"A University Born of Heroes": President Mindy Benson Inauguration Address

Published: October 03, 2022 | Read Time: 19 minutes

President Mindy Benson giving her inauguration address at the podium. She is wearing her inauguration regalia and the presidential seal of SUU is visible in the background.

"A University Born of Heroes”
People, Purpose and Place

Address given September 23, 2022

It’s surreal to be standing here today. I helped plan the last 3 presidential inaugurations. I know how much work this is. Thanks to the event team. And I am much more comfortable in that role!

I wish I could stand in front of you today, completely comfortable, and feeling like I belong here. I hope you take inspiration from my story and vulnerability. I came across this quote by Mandy Hale, that resonates with me.

“Maybe my story was never meant to be one of a woman who boldly took on all of life’s challenges and what-ifs without fear or flinching, but that of a woman who was absolutely terrified of the challenges and what-ifs and still showed up every single day to life anyway, and did it afraid. She persevered. Isn’t that the mark of true courage?”

- Mandy Hale, Turn toward the Sun: Releasing What If and Embracing What Is.

Students, women in the audience, and anybody who needs this, I’m standing in front of you today, absolutely terrified, but I still showed up. Show up to your lives! Every single day, even if you’re afraid. Sometimes, things turn out better than you could ever imagine.

Thank you for showing up for me today. I am humbled and honored by your presence.


Thank you for the great honor of being installed as the 17th president of Southern Utah University. Thank you to our students and faculty with the orchestra, wind symphony and choir for their beautiful and inspiring music.

Thanks to Vice Chair Anderson, Governor Cox, Commissioner Woolstenhulme, Chair Wilson, Dave Lee, Steve Young, McKay, Jayson and Abigail, Travis Parashonts, and the Oak Ridge Boys for participating on the program today.

I want to recognize and thank a number of people today:

  • I want to begin by thanking our students for being here. Students are at the heart of SUU and why we are here; you inspire and motivate us.

I would also like to thank:

  • Members of the Utah State Board of Higher Education. Thank you for entrusting me to lead this place we so dearly love.
  • Members of SUU’s Board of Trustees
  • State and local government officials
  • Presidents and delegates from other colleges and universities
  • My predecessors in this role at SUU: Presidents Steve Bennion, Michael Benson, Interim President Rich Kendall, and Scott Wyatt. Thank you for your examples of leadership, and your extraordinary contributions to SUU.
  • Our SUU emeriti. I will carry on your legacies.
  • Our extraordinary faculty and staff who educate and serve our students.
  • Thanks to members of our university advisory boards for your service.
  • Our loyal dedicated alumni and friends, including me and my dad’s former student leaders; my event management alumni, and current and former national alumni board members who have come from near and far. I love you all!
  • My friends, classmates, colleagues and mentors who have supported me; a special thanks to my mentor Dr. Sterling Church.
  • Special thanks to the inauguration committee and our campus events team; you are the very best.
  • I express my love to my family–my four siblings and my nieces and nephews. They all fill my heart, and are my happy place. They’re my biggest cheerleaders and I would not be standing here without their love and support.

A Product of Parents, Community and Campus

Wilbur Wright, of the Wright brothers aviation fame, when asked for the formula of his success, quipped, Pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

Like him, I owe so much to the fortunate circumstances of where and to whom I was born. My mother was a strong, fierce and resilient woman with a loving heart. My father was a giant of a man, and a strong athlete whose heart was as big and tender as he was. I am who I am, because of them. I honor them today.

I am fortunate to have been born and raised here in Cedar City. I am a product of this wonderful community. Many in this audience helped raise me. This is a close knit community who rally around each other and believe that anything is possible. Thank you for your support and encouragement, and for believing in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.

You may be interested to learn that I am not only the first female president, but also the first president in SUU’s history to have been born and raised in Cedar City and educated at SUU. I do not take this responsibility lightly and will do all I can to maintain your trust and confidence.

I am also a product of this campus. I have loved SUU for as long as I can remember.

As a little girl, I grew to love the university by attending countless student activities and events with my dad, who served as director of student activities; In fact, I’m named after the student leader who was crowned Miss SUSC the year I was born, Melinda Whitaker, who is here today.

In my youth, I spent my summers working at the Utah Shakespeare Festival as a tart girl and later as house manager.

As a college student here, I discovered my passion for people and events, developed lifelong friendships, and was mentored by caring faculty, staff and administrators.

And for the past 27 years, I have been fortunate to work among cherished colleagues, students, alumni and friends–even serving in the same position in student activities that my dad once held.

I love SUU! It’s not only in my blood, it is who I am.

Past, Present and Future

This inauguration, with its symbolism and timeless tradition, is so much bigger than the investiture of a new president. This special occasion is an opportunity for our T-Bird family to pause and remember our heritage and the foundation upon which we are built. To celebrate who we are today and the many ways we positively impact the lives of students, families and communities. And to look ahead and envision a bold and boundless future for Southern Utah University.

