Recently appointed Deputy COO Abby Benson will continue to lead several major efforts for the CU Boulder campus, including the strategic work of the Office of Government and Community Engagement and the university’s collaboration with the city of Boulder during the CU Boulder South annexation process.
Benson, formerly associate vice chancellor and chief of staff for SRS, will also continue to co-lead the Financial Futures strategic transformation team alongside Quentin McAndrew, assistant vice provost and executive director for strategic transformation, and help coordinate the ongoing work of the SRS division to advance partnerships and campus initiatives.
She brings to bear years of experience in government relations for the four-campus CU System, advocacy for the university’s research and innovation endeavors, and leadership skills acquired as a U.S. Coast Guard officer during one of the nation’s most harrowing chapters: 9/11.
While growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, and later in college in Connecticut and Massachusetts, she spent a lot of time on or near the water learning to swim and navigate through wind, ocean currents, gyres and eddies––all skills that have served her well in work and her personal life. She also developed a passion for swimming and squeezes in pool workouts when she isn’t working on university projects or devoting time to friends and family.
All of this is to say that Benson isn’t afraid to dive into issues––even those that arise in her adopted, landlocked state of Colorado. In part, she admits now, she took a job with CU in Washington, D.C., with the hope of one day moving to the Centennial State, where she enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains as much as she relishes navigating the ocean.
Following are six questions for Deputy COO Abby Benson:
What do you hope to achieve as deputy COO over the next year?
As we enter into the fall semester, I look forward to shifting our focus from pandemic-related work to making progress on a number of campus strategic priorities. We have a big challenge on our hands welcoming our students back to a fully campus-based experience and welcoming staff back to a new work environment, but I am excited for the return of a more vibrant campus environment.
This year, Pat and I will focus on the post-pandemic return to campus, increasing employee engagement, ensuring the campus’s fiscal resilience and recovery, supporting student success, and a series of issues impacting our relationship with the city and our local community, including the environment on The Hill and the ongoing effort to annex CU Boulder South.
You’ve fulfilled a variety of roles at CU, including assistant vice chancellor for research and innovation and associate vice president of government relations for the CU System. How will your previous experience inform what you do going forward?
My experience at CU has taken a different path than most. I began in government relations, which afforded me a 30,000-foot-level view of the university system. I worked on issues across all four campuses ranging from research to financial aid to tax policy and immigration. When I came to Boulder to work in the Research and Innovation Office (RIO), I was excited to dive deeper into the campus and gain a greater understanding of the research enterprise.
This gave me a deep appreciation for how much work it takes to run a multimillion dollar research organization, and how many dedicated CU Boulder staff it takes to make it happen. I also had so much fun getting to know our talented researchers as we built partnerships with aerospace organizations in Colorado and across the country. Moving into the SRS role has given me more of an opportunity to look under the hood at CU Boulder, and I am proud to be part of an amazing team that keeps this city within a city running smoothly.
What has been a proud moment for you at CU?
One of the most exciting projects I have worked on at CU involved advocating for an earth science instrument out of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) called the Total and Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS), which measures the sun’s energy input to Earth. This instrument was many years in development, but got caught up in the political mire around climate change before it was scheduled to launch.
When I joined the CU Office of Government Relations, I partnered with LASP to get the program moved from NOAA to NASA and worked with the congressional delegation to secure more than $15 million in funding for the mission. It was so exciting to see TSIS launch to the International Space Station in 2017. This work also fueled my passion for all things aerospace!
You hold bachelor’s degrees in geology and geophysics from Yale University and master’s degrees in engineering in transportation and logistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). How has science shaped your view of higher education?
My science and engineering background is what led me to consider working at a research university when I was seeking my next chapter after serving almost 10 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. Most Coast Guard members get sent to Washington, D.C., kicking and screaming because they don’t want to sit behind a desk.
I felt that way at first, but it turned out I was a true policy nerd who loved working on big government problems. When I decided to get out of the Coast Guard and stay in D.C., I thought a lot about which policy areas interested me the most. I loved conducting research in graduate school, so the opportunity to advocate for federal support of research for my alma mater (MIT) seemed like a great fit.
How did your experience as a U.S. Coast Guard officer prepare you for higher education and life?
I will admit that transitioning from the military to higher education was a bit of a shock. I have learned to appreciate the shared governance model of higher education as it contrasts with the more hierarchical military model. My time in the Coast Guard was both exciting and formative.
As a young officer, I supervised large teams of military and civilian members who knew a whole lot more about Coast Guard operations than I did. It was humbling and an amazing introduction to the fundamentals of management and leadership. Not long after I joined, 9/11 happened and the entire service turned on a dime from a focus on environmental and life-saving missions to a focus on homeland security and defense missions. I was stationed in the Port of Boston at the time, where two of the flights involved in the attack originated.
I remember working with Coast Guard and city leaders who really had no idea how to react to these tragic events, but had to demonstrate vulnerability and creativity in their response. I’ve thought a lot about that time over this last year, when I witnessed many of the same efforts among our campus leaders as we were forced to transition our operations rapidly in response to COVID-19. I remain in awe of the dedication of CU Boulder faculty, staff, and students who handled this transition with grace and strength.
You recently became a first-time parent. How has that experience impacted your life and work?
Having a baby during a pandemic was a challenge, but it turned out to be a blessing as the transition back to work mostly involved working in my basement office! I find I’m having some delayed back-to-work struggles now as we slowly return to campus, but the experience has given me a fuller appreciation for the challenging balance of work and family that many in our community face.
Also, as someone who had their first child later in life, I will never forget the unique challenges of being a single person and how important it is for all of us to find that work-life balance. The best advice I’ve received that I try to remember is to be present and focused on the time I have with my son and to be the same during my time at work in order to appreciate them both. I’m lucky to have a great partner who makes the juggle easier. I don’t always get it right, but like most of us, I do my best!