On Sept. 23, students, staff, faculty and alumni flocked to the America First Event Center in celebration of President Mindy Benson as she was sworn into office as the 17th president of Southern Utah University. Benson is now not only the first female president of SUU but also the first to be born and raised in Cedar City, Utah. By the end of the ceremony, Benson received three standing ovations and even a surprise welcome from the Utah Jazz Bear.
Benson previously served as interim president for a year after previous president Scott Wyatt accepted a role with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education in 2021. She was selected to officially take on the presidential role in July after an extensive national search.
President of Faculty Senate Dr. Abigail Larson greeted the audience and shared her experience sitting in on hiring committee meetings over the summer.
“When she was done giving her presentation, there was no doubt in my mind at all who would lead us from this point on,” Larson said. “We are delighted that she accepted the position.”
The ceremony opened with SUU representatives and institutional delegates from campuses across the West filing into the ceremony. Those from the oldest institutions entered at the head of the line while remaining delegates followed, representing academia’s growth throughout the centuries.
Leading the line was Jesselie Anderson, vice chair of the Utah Board of Higher Education, carrying the ceremonial mace, an ornamented staff that symbolizes the history and values of the institution it represents. The ebony staff of SUU’s mace is an inscribed silver cup topped with a sterling silver thunderbird. Two etchings circle the inside of the cup: “Southern Utah University” and “Learning Lives Forever.”
“The Utah Board of Higher Education selected you, Mindy Benson, as the 17th president of Southern Utah University for your incredible talent, institutional knowledge and experience,” Anderson said.
Many notable guests played a part in the ceremony, including Utah Governor Spencer J. Cox, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, former SUU professor and Utah’s first poet laureate Dr. David Lee, Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Woolstenhulme and SUU Board of Trustees Chair Jodi Hart Wilson. The Grammy Award-winning vocal quartet The Oak Ridge Boys participated via video.
“As SUU grows at an exponential rate, you have the perfect person to lead you,” said Young, “because the people here on campus are first. It’s reflexive; she can’t help it.”
Young also presented President Benson with an SUU t-shirt with the letters “IGYB” printed on the back. He explained that when she wore the shirt, she would remember that “I’ve got your back.”
In the past year, Benson has prioritized the strengthening of community and university partnerships and led one of the most successful legislative sessions in SUU’s recent history. Governor Cox expressed his admiration for her leadership, even admitting that the school was his favorite Utah university.
“Governors are not supposed to have favorites,” Cox said. “But I can tell you for the last couple years and for the foreseeable future, it’s a very easy call.”
Finally, President Benson took the stage. She explained that she helped plan the past three inaugurations and is much more comfortable backstage than standing at the podium. Benson also outlined her history with SUU and the town it resides in, giving thanks to her mentors and family members who helped her along the way.
“I love SUU. It’s not only in my blood, it is who I am,” Benson said.
Benson then outlined five areas of focus for her vision of SUU’s future: Increase access and affordability, cultivate a culture of caring, enhance well-being and student success, enrich the academic experience and expand alumni and community engagement. She also shared plans for a nationwide brand campaign for the university.
“SUU will be a place where we find fulfillment and happiness because of our meaningful relationships and where we define who we are as individuals and as T-Birds,” Benson said. “Let’s commit to leave this place, this community and our world better tomorrow than it is today.”
Following President Benson’s speech, the Utah Jazz Bear descended from the ceiling on a long rope, embraced Benson and shot confetti into the crowd. The ceremony then reconvened on the Library Plaza for a celebration and meet-and-greet with the newly inaugurated president.
“As we celebrate this 125th anniversary of our founding, we stand at a defining moment in our university’s story,” Benson continued. “The eyes of history are upon us. The hopes and dreams of our founders sustain us.”
Article by: Aspen English
Photos by: Bria Hansen