A University Born of Heroes

As we reflect upon the past 125 years of our history, it is important to remember those who, to paraphrase Emerson, “went where there was no path and left a trail.”

Early founders who dreamed, sacrificed and toiled to establish this place of learning, followed by generations of students, faculty, staff and citizens who, with courage and conviction, have been pioneers in their own right. These pioneers are heroes!

This is a university born of heroes!

Heroes such as:

  • Neil Bladen and those intrepid townsmen who braved freezing temperatures and deep winter snow to secure the lumber to construct Old Main.
  • And Mary Corlett, who organized and distributed all of the food, supplies and equipment needed for the lumbering operations.
  • Heroes such as Milton Bennion, the first principal, and faculty of the Branch Normal School in 1900.
  • And these six students who were the first graduates of the Branch Normal School in 1900.
  • We must also consider modern day heroes like theater professor Fred C. Adams and his wife Barbara, who, in 1961, founded the Utah Shakespeare Festival to spur economic development for our community.
  • And state senator Dixie Leavitt, who, in 1965, heroically fought to pass the legislation that made us an independent, four-year degree granting institution under President Royden Braithwaite.
  • In 1982, forty years ago, Shelly Benson was elected as the first female student body president in SUU’s history and became a hero to many, including me, her 11 year old little sister. Thanks for being my role model Shelly. Who knew we'd be blazing such trails together?

These individuals, and so many other people throughout our history, have blazed paths of opportunity and progress for us.

We truly are a university born of heroes!

Southern Utah University is thriving today because we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. But heroes are not some relic of the past. They are all around us.

  • We see heroes teaching, mentoring and serving our students.
  • We see heroes beautifying campus, serving meals, and coaching our student-athletes.
  • We see heroes volunteering on boards, hiring our graduates, and donating their time and resources.
  • This summer, we saw a hero in Jodi Hart-Wilson, as she became the first woman to serve as chair of the SUU Board of Trustees.
  • And just a few weeks ago, I met a new group of pioneering heroes, our first-ever doctoral students in our new Doctorate of Clinical Psychology program.

Our university is full of heroes, past and present, and each has played a role in helping SUU flourish and prosper today.

SUU is Thriving Today

It’s almost unimaginable that our early Founders could have envisioned what that fledgling school they established would become today:

  • In the Fall of 1898, those first faculty members taught 118 students; today SUU has 1100 faculty and staff and over 14,000 students.
  • SUU was the 7th fastest growing “masters level” university in the country over the last decade, growing by 75% and attracting students from all 29 Utah counties, all 50 states, and 77 foreign countries.
  • SUU has grown from 18 course subjects in 1898 to more than 150 undergraduate programs, and 32 graduate and certificate programs today.
  • And we’ve maintained our commitment to a personalized education encouraging deep and meaningful connections among our students, faculty and staff, which has led to increased student retention and graduation rates.
  • SUU has greatly expanded our online offerings and we provide the nation’s most affordable online bachelor’s degree for $9,000.
  • We enjoy a strong, symbiotic partnership with Cedar City and we contribute to the economic vitality of our community and region.
  • SUU is nimble, innovative and responsive to market opportunities, including our “Three Year Degree;” our dual enrollment partnership with Southwest Tech; and our numerous partnerships with industry.
  • As the “University of the Parks,” we place hundreds of students in internships with our state and national parks, with rural health care providers, and local, state and national government entities.
  • We enrich the cultural life of our community and region through our Division I athletic program, Tony Award-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival, Southern Utah Museum of Art, the Larry H. Miller Utah Summer Games, and the exceptional student productions from our College of Performing and Visual Arts.
  • And our loyal and committed alumni and friends make so much of our success possible. You mentor our students, hire our graduates, volunteer on boards, trust us to educate your children and grandchildren, and donate your resources.

Challenges Facing Higher Education

While SUU has many accomplishments for which we can be justifiably proud, higher education is facing some serious challenges:

  • Students, parents, and taxpayers are increasingly concerned about the cost of a college education, rising student debt, and the value of a higher education.
  • Universities are concerned about the decline in student enrollments due to a looming demographic cliff.
  • On college campuses, record numbers of students are struggling with mental health issues, as are the faculty and staff who support them.

In spite of these and other challenges confronting higher education today, I am incredibly optimistic about SUU’s future. This institution has faced greater difficulties in our past and has overcome them. And facing one of our stiffest challenges in memory due to the pandemic, our faculty, staff and students rose to the occasion and displayed extraordinary commitment, ingenuity, adaptability and resilience.

We have and will overcome hard things!

