Study in Determination
Hubert Benitez is a dentist by trade. He got into that field because he wanted to serve people — and because he wanted to make a difference. He eventually left dentistry for academia because … well, he still wanted to serve people and make a difference, but in an even more profound way, by creating pathways to higher education. This focus has become a passion, one that he brings to his new role as president of American International College.
At the recent commencement ceremonies for American International College, Hubert Benitez, DDS, the school’s president, was at the podium, handing out diplomas, and offering traditional greetings to the graduates — something along the lines of ‘congratulations, and good luck.’
And in what would have to be considered an unusual twist, many of them said the same thing back to him.
Indeed, Benitez had been on the job for only about a month before taking the stage at those ceremonies at the MassMutual Center — and delivering the commencement address while he was at it. Most all of the students accepting their diplomas knew that, and wanted to offer some words of encouragement.
“You don’t learn about an institution until you’ve talked to its people.”
Taking the helm just a few weeks before the end of a spring semester is highly unusual in higher education — most new presidents would prefer to start during the summer, when things are slower and they have time to ramp up, or at the start of a new school year. Benitez said he was given those options, but was also asked to consider starting in April by Board of Directors Chairman Frank Colaccino, a member of AIC’s Class of 1973 and member of the search committee that ultimately offered Benitez the job.
And he said he jumped at the opportunity, essentially because he couldn’t wait to get started with the next chapter in both his intriguing professional career — and in the history of the school, which first welcomed students in 1885.
“That is a non-traditional start date,” he acknowledged. “Because it’s a transitional phase — we’re closing, and also starting a new academic year. In retrospect, I think it’s been beneficial to start when I did, because I had the opportunity to work with my colleagues during a very stressful time — an academic year is ending, we’re close to commencement, we’re close to ending the fiscal year, and now we’re preparing the budget to present to the Board of Directors for approval.
Hubert Benitez says his first visit to the AIC campus left him convinced that he wanted to be the school’s next president.
“It’s almost unheard of to start at that time, but I wanted to take up the challenge,” he went on. “And, more importantly, my colleagues were willing to welcome a new president in that time of flux.”
Benitez was anxious to start, and before that, he was anxious to apply, because in every way he can imagine, the school’s mission and its ongoing focus on first-generation students and those who may need a second chance to further their education reflects his own resume and his own focus within higher education.
He said that, throughout its history, AIC has created opportunities for many individuals and he wants to continue and build on this mission, making the school ever-more diverse and responsive to the challenges facing both traditional and non-traditional students.
He brings to that assignment an intriguing resume. Indeed, those letters after his name, DDS, indicate that he is a dentist by trade. He had a practice for more than 14 years, but eventually decided he couldn’t see himself “taking care of toothache for the rest of my life.”
Instead, he opted to change course and pursue a career in higher education, or “the academy,” as he called it, because it met a life-long desire to serve others while presenting many different opportunities to grow as an individual and lead others.
“I always saw my colleagues in higher education as individuals who were trying to find new directions, trying to research, trying to find new directions for healthcare for education … and that was something that was intriguing to me,” he said.
In his most recent position, Benitez served as vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation, and as acting chief inclusion officer at Rockhurst University (RU) in Kansas City, MO. Prior to Rockhurst, Benitez served as president and chief executive officer for Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences for almost five years, where he provided visionary and strategic leadership that included merging the school in Rockhurst (more on that later).
While Hubert Benitez, right, was offering congratulations to students at commencement, they were offering it right back to him.
In his short but busy time at AIC, he has been “learning and doing,” as he put it and starting the hard work of creating an envisioning plan for the college, an effort involving many individuals and constituencies.
“Many people ask me, ‘what is your vision?’ he said. “I have a vision of what AIC will be, but the vision of AIC will be a shared vision, a vision created by faculty, staff, administrators, because I want to make sure everyone owns that vision.”
Something to Sink His Teeth Into
Benitez told BusinessWest that while he was at Rockhurst University, he was encouraged by recruiting firms to apply for various positions, most of them presidencies, across the broad spectrum of higher education. The presidency of AIC was not one of them.
“No one invited me to apply to AIC; I chose AIC, and I was hoping that AIC would choose me,” he said, adding that there were many things about the small, urban school that intrigued him, starting with the three words over the school’s banner: Access, Opportunity, and Diversity.
“When I see an institution that focuses on providing access to demographics of students, providing opportunities to students who haven’t been successful a first time, or a second time, and maybe this is their last opportunity, and when I see an institution that is working on maximizing the diversity of the future workforce … that is absolutely true to who I am, not only as a person, but as a professional.”
Elaborating, he said that the mission of AIC is true to his heart and a reflection of what he has devoted his career to in recent years. To understand those sentiments, we turn the clock back to his decision to transition from dentistry to higher education.
That transition occurred as he was pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship, when Benitez met a fellow DDS who became a mentor and eventually convinced him that his future shouldn’t be in dentistry.
“I believe in the value of mentorship, not only because it helps people move forward with their professional aspirations, but because mentors find in you what you may not have found in yourself,” he explained. “He saw in me a skill set, a desire for professional growth, a desire to work in higher education … he once told me ‘I don’t think you should stay in dental schools — I see you as a holistic administrator.”
