St. Kates Taps Former George W. Bush Appointee to Lead Business School
St. Catherine University has tapped Benson Whitney to serve as dean of its business school. He’ll start the new job Jan. 21.
Whitney, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Norway under President George W. Bush, says the job hadn’t been on his radar when a friend in senior management at St. Kate’s first approached him.
“I had two simultaneous reactions,” he says. “One was, ‘Do what?!’ since I hadn’t really been out searching for a job in academia. But on the other hand, I thought, ‘Huh, that’s really interesting.’ I spent quite a bit of time mulling it over.”
A lawyer by training, Whitney concedes that he was an “out-of-the-box candidate” for the job. He’s never held a job in higher ed, for one. But the more he thought about it, the more appealing it became. Since he left Norway in 2009, Whitney has been working on a host of K-12 education initiatives. He’s the chair of Great MN Schools, a venture philanthropy fund that’s established charter schools throughout the Twin Cities. He’s also helped build other education nonprofits in the area, such as MN Comeback and the Education Transformation Initiative.
His main focus, he says, has been improving K-12 education for disadvantaged children – a population that the traditional education system has “deeply failed,” he says.
He acknowledges that higher ed faces some challenges, too – massive student loan debts, uncertain career prospects for graduates, and a growing six-year graduation rate, to name a few. But he thinks St. Kate’s is well positioned to tackle those.
“Higher ed is one our great competitive advantages as a country,” Whitney says. “But it’s not evolving as fast and effectively as other parts of our society. It needs to be more agile and responsive to the needs of students and society.”
The key, he says, is teaching students to remain agile. For him, that means creating a foundation for “lifelong learning,” he says. It also means fostering an entrepreneurial mindset among students.
“Employees have to stay agile to adapt themselves to a new career, or a different kind of career in the same industry. Higher ed has to meet that need, and that means lifelong engagement,” he says.
Whitney started his career as a business lawyer after he obtained a law degree from the U of M. He went on to serve as managing general partner of the Gideon Hixon Fund, a venture capital fund focused on med-tech startups. Whitney also served as president of the Minnesota Venture Capital Association.
Whitney’s political career began in 2004, when he became the Minnesota executive director and finance chair for the Bush-Cheney campaign. He also served as Minnesota finance chair for the Republican National Committee.
As dean of St. Kate’s business school, Whitney follows Michelle Wieser, who held the position on an interim basis through July 2019.