Five Areas of Opportunity

To meet the challenges ahead, to seize upon our current momentum, and to help shape the future of our university, I ask our campus community to consider focusing on five important areas of opportunity. These five areas will provide a strong foundation upon which we, together, can build in the months and years ahead.

  1. Increase Access and Affordability
  2. Cultivate a Culture of Caring
  3. Enhance Wellbeing and Student Success
  4. Enrich the Academic Experience
  5. Expand Alumni and Community Engagement

Opportunity 1: Increase Access & Affordability

I believe an SUU education should be available and affordable to anyone who is prepared and desirous of a college degree or credential.

As a state-supported university, our primary focus is to educate Utahns, and 70% of our student body are from Utah. But there is more we can do.

Throughout our history, an SUU education has provided economic and social mobility and offered our graduates a better life. But not every Utahn has found college accessible or affordable.

A pioneer of American public schools, Horace Mann, called education “the great equalizer” of the human condition. But that is only if people are afforded the opportunity of an education. I believe we have an obligation–to our state and to society–to make an SUU education available to everyone with the ambition to pursue it, including the socioeconomically disadvantaged and historically underrepresented.

As we expand opportunities for Utah students, we will continue to welcome with open arms students from other states and around the world. Our enrollment growth will be sustainable and balanced to ensure we provide our campus with the appropriate resources to serve our students, and to ensure our community can accommodate our growth. By the way, if you are a developer and interested in building student housing, we need to talk.

While the majority of our students want a traditional face-to-face college experience, we must meet the needs of the fastest growing group of students: working adults aged 25 and older. There are 39 million people in the U.S. alone who attended college but didn’t graduate.

I challenge us to become a leading public university in helping these students cross the finish line. We can do this by offering accessible, affordable, flexible and high-quality online degrees. And it shouldn’t matter whether these students live in Delta, Des Moines or the D.R. Congo!

Opportunity 2: Cultivate a Culture of Caring

A pioneer in the airline industry, Southwest founder, Herb Kelleher, once said: “Leading an organization is as much about soul as it is about systems.” The soul of SUU is our people–our students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, community, local and state leaders and governing boards.

As president, among my highest priorities is to help cultivate a “culture of caring” among the 65,000 members of our T-Bird family. The T-Bird family is broad and diverse and consists of people from all over the world with different backgrounds, opinions and life experiences. We know not all feel as if they belong.

Together let’s cultivate a culture of caring and belonging where members of our T-Bird family experience four powerful words. I want each to feel:


Let’s make the effort and take the time to get to know one another; to really listen to one another; to give each other the benefit of the doubt. And let’s remember that everyone is dealing with something and could benefit from more understanding, empathy, patience, tolerance and compassion.

In the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies on human health, the researchers indicate that the most surprising finding in their study is that “close relationships…are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Those ties protect us from life’s discontents…and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.” They also found that “loneliness kills.” The study concludes that the key to happiness is, “relationships, relationships, relationships.”

At SUU, let’s create a place where our faculty and staff thrive and yearn to build their career here. Let’s create a place so welcoming that when students arrive here, they don’t feel like they left home, they feel like they are home. And when they graduate and become alumni, that T-Bird spirit never leaves them.

We have already launched a Culture Committee to enhance our caring culture. I pledge my full support to this initiative and look forward to collaborating with all of you to create an environment where everyone feels: Accepted, Supported, Engaged and Valued.

Opportunity 3: Enhance Wellbeing and Student Success

A central theme of my administration will be focusing on student success. We want to help students succeed in the classroom, persist and graduate at even higher rates, and become well prepared for graduate school, the workforce or other meaningful contributions. We also want to help students grow and develop personally and socially to become the very best versions of themselves. We want them to make a difference in their careers, their communities and beyond.

To achieve student success, we must gain a comprehensive understanding of the needs of our students. We know that a student's academic success is significantly impacted by their mental, emotional, physical, social, and financial well-being. A student who is lonely, depressed, or struggling to buy their next meal, is not able to give their academics the time and attention it deserves. Let’s focus on meeting each student where they are, and connecting them with the comprehensive support they need to thrive in life and in the classroom.

Higher Education, including SUU, is facing a mental health crisis. 75% of all college students experience some sort of mental health crisis, and anxiety and depression are at an all time high among college students.

We have convened a mental health task force, found innovative solutions to confront the mental health challenges our students face, and worked with student leaders to bring a student health clinic back to campus. We will continue to work closely with healthcare providers, the State of Utah and in partnership with the Utah System of Higher Education, to make dramatic strides in addressing this critical issue.

It is not enough to meet the needs of our students. As someone once said, “We must also take care of the people who take care of the people.” Our dedicated faculty and staff work hard every day to provide learning, support and care for our students and we must care for them. We must provide the resources to support their needs.