This same mentor advised him that he would need a Ph.D., or another one, to be exact, this one in higher education administration, which he earned at Saint Louis University’s College of Education and Public Service.
He then “went through the academic ranks,” as he put in, serving in a number of capacities, including adjunct faculty, full-time faculty, program director, assistant dean, dean, provost, and chief academic officer, before becoming president and CEO of Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences.
There, as noted earlier, he helped orchestrate a merger with Rockhurst, a union that was different from many of this type because Saint Luke’s was successful at the time, not struggling as many schools are when they look to merge with a larger institution.
“This was the case of two very strong academic institutions, financially healthy academic institutions, coming together with a common vision,” he explained. “Our merger became an example of how two strong institutions can come together, as opposed to traditional mergers, where one institution has troubles and the other one does not, and I was proud to be part of that process.”
As noted, he would go on to vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation, and as acting chief inclusion officer at Rockhurst.
He was in that role, when, without the encouragement of any recruiters, he applied for the position of president at AIC, earned the opportunity to interview for it, and eventually visited the campus in January. It made quite a first impression, as he recalled.
“Sometimes when you visit a campus, and I’ve had the privilege of visiting many, you get a feeling, or you get what I call a vibe when you visit an academic institution,” he said. “My wife and I left this college and we looked at each other, and we knew it felt right.”
During that visit, he said he met with a number of faculty, staff, and students, who collectively presented a picture of what they were looking for in the school’s next president.
“My focus has always been on creating opportunities for access, for diversity, for equity, for inclusion.”
He summed it all up this way: “They said they were looking for someone who could help them and help this institution become prominent in the community while continuing to serve that demographic of student, and continue to provide that access,” he recalled. “If you hear that, and I look back at my story, you can’t be more mission-aligned and vision-aligned; it’s an alignment of the mission to who I am.”
Course of Action
Getting back to his unusual start date, Benitez said it has been beneficial in a number of ways, especially in the manner in which it has enabled him to get a head start on his work, and do a lot of that ‘learning and doing’ he mentioned.
The ‘doing’ part concerns everything from commencement to putting the budget together for the new year, he said, adding that the ‘learning’ takes many forms and is ongoing.
For starters, it involves meeting with every employee on the payroll, he said, adding that this is what he did when he was president of Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences, an exercise that became a tremendous learning experience.
“First and foremost, I need to know my colleagues’ aspirations — what are their needs?” he explained. “I always say that people come first, and if I can learn to understand each and every person’s personal and professional aspirations, I can serve them better. You don’t learn about an institution until you’ve talked to its people.”
Benitez said he’s already met with senior staff and many groups of employees, and has a schedule packed with one-on-one interviews for the next few months.
He’s also meeting with students, taking in events, meeting with the faculty senate and individual faculty members, all in an effort to learn more about the school, where its stakeholders want to take it, and how it will get there.
“But while learning, we’re also doing,” he said, adding that he and team members have been preparing for both the new school year and the first “envisioning exercise,” as he called it.
“We’re already gathering a group of faculty, staff, and administrators in a room and start to envision what the future of AIC is going to look like,” he said.
“There has to be ownership of the vision, “he went on. “It’s not ‘here’s the president’s vision and others will execute it’ — in my mind, that will never work; it will never have ownership. People need to feel that they belong and that they have a sense of ownership.”
As for his own vision for the school, Benitez said he wants an AIC that is heavily involved in the community and responsive to the constantly changing needs of its students, the community, and area businesses.
“It’s not ‘what can the community do for AIC?’ On the contrary; it’s ‘what can AIC do for the community?’” he explained. “I see an AIC that is vibrant, that creates an environment where, when I walk through the corridors of this institution, it feels like home for all. I should be able to walk the campus and say ‘do you feel at home here?’ If I hear everyone saying ‘yes,’ I think we’re doing our job.”
While working on the visioning process, and as part it, Benitez said he will continue and hopefully broaden AIC’s mission of providing access and opportunities, work that has become the focal point of his own career in higher education.
“My focus has always been on creating opportunities for access, for diversity, for equity, for inclusion,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s been on working with minority populations and creating pathways into higher education for demographics of students where higher education is not always seen as a viable option.
“Some of my colleagues will say ‘it makes sense to you — you come from a Latino background, a demographic group under-represented not only in the health professions but in education in general,’” he said. “And I say ‘yes, it does make sense to me, but it’s the right thing to do.’ And that’s why I’ve devoted the majority of my career to that work of creating transitions, pathways, and pipelines for students from under-represented backgrounds to arrive in higher education, earn a degree, and obtain a better way of living for themselves.”
Benitez said he shook more than 600 hands during those commencement exercises earlier this month, which he described as a humbling experience in many respects.
Most humbling were those wishes for good luck from the students, he said, adding that they certainly resonated with him.
He understands there are many challenges facing the school, from the uncertainties stemming from the pandemic, to ongoing enrollment issues stemming from smaller high school graduating classes and a host of other issues, to that ongoing task of creating more pathways to higher education.
He not only understands them, he embraces them and wants to tackle them head on. That’s why he took this job, and that’s why he took that early start. There’s plenty of work to do, and he wanted to get right to it.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]