Goodbye, Dr. Benjamin
Michael K. Shaub, August 27th, 2020
Fifteen years ago, I was driving home from a speaking engagement at Texas A&M University that had evolved into a discussion about a potential faculty position. I remember stopping at a Starbucks and feeling that sense of elation that goes with the knowledge that you are about to jump off a cliff and take a risk you didn’t think you would take. And the reason I was willing to take that risk was the word of one person—Jim Benjamin.
As I have often told people, I gave up job security for job satisfaction in order to come here as a faculty member. But I also knew that there was something different about this place, something embedded in the culture that I could not have described to you at that point. During an earlier visit to speak at A&M, I brought students from my university that I was mentoring so that they could see what a big program felt like. What I didn’t expect is for the Aggies in the large lecture hall to surround my students and treat them as friends.
What grows a culture like that? Of course, I am well aware that this university is different in many ways. But what I saw that night, and what I have experienced for the last fourteen years here, is a direct result of the life investment of Jim Benjamin. By the time I visited here, our Professional Program in Accounting was well established as one of the best in the nation. It showed in CPA exam performance and in job placement. But from my first year here, the distinctive of the program was the type of student it attracted, and the type of supporter those students grew to become for the program.
Jim’s steady hand on the helm for the past 38 years (38!) as department head has allowed us to build a national reputation without major drama. He has, of course, made unpopular decisions from time to time. But they were few and far between, and I never sensed they were made with animosity. He is always predisposed to give someone the benefit of the doubt in their motives, even though he is wise enough to know what those motives likely are. I have seen him repeatedly use a light hand when I would have come down hard. While he is a realist about what people can be expected to do, he is unfailingly optimistic that people around here will do more than their fair share. And, remarkably, they do.
A faculty without egos would not be a faculty. But I have never been around a group of professors in my career who were, on the whole, less self-interested or more student-focused than this group. And they were recruited here—often, in fact, drawn here—by the culture of unselfishness that they had seen so many other successful faculty members buy into. And that culture was shaped and nurtured by one man—Jim Benjamin.
That’s why they name a department for you. That’s why they keep re-appointing you to term after term as department head, long after the guidelines would seemingly allow it. In normal times the past six months would have been a constant celebration of his well-invested life, with toasts and testimonials in all kinds of settings. Instead, next Monday, he will walk away quietly into his well-earned retirement, and the department he built will continue to reflect the values he has lived. May we always do so.
I will be where he is soon, but without the impact he has had. I shake my head in wonder at the thousands of lives he has touched deeply, giving them the quiet confidence that all is well and that, in time, they will be able to accomplish their goals. That sure, steady leadership that is in such short supply in this world is walking out of our building and into the sunset.
And all of us watch, out of respect, until his shadow on the horizon is completely out of view.
Categories: Bottom Line Ethics