At 64 years old, Richard Benson is positive that he has already lived through the worst day of his life.
It was April 16, 2007, and Benson was in Puerto Rico for a conference of university engineering deans. He started the day excited to spend some time away from his office at Virginia Tech University. Then at 9:27 a.m., he received an e-mail that jostled him out of his good mood: “A shooting incident occurred at West Ambler Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating.”
Then, 23 minutes later: “A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows.”
Benson called his office, but no one answered. Soon, he turned on a television and found out why. News stations showed images of his engineering building, Norris Hall, as SWAT team members swarmed and gunshots rang out.
That day, the building where he worked became the scene of the deadliest act of gun violence ever to strike a college campus. Ultimately, 33 people died and 17 others were wounded. Benson’s life changed forever.
Nine years later, Benson is about to leave Virginia Tech for good. On Monday, he was appointed to lead the University of Texas at Dallas after a months-long interview process. And the impending move has brought that tragic day back to the forefront of his mind. One of his first tasks at UT-Dallas will be to oversee compliance with a new state law that allows students to carry their handguns into classrooms and other buildings on campus.
The law wasn’t enough to keep Benson from accepting the job, but he said he’ll approach the task with trepidation. Guns don’t belong on college campuses, he said.
“My advice would have been not to do this,” he said. “But I am not a lawmaker. We will make the best of it. We will do what we need to do.”
Horror on TV
For Benson’s engineering students, professors and staff, April 16, 2007 was a day of terror. Early that morning, English student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed two people in a dorm, and then showed up at Norris Hall carrying two handguns a couple of hours later.
At the engineering building, Cho chained the doors behind him and calmly started firing. When police neared, he turned the gun on himself.
Benson watched helplessly as the news rolled out. It took him more than 12 hours to get home, and he spent much of that time trying to find ways to access e-mail, news websites and televisions. Occasionally, he’d reach a coworker on the phone. Each time, the news got worse.
“Words cannot describe my despair at the growing escalation of the carnage — maybe 4 dead, maybe 20 dead, maybe 30 dead,” Benson recalled in an e-mail he wrote to friends a few days later. “Even now I don’t know the final tally. Another hospitalized student died this afternoon in a local hospital.”
Benson knew many of the deceased. Kevin Granata, a father of three, was killed after he ventured from the third floor to the second to investigate the sound of gunshots. Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor and a professor of structural mechanics, was shot through the door of his classroom as he blocked it with his body.
“It was as awful of an experience as you can imagine,” Benson said.
Benson arrived at the university the morning after the attack knowing he’d have to guide his traumatized department through some terrible weeks. Some colleagues had been wounded. Others had leapt out of windows or stepped over bodies as they fled the scene. Many had left their work files, wallets or purses behind in Norris Hall.
He and his wife tried to make every funeral they could. Sometimes they’d have to split up to have a presence at each one. Even so, they sometimes attended three in one day.
Meanwhile, he had to figure out a way to finish the semester. With the school year almost over, the university couldn’t simply press pause. Seniors needed to graduate, which meant courses needed to continue and office work needed to be completed. A handful of courses were cancelled, either because the professors died or too many students had perished to continue. But most classes began a week later, and graduation happened as scheduled on May 12.
Abiding by the law
Nine years later, the pain lingers.
“I don’t spend the whole day thinking about it, but it is something that is always back there in my mind,” he said.
During his interview for the UT-Dallas job, he broke down as he recounted the experience. Benson's raw emotion was one of the reasons he got the job as president, said UT System Regent Sara Martinez Tucker.
“He really took something that should never happen to any community and made a stronger community for it,” Tucker said. “What came across to me was not only his superb decision-making, but also his compassion and understanding.”
Benson took the job during a time that the Virginia Tech shooting has returned to the political consciousness of Texans. The Texas Legislature passed its campus carry law last year. During the debate, both sides brought up Virginia Tech. Opponents said it showed why guns on campus were a bad idea. Supporters said banning guns wouldn't stop a potential mass killer from carrying a gun on campus. Letting students and faculty arm themselves, however, might stop a shooter, they said.
"When you remove from the law-abiding citizen the ability to fight back, all you are doing is empowering a guy who wants to commit murder," said Michael Newbern, a spokesperson for the group Students for Concealed Carry.
The new law goes into effect Aug 1., two weeks after Benson takes over at UT-Dallas.
Public university presidents are allowed to write rules that would declare some limited parts of their campuses gun-free. Many professors have urged their leaders to ban guns in classrooms. But most university officials have said that would violate the law, a stance that has sparked some anger among faculty members.
Benson will arrive too late to write UT-Dallas’s rules himself; he’ll inherit his predecessors decisions, which are expected to be announced later this year. But he said he falls on the anti-campus carry side.
“I’m not sure a campus carry law would have prevented what happened,” Benson said.
But in describing his qualms with the law, Benson didn’t mention the threat of another mass shooting. His concern is that college students are emotional, stressed and sometimes unstable. Some experiment with drugs or alcohol. Guns could make them more prone to suicide or accidental shootings, he said.
“Colleges are wonderful places, but they are also stressful places and when you inject firearms into that, it can be a problem,” he said.
Benson said he also worries about faculty recruitment and retention. Many professors oppose the idea of guns on campus. Some might not want to come to a school where their students might be carrying.
But in a way, Benson himself is a counter to that argument. No one would blame him for having a visceral fear of guns on campus. But that didn’t stop him from taking a job in a campus carry state. He said he was attracted to the idea of UT-Dallas because of its strong engineering and science programs and growing prominence. Campus carry wasn’t going to stop him from jumping at the opportunity.
“If it is Texas law, I will abide by it,” he said, “and I will make sure UT-Dallas manages it in the best possible way.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas-Dallas is a former corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.