Dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering
Larry Benefield is retiring as dean of Auburn University's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering after a 33-year career at Auburn University. He became dean in 2000, following a two-year period as interim dean. Benefield also has served the college as associate dean for academics, Feagin Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Alumni Professor of Civil Engineering. Benefield earned his doctoral degree in civil engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1975 and bachelor's and master's degrees from Auburn in 1966 and 1972. He taught at the University of Colorado and Mississippi State University early in his career, and served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1966 to 1971. Benefield's research interests include wastewater treatment and mathematical modeling of environmental systems. He is a registered professional engineer in Alabama and Virginia.
1. You volunteered for Air Force officer candidate school after graduation from Auburn in 1966 and served in Vietnam as a combat engineer. How did your time there influence your decision to become an environmental engineer?
I came from a small Alabama county - Randolph County - so about the time I received my degree I got a letter that said I should report for my induction physical. I went into the service in April 1967, which gave me the opportunity to do two quarters of graduate school before I went into the Air Force. I made the decision at that point that I did not want to just be a two-year Army infantryman, so I went through the officer's physical for the Air Force. I was turned down for pilot training because my hearing had already begun to go bad. But I was accepted to and went through officer training school.
I received my orders for Vietnam while at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois, and I was to go through Red Horse training, the Air Force's first attempt at providing combat engineers. I ended up with the 619th squadron. My time in Vietnam was spent primarily in the central highlands in Pleiku, though the last month and a half I was in Tuy Hoa doing concrete shelter work. Through that experience I got involved in wastewater treatment plant design, wastewater transport systems and water distribution system design, and I decided I would go into environmental engineering.
Because of the influence of Gene Metz, a professor in civil engineering at the time, I knew I wanted to have a career in academia and teach, so I went into the service with the idea that as soon as my time was over, I was returning to graduate school and would get my Ph.D. I came back to Auburn in January of 1971 to finish my master's then my Ph.D. at Virginia Tech. My first teaching position was as an instructor in engineering technology my last year there.
2. In 1979 you were offered a position at Auburn as an assistant professor, but you turned it down. (Though you were then offered an associate professor position on campus and accepted it.) That is a bold move - to turn down a job many would have taken - how did you know it was the right thing to do?
When I left Virginia Tech after graduation, I went to Mississippi State in the summer of 1975 for a year. I then accepted a position at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and my wife, Mary, and I were there for three years. I came back to Auburn to interview for a position when Joe Judkins, who had been my adviser, called me up and asked me if I would be interested in teaching environmental engineering.
Auburn offered me the job as an assistant professor. I felt that it would have delayed my career if I had taken that position because I had four years of teaching at that point. I told the people at Colorado that I was accepting a position, but when Auburn came back with the offer of assistant professor, I had to tell Colorado that I was staying! A few weeks later the department head called me up and offered me the associate professor position. Then I had to tell the people at Colorado that I had changed my mind again, and that I was going to Auburn!
3. You became dean during a time of financial instability for higher education, but managed to build a successful development office and a strong, active alumni base. How and why?
I take great pride in our state and people. The South and Alabama in particular take the brunt of a lot of talk about our culture and lifestyle. I always felt like, given the opportunity, there was no limit to what could be achieved under the appropriate conditions, and I have always believed that education was extremely important to whatever the future of our state would be.
My perspective has been that if you look around the country, wherever there was a top 20 college of engineering, there was a large degree of high tech development in the private sector that surrounded that college. Those kinds of employment opportunities attract college educated individuals. Those people value a college education, and they vote. When industry puts more tax dollars into the state, more support is available for education.
Given those circumstances, we knew we needed financial support to create that environment here in Auburn, and we knew that it would have to come from other sources. We, the college and our alumni, had a common goal - we wanted to create the sort of environment that attracted the best people and companies. We wanted to improve engineering at Auburn to improve the quality of life in our state.
4. Your time as dean will no doubt be associated with the success of this college, both in its size and influence ... your portrait will hang in the hallway outside of the dean's office ... your impact will be present here for years to come. How do you want to be remembered for your time on campus?
I wouldn't expect to be remembered any longer than the next person ... but if I am remembered, I suppose I would like it to be as someone who made a difference in engineering and education, and as someone who helped to improve the quality of life in our state.
5. Just how fast is your '67 Corvette and is there room for a grandchild's car seat?
I couldn't say how fast my Corvette can go, but I have driven it through a stretch of flat highway in Kentucky faster than I'd dare to admit publicly. As for a grandchild's car seat, I'm not sure that it would fit in a Corvette - or that my wife and daughter would allow it - but I can tell you that more than two people can fit in a Corvette. When I was in graduate school at Virginia Tech, I drove a friend and his girlfriend to her parents' house in Pittsburgh on a few occasions; they would squeeze into the back together on a blanket while my wife, Mary, who was my girlfriend then, would ride in the front. So, it is possible!