was part of the committee that appointed Benson.
“We are welcoming this next chapter in our history,” Hart-Wilson said to cheers.
Benson added: “Just bring the tissues because it’s going to be that kind of day.” During her acceptance, she stopped to say “oh jeez,” several times as she started to cry from happiness.
The crowd, most proudly wearing their best Thunderbird apparel, roared and rose in a standing ovation. Benson patted the SUU pin on her lapel, over her heart, in appreciation.
“It’s humbling,” she said. “This year has been a remarkable year, and we have many remarkable years before us. Together, we can create a campus and a culture and a community that we are all proud of.”
Over the last six years, SUU has grown from 8,200 students to 13,000. That includes a gain of roughly 1,300 students during the pandemic, when other schools saw significant losses.
In the last three years, despite that, tuition has remained remarkably flat — with no increases, at the request of the previous president. The price is now about $6,700 per year for the average in-state student. That’s $3,000 less than the most expensive public university in the state, the University of Utah, which competes with SUU regionally in research.
The school also recently launched a new and one-of-its-kind bachelor’s degree in general studies that’s entirely online.
Benson is expected to continue that innovation and expand it in new ways.
And she’s uniquely positioned, as someone born and raised in the Cedar City community, to do so. Her family has been here for generations and been at SUU for just about as long, with Benson just the latest to have a career there.
“She has proven her commitment to the university,” said Jesselie Anderson, the vice chair of the Utah Board of Higher Education, which appoints presidents for Utah’s colleges and universities.
Benson earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology from SUU in 1994. She returned to complete her master’s in professional communication there, too, in 2006.
And her late father, Ken Benson, was the director of student activities at the school, a position Benson also later held.
“If he were here today, he’d be crying like a baby, like he always did,” Mindy Benson said. “Clearly, I inherited those genes.”
Her mom, she added with a laugh, would tell them both: “Get it together. We have work to do, people.”
Benson recalled spending much of her childhood exploring the campus. She talked about one late administrator, Bessie Dover, finally moving her cuckoo clock after how many times Benson would reset it as a kid.
She said she wants all students from all backgrounds to “feel valued and safe and part of the family here,” just like she has.
“You are the soul of who we are and what we do,” she said.
For the last eight years, before she was the interim president, Benson had been serving as the vice president of alumni and community relations. For the past 14 years, she’s been teaching on campus, while also working for an event planning company, LogiCom. She has helped manage presidential and gubernatorial inaugurations, national political conventions, concerts and charity marathons.
“I hope we haven’t let you down with this event,” joked Anderson.
But Benson said she couldn’t have planned it better herself.
She talked about her efforts on SUU’s campus to improve access to mental health services for students. She also led one of the most successful legislative sessions for the school in recent history, with the university receiving the highest state funding that it has in decades. Benson has additionally focused her efforts on job creation in the southern Utah region for students graduating from the school.
“I’m sure her experience is what SUU needs to lead it forward,” Anderson added.
The community has welcomed her just as much, with several student groups lobbying for her to be selected as president. She was also named by students this year as the “Mentor of Year” at SUU, and by the Cedar City Chamber of Commerce as “Woman of the Year.”
On Friday, she stood in front of a stained glass windows with the words “Learning lives forever” behind her as she realized a dream that has long been her goal. And now she has ultimate bragging rights.