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Our Rich History: Thomas More’s President, Dr. Charles Bensman, the Later Years, 1989-1992

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Thomas More University

Part 28 of our series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021”

Once into the 1990s, there had been a number of successes at Thomas More College under the presidency of Charles Bensman, including the construction of the Connor Convocation Center, named after legendary coach Jim Connor. There was also the beginning of a successful football program, which had an undefeated season in the fall of 1991 in only its second year of existence (10-0). Further, the college created an accelerated degree program for working adults. The latter became known as the TAP Program (for Thomas More College Accelerated Degree Program).

Reflecting back on his successes and looking to the future, in a letter to the Thomas More College Community on June 11, 1992, Dr. Bensman said that “this is the most opportune time to transfer the mantle of responsibility to a new and energetic individual.”

Charles Bensman, tenth president of Thomas More College. (Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library)

In his words:

“Upon assuming the presidency of Thomas More College in 1986, I embarked upon a program to bring financial stability, academic excellence, increased enrollment, and enhanced recreational facilities. I am pleased to report significant success on each of these goals. The College has had a balanced budget since 1990, enrollment for 1992-1993 is up 40%, the Four Seasons and Connor Convocation Center have added physical improvements to the campus, the College has been endeared to the leadership of the Greater Cincinnati Metropolitan Area, and our own liberal arts curriculum has received accolades from numerous quarters for its integrity, strength, and coherence” (Dr. Charles Bensman, letter to Thomas More College Community, June 11, 1992, TMU Archives).

It is important to note that in the academic year 1991-1992, prior to that letter, there had been a major battle on campus about proposed structural changes. Guiding the process was an Academic Structure Task Force chaired by Fr. Bill Cleves, who would later become Dr. Bensman’s replacement as president of Thomas More College. The task force had begun its work by developing recommendations which would address an agreed-upon set of goals.

President Charles Bensman and Bishop William Hughes at the construction site of the Connor Convocation Center, a dedication to Coach Jim Connor. (Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library)

1. To increase efficiency and effectiveness of the Academic Division of the College;
2. To decentralize authority, responsibility, and decision making…
3. To increase the level of creativity and productivity…
4. To increase incentives for faculty,
5. To generate more revenue by making TMC more attractive to donors…
6. To support the mission of the College…
7. To analyze a variety of solutions…
8. To position a new kind of leadership…
9. To better prepare students with a solid liberal arts curriculum…
10. And, to provide ongoing opportunities for creativity, cooperation, and efficiency (Letter from Dr. Charles J. Bensman to faculty and staff, June 8, 1992; TMU Archives).

It does not seem to be accidental that, in that same letter, Dr. Bensman had opened with comments about the “expressions of deep and real concern that were communicated on May 8, 1992, which convinced him to delay the restructure implementation until January 1993 and to then set up the Academic Structure Task Force as noted above. Notably, and not surprisingly, it was only three days following the letter that Dr. Bensman announced on June 11, 1992, that he would be stepping down as president. Among the faculty concerns that year was the anticipated expansion of the administration at the expense of faculty hires as the proposed new structure was to have included the creation of multiple colleges, including Business, Nursing, Arts and Sciences, and Education, along with the proliferation of new administrators at a time when the faculty was more interested in new and expanded academic programs.

Sister M. Philip Trauth, SND. (Thomas More University Archives)

As noted in multiple faculty letters written during the 1992-1993 academic year: 1) “what bothers me is that the structure as proposed would give us a new layer of people whose function is just to tell other people what to do;” 2) “with our budget problems, can we justify the expense of Deans?” 3) and the most frequent point made “I have not seen any reason for having three deans that had anything to do with how having them enhances the teaching of students…” It was even jokingly referred to on campus as a “‘three dean salad’ sure to bring you indigestion.”

Among the strongest of the opposition letters was one written by Sr. M. Philip Trauth, SND, the College Archivist and long-standing member of the History Department who in a May 10, 1992 letter to Bishop William Hughes concluded that “few suggestions have ever aroused such faculty objection, generated such divisiveness, and led to such disgust with the administration as that of a ‘divisional (now “school”) structure’ ” (see multiple faculty letters written in April 1992 about the proposed change in the structure of the institution, TMU Archives, Box 13, Dr. Charles Bensman).

William Hughes, Bishop of the Diocese of Covington (Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library)

Not surprisingly, the proposed structure was not implemented at the time, and the topic disappeared in the institutional lore until very recently and more appropriately, when Thomas More College became Thomas More University in 2018 on the 50th anniversary of its move to the suburban campus in Crestview Hills from Covington (1968). At the present time, Thomas More University has in place, beginning in the fall of 2021, a structure with colleges of Business Administration, Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (including Education), and Natural and Health Sciences.

Returning to Dr. Charles Bensman, The Kentucky Post published a front-page story on Thursday, June 11, 1992 entitled: “Thomas More Losing Leader.” In it, Dr. Bensman said that “health problems also are a factor in his resignation’” though “he declined to elaborate.” In that same article, the past Chair of the Board of Trustees, local attorney Robert Ruberg added: “We feel [Dr. Bensman] did an excellent job for the college, and we wish him the very best.”

Bishop William Hughes spoke of how “Thomas More will miss the enthusiastic leadership of Bensman,” and he praised “Bensman’s fund-raising ability, the physical improvements he has made on campus,” and above all, “the way he engenders strong community support for Thomas More” (Jeanne Houck and Debra Ann Vance, “Thomas More Losing Leader,” The Kentucky Post, June 11, 1992). On the same day, the Kentucky Enquirer’s front-page story was entitled “Thomas More Leader Retires.” Quoted in that article, the current Board Chair, Merwyn Grayson Jr. said of Dr. Bensman, “Under Charlie, the college just reached a level just dreamed of before. Thomas More has become a nationally respected school.” This article demonstrated, for example, how Bensman received “$1.5 million from the James Graham Brown Foundation in Louisville during his tenure.” Grayson concluded that “Bensman’s full load coupled with his community work (for example, as a Deacon at Blessed Sacrament Church) and health problems may have become overwhelming” (Smita Madan Paul, “Thomas More Leader Retires,” Kentucky Enquirer, June 11, 1992, p. 1A).

Robert Ruberg, Attorney for O’Hara, Ruberg, and Taylor Firm and Chair of the Thomas More College Board of Trustees. (Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library)

Sadly, it was just over two years later that Dr. Charles J. Bensman died on November 22, 1994, with a November 25th Vigil Service held at Blessed Sacrament Church in Ft. Mitchell and a Mass of Christian Burial at Immaculate Conception Church in Celina, Ohio on November 26, 1994. His Presidency had been significant in preparing Thomas More College for the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st.

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 Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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