To take care of others, we begin by taking care of ourselves. We need to find balance, a sustainable pace, and give the same care and kindness to ourselves that we would offer a friend. We can’t give what we don’t have.

Your co-workers and students need your talent, care and support so please take care of yourself, first and foremost. Employee well-being is also a high priority of our staff and faculty leadership, and I look forward to working with them to enhance the well-being of our employees and students.

Opportunity 4: Enrich the Academic Experience

Since its inception, the hallmark of this university has been our caring faculty who provide high quality, personalized learning for our students. This is who we are at our core and we must not deviate.

Let’s continue to increase the use of student-centered and evidence-based teaching practices and provide academic support services to improve student learning outcomes.

Let’s expand our experiential learning opportunities inside and outside of the classroom, increase public and private-sector internships, and enhance the co-curricular experiences that align with academic programs.

Given the changing job market, let’s ensure that our academic programs align with our local, regional and state’s growing workforce needs and market demands.

We must continually look at new models of educational delivery, including additional certificate programs, stackable and micro-credentials, and we will continue to partner with employers to offer professional development programming tailored to their unique needs.

SUU has a history of being nimble, innovative, and adaptable to new ideas. In this ever shifting educational landscape, we will continue to identify strategies to remain relevant, rigorous, and responsive to the needs of students and employers.

Opportunity 5: Expand Alumni and Community Engagement

The relationships we enjoy in the community, region, and state, and among our alumni and friends throughout the world, elevate SUU’s stature and benefit the university in meeting our opportunities and challenges.

SUU must also be a great community partner and serve as an economic engine for our region and beyond. We will work with business leaders, government officials and the greater community to spur economic development and job creation in our community and region.

We will leverage our relationships with alumni, friends, foundations and corporations, to launch an ambitious fundraising campaign to help the university fulfill its mission. This campaign will help us fund facilities, faculty, endowments, scholarships, equipment and programs. I am eager to engage our advisory boards and enlist our alumni and friends in this vital campaign to transform SUU’s future.

At the same time, we will launch a national brand campaign for SUU. We want the entire state, the intermountain west, and targeted markets throughout the nation, to know of SUU and the extraordinary work being done here.

A Focus on People, Purpose and Place

How can we seize upon these five areas of opportunity to help shape the destiny of SUU in the years to come? I suggest focusing on 3 P’s: People, Purpose and Place.

We will be PEOPLE CENTRIC: Our people are our highest priority. More important than beautiful facilities, efficient processes or any other priority. Our work here at SUU begins and ends with our people–our students, employees, alumni and friends–and the positive and meaningful relationships we develop and enjoy with each other.

We will be PURPOSE DRIVEN: We are here to change lives.

After the fire of 1666 that leveled London, the world’s most famous architect, Christopher Wren, was commissioned to rebuild St. Paul’s Cathedral. The story is told that one day as the architect was surveying the work, he came upon three bricklayers working near one another. He asked the first worker what he was doing and the laborer replied, “I’m laying bricks.” When he asked the second bricklayer the same question, the worker responded, “I’m building a wall.” When the architect asked the third bricklayer what he was doing, the man enthusiastically replied, “I’m building a great cathedral to the heavens!” All three bricklayers were doing the same work, but with vastly different perspectives.

This story of the bricklayers causes me to reflect upon the men and women of this community in 1897. When these ranchers, miners, and community women toiled, sacrificed and suffered to build Old Main, they were doing far more than constructing a building. They were driven by a higher purpose. They were building a cathedral; our campus we enjoy today. Their work was fueled by a dream that the lives of their children, and their children’s children, would be given the transformative gift of a college education. May we live our collective vision and see our purpose as changing lives, and building our students, campus and communities, not merely laying bricks.

We will be PLACE EMPOWERED: The natural beauty of our campus should be matched by a campus environment where everyone feels accepted, supported, engaged and valued. SUU will be a place where we find fulfillment and happiness because of our meaningful relationships, and where we learn and grow, build memories, and where we write a shared narrative of experiences which tie generations together and define who we are as individuals and as T-Birds. Let’s commit to leave this place, and our community and world, better tomorrow than it is today.


As we celebrate this 125th Anniversary of our founding (literally our first classes were held 125 years ago this past Tuesday), we stand at a defining moment in our university’s story. The eyes of history are upon us; the hopes and dreams of our Founders sustain us.

  • Together–let’s dedicate ourselves to meeting this moment.
  • Together–let’s write the next exciting chapters in SUU’s inspiring story.
  • Together–let’s create a future brimming with promise and possibility.

My dear friends, I am deeply honored and humbled by this opportunity to lead our beloved Southern Utah University. I pledge to devote my energy, effort and ability to serving you; and I ask you to join me by lending your extraordinary talents in helping propel this great university forward, so that the chapters we write in our university’s story are as epic and inspiring as our rich and remarkable past.

Thank you!

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