Behnke leaves his mark on College, as he prepares for 2009 retirementBy Julia Morse
After 11 years as Vice President and Dean of College Enrollment, Michael Behnke has announced that he plans to retire in July 2009, leaving behind the largest, most diverse College with the best financial aid options and richest student life in the University’s history.
“This is a place that is very difficult to leave,” Behnke said. “But it is my time, and a celebratory time. I have accomplished everything I was brought in to do; all my personal and professional goals have been made into reality.”
“I am deeply grateful to Michael for his dedication to the University of Chicago, to our academic community and to the success of our students,” said President Zimmer. “He has contributed in numerous ways, both large and small, to significant improvements in student life, financial aid and in the breadth and diversity of our applicant pool.”
Behnke led vigorous new efforts to reach out to a broader pool of talented applicants across the nation, a push that has yielded impressive results.
Since Behnke arrived at Chicago in 1997, the number of students applying to the College each year has jumped an extraordinary 125 percent—from 5,510 to 12,401. As interest in the College soared, the competition grew as well, with 28 percent of applicants admitted in 2008, down from 61 percent in 1998. Yet even as the University zeroed in on the most able students — students who could choose from among the best schools — they increasingly chose Chicago. The portion of accepted students who matriculated rose from 30 percent in 1998 to 38 percent in 2008.
“Michael has played a truly historic and powerfully transformational role in strengthening College admissions, for which we are extremely grateful,” said John Boyer, Dean of the College. “He has positioned the College to be competitive with our top peer universities in our ability to attract the most academically gifted students to the College.”
Behnke said the key has been helping prospective students understand that the University’s strengths extend well beyond the lecture hall.
“We’ve never really had to sell people on the fact that this is a place where students get an incredible education or where people are serious about learning,” Behnke said. “Where we’ve had to do some work is to show people that this is a place where students can have just as rich an experience outside of the classroom as they do inside.”
Behnke said his greatest pleasure in the past several years has been Chicago’s renewed attention and devotion to issues surrounding diversity.
Since 1998, the number of African-American students enrolling has increased by 120 percent, Hispanic and Latino students by 157 percent, and international students by 122 percent.
“It’s been astounding to see, astounding to be a part of the commitment to diversity,” Behnke said of a commitment evident in the incoming class of first-year students, which includes the greatest number of African-American students in the history of the College.
Additionally, there will be a record number of international students enrolled this year in the College, while the number of students from moderate- and lower-income families has increased dramatically, thanks in part to the planning and implementation of the landmark Odyssey Scholarship Program, in which Behnke was deeply involved.
Established through an alumnus’ anonymous $100 million gift, Odyssey will allow the University to reduce or eliminate student loans among undergraduate students whose families demonstrate low or moderate income and high financial need. Early Action applications were up 45 percent last year, partly as a result of the Odyssey program, Behnke noted.
“His devotion to student aid, particularly in the development and implementation of the Odyssey Scholarship Program, has been nothing less than outstanding and tremendously admirable,” said Ted O’Neill, Dean of College Admissions. “Michael has been a wonderful partner, a kind and generous mentor.”
Behnke echoed O’Neill’s sentiment, adding, “My time here has been so exceptional because I’ve been fortunate to have colleagues and excellent partners like Ted O’Neill and Alicia Reyes, Director of College Aid.”
After receiving his B.A. with honors from Amherst College and his M.A. in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania, Behnke served as Associate Dean of Admissions at Amherst and Dean of Admissions at Tufts University before serving as Dean of Admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 12 years.
Behnke’s wife, Lee Behnke, is Lecturer in the Humanities, Director of the Undergraduate Latin Program and a Fundamentals faculty member. She will continue teaching next year in the Boston area, where the Behnkes plan to relocate.
“Once we are living on the East Coast, we will have a home, children and grandchildren nearby, but there will never be a place like this, never another Hyde Park, never another University of Chicago,” Behnke said. “What a stimulating 11 years we’ve had here. I’ve loved hearing about my wife’s Chicago classroom experiences over dinner, and I’ve loved exploring the diversity, the culture, the people of Hyde Park and the University. It will never be replaced.”
A national search will be launched for Behnke’s successor.