When David Benson took the helm of Sonoma State University in 1984 the campus was in turmoil. The seven years prior to his arrival had seen sliding enrollment, open hostility between faculty and the administration and dozens of faculty layoffs, the first in the nation from a public university.
Benson is credited with redirecting the university, restoring morale, making the budget process more transparent, enlarging the faculty's role in governing the school, and initiating moves to transform SSU from a commuter campus to a residential one.
"He brought peace and progress to the university," said current SSU President Ruben Armiñana.
In the years since Benson retired and he took his place, Armiñana has been a controversial leader often criticized for his management and his pursuit of projects such as the $140 million Green Music Center, which Benson would likely not have advanced. During those times, said Armiñana, he would sometimes speak to Benson.
"He would tell me to keep the boat straight and keep the eyes on the shore. And that helped. He was somebody I trusted and admired," said Armiñana.
Benson died Tuesday at Spring Lake Village in Santa Rosa at age 81. The cause was complications from kidney disease, said his wife, Betty Benson.
The couple, who met when they were 7-year-olds at her mother's Sunday school, married in 1952 during their junior years at UCLA, where Benson received his bachelors and masters degrees in kinesiology.
After learning in 1955 while in the Navy that he had kidney disease, Benson returned to UCLA to get his Ph.D. in kinesiology. He would go on to join CSU Northridge as a physical education professor, eventually moving into the school's administrative ranks, becoming academic vice president before he left for SSU.
"He knew what he was getting into (at SSU) and he was pleasantly surprised at how capable the faculty was there. They had just been mishandled," said Betty Benson.
Over his eight-year tenure, Benson rehired the 25 faculty members laid off by his predecessor, Peter Diamandopoulos. He transformed the university's structure and hired its first development director, steering it toward a more assertive role in raising private funds to supplement state funding.
He divided into three an unwieldy department that lumped together business, education and social sciences instruction. He established new budgeting procedures and remade the university's human resources department.
"He created those systems that made this an administratively manageable institution," Armiñana said.
Some still see Benson's attention to fundraising as the start of a negative trend of what they consider the selling of influence over public education institutions to private interests.
In a 2012 article for SSU's Project Censored - "Occupied Sonoma State University: No Billionaire Left Behind and the sordid tale of the financialization and corporatization of one California State University" - journalist Danny Weil wrote that Benson "spearheaded the rise of the corporate campus" that has reached a zenith under Armiñana.
But campus veterans of Benson's era, of the stormy years under Diamandopoulos, and of Armiñana's 21-year-term, say that criticism is a mere slice of the true portrait.
"He started it, but it wasn't what he thought the university was about," said Robert Karlsrud, Dean Emeritus of the School of Social Sciences and a frequent Armiñana critic.
"He was looking for things that were oriented to support academic programs," Karlsrud said of Benson's efforts to seek private financial support.
"Those were wonderful years," Karlsrud said. "I still look at him with some degree of awe, because most people say they're going to do these things; he actually did them."
Benson also was known for forging ties to the surrounding community in ways that hadn't happened before, through partnerships with local school districts and other community organizations. "He really was interested in opening roads from the ivory tower to the community," said Armiñana.
In his private life, Benson was a board member of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and worked closely with United Way. He belonged to the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Rosa, where he was a member of the session, the church's governing board.
"One of his leadership qualities was that he listened well, and he would never interject until he had given considerable thought to a situation," said Pastor Dale Flowers, who described Benson as a humble man. "His favorite strategy was gather information, go and be alone, do analysis, and come back with a recommendation, And it was spot on. He was very insightful," Flowers said.
One of Benson's favored words was "fine," which he liked to close conversations with, said Flowers.
"I don't think he was saying it just to conclude a sentence or a conversation as much as it was a stamp of approval," Flowers said.
Benson's survivors also include his daughter, Mary Dial of Ojai; granddaughter Hannah Dial; sister Betty Cloeter of Santa Clarita; and brother Neil Benson of Oakton, Va.
Services will be held at a later date in Ojai.
Published Online in the Press Democrat from Oct. 4 to Oct. 6, 2013