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Our Rich History: Dr. Charles Bensman, 10th president of Thomas More College and road to 1990s

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Thomas More University

Part 27 of our series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021”

Bishop William Hughes and Charles Bensman on the day of President Bensman’s inauguration. (Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library)

It was in the spring of 1986 that the search for Thomas More College’s 10th President was conducted. On June 9, 1986, the Kentucky Post, in an article written by William A. Weathers (“Thomas More Picks Iowan as President”), announced that Dr. Charles Bensman, the 55-year-old president of Briar Cliff College, Sioux City, Iowa had accepted the job of president of Thomas More College. He succeeded Thomas A Coffey, who had resigned on February 1, 1986, to become president of Wayne State College, Wayne, Nebraska.

Bensman, a native of Celina, Ohio (northwest of Dayton), brought with him a doctorate in education from Ball State University and both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Dayton, where he specialized in educational administration. The chairman of the search committee had been a Board member, John Cronin, who had flown to Sioux City to offer Dr. Bensman the job. According to his file in the Thomas More Archives, Bensman, married with three children, “had served as Briar Cliff president since 1977. He had been before then a vice president and partner in a marketing firm from 1976 to 1977 and from 1974-1976, and had served as president of Nebraska Western College in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska.” Bishop William Hughes, the Chancellor of Thomas More College, was in favor of the appointment.

Dr. Charles Bensman (Thomas More University Archives

In that same article, on behalf of the Board of Trustees, John Cronin described Bensman as a “merchandiser and a motivator.” A separate article, about the same time in the summer of 1986, in the Cincinnati Enquirer by Dave Beasley, talked about how officials at Briar Cliff College spoke of “working hard to keep Dr. Bensman.” John Roost, the Briar Cliff trustee chairman, was quoted as saying: “We love Dr. Charlie.” He added that they had “been willing to match the salary offered Bensman by Thomas More.” Thomas More’s chairman of the Board of Trustees added: “they didn’t want him to leave because he had done a good job.” Roost had then added that: “we knew we couldn’t keep him. He had one more big career step in life…we knew we would lose him eventually” (Enquirer, June 9, 1986, p. A-1). Most important of all for Briar Cliff College, Dr. Bensman had shown he could be “a team player and problem solver” (pp. A 9-10).

Later in the 1986-1987 academic year, at a press conference to discuss the plans for the college’s 75th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee in 1996, Dr. Bensman announced a plan “to set people on fire with the spirit” of the anniversary. He then began his presidential stay wanting to do the following:

Program Cover of Charles Bensman’s February 7, 1987, Inauguration. (Thomas More University Archives)

• To build the college’s full-time enrollment from 800 to 1,500 students;

• The construction, above all, of a recreation facility (now the Connor Convocation Center);

• Hopefully also “a separate building for the library and a fine arts faculty;”

• Expanded fundraising, especially with grants;

• “He hopes that in 10 years, the college will have an image of the quality Catholic higher education institution in Greater Cincinnati” (Sandy Kinsner, “New TMC Leader Vows Lengthy Stay,” Kentucky Post, June 10, 1986, p. 3K).

Optimistically, Dr. Bensman’s successes at Briar Cliff were in the same areas that were of great need for Thomas More: increased endowment; increased retention rate; increased enrollment (830 to 1300 at Briar Cliff during his stay there); expansion of curriculum, including a Bachelor of Science in nursing and expansion of mass communication (including the establishment of a campus radio station at Briar Cliff). The Dr. Charles Bensman era at Thomas More College was soon underway in 1986-1987, the College’s 75th anniversary year, with the Bensman promise of a “lengthy stay” (p. A-9).

Gerry Thelen, Chair of Board of Trustees, at the podium with Coach Jim Connor, President Charles Bensman, and Marge O’Conner. (Thomas More University Archives)

The biggest event of that year took place on February 7, 1987, both to celebrate the birth of St. Thomas More and the Inauguration of Dr. Charles J. Bensman as the Tenth President of Thomas More College. On the next day, February 8, 1987, Msgr. John Murphy, Director of Pastoral Planning and Research for the Diocese of Covington and former president of Thomas More College, was the celebrant and homilist at the Annual Lawyers’ Mass and at the Lawyers Brunch that followed. Joseph A. Morris, General Counsel for the United States Information Agency and co-chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, was the speaker on the topic of “Thomas More and the American Constitution.” On the occasion of his inauguration, Bensman took great pride in having enhanced faculty/staff communication while at Briar Cliff and he “emphasized that the prime focus of any college president should be its faculty and students” (Inauguration remarks, February 7, 1987, Thomas More University Archives).

Moving ahead to September 22, 1989, in his “President’s Report” to the Thomas More Board of Trustees, Dr. Bensman noted the successes of the first two years of his presidency: among them, consistently good enrollment for both semesters of 1988-1989; the opening in January 1989 of the long-awaited Convocation Athletic Center, later to be named the Connor Convocation Center after legendary baseball and basketball coach, Jim Connor; a James Graham Brown Foundation major grant for the establishment of a Leadership Institute Honors Program and accompanying scholarship program; Bishop William Hughes’ 10 year anniversary as Bishop of Covington and Chancellor of Thomas More College; a $75,000 three-year Faculty Development grant from the Lilly Foundation; Thomas More College’s first International Studies/Study Abroad Program; the completion of a three year 5.5 million dollar capital campaign finalized in just two years; the college’s first-ever Summer Leadership Institute which brought fifty-five high school students to the campus for one week prior to their fall matriculation; 93 more full-time students on campus in the fall of 1988 than in 1987; the St. Elizabeth Sports Medicine Center’s affiliation with the College; opened offices in the Crestview Professional Center on campus and, as a sign of a new direction for the early 1990s, “after extensive research and a series of meetings for a multiple of constituencies, the Board approved the 1990 adoption of Football at Thomas More College in Division III (non-scholarship)” (President’s Report to Board of Trustees, September 22, 1989, TMU Archives).

Looking ahead to the 1990s, Dr. Bensman said that he and his administrative team would focus on “educating the complete person.” He concluded that:

John Cronin, Board of Trustees member (Courtesy of Kenton County Public Library)

We must now look globally at the 21st century and ask, ‘what is our responsibility?’ What are the challenges that we will encounter in preparing our students for the challenges that they must face? We shall be summoned to address such topics as INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION, THE FOREIGN LANGUAGES, FINE ARTS APPRECIATION, AND CULTURAL SENSITIVITY IN THE MARKETPLACE” (President’s Report to Board of Trustees, Thomas More University Archives, September 22, 1989).

The Chair of the Board at that time was Gerry Thelen, TMU Alum and member of the Athletic Hall of Fame at TMC.

A Board of Trustees evaluation of Dr. Bensman at this exact point, authored by a Cincinnati attorney Albert H. Neman as a Board representative, spoke of Dr. Bensman as a “good leader and an effective administrator” and as an “effective fundraiser.” The letter noted as a weakness, a “lack of scholarly accomplishment,” adding that this was not uncommon among presidents of small liberal arts institutions, but added nevertheless that: “I have the impression that the faculty is much happier now under his administration” (Letter to Most Rev. William A. Hughes from Al Neman of Wood and Lamping Attorneys at Law, as Board of Trustees spokesperson – “Strengths and Weaknesses of President Charles Bensman, July 25, 1988, TMU Archives).

The Bensman era at Thomas More College was off to a good start.

Dr. Raymond G.  Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Women’s & Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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