Spare some change?

Alumni residency

Daniel Moore

At a fundraising event in November, Kent State President Lester Lefton strode up to the podium and, in a seven-minute speech, rattled off a long list of achievements.

Record student enrollments. Record academic quality. Innovative 21st-century classrooms in the making. A new connection between the city and campus. Global partnerships with institutions around the world.

“The truth is, your support has been critical to this remarkable range of accomplishments,” Lefton told the Founder’s Gala, attended by a large crowd of donors who collectively contributed a total of $58 million to the Kent State Foundation in the previous two years. The plush, $100-a-plate dinner at the Student Center Ballroom honored the university’s highest givers — $100,000 for individuals and $250,000 for corporations.

During his presidency, Lefton has brought in record money for the foundation, Kent State’s fundraising arm, raising nearly $250 million in contributions that have restructured programs and facilities on campus and abroad. Lefton has made these significant changes by building an extensive network of investors that range from well-connected alumni to business partners to the federal and state legislators.

Two public records requests for individual travel expense reports provide a rare glimpse into the large network of trusted advisers and donors who Lefton actively courted as president. Lefton spent nearly $200,000 to finance travel to at least 20 states and eight countries, according to financial disclosure statements and expense reimbursements he filed with the school.

Partnerships abroad

Not a year into his presidency, Lefton embarked on a 23-day overseas trip to schools in Turkey and Russia, as well as Kent State campuses in Geneva and Florence.  

“We live in a flat world,” he told the Stater in July 2007, after returning from the trip. “You’re not just competing with students from the University of Akron or Cleveland State. You’re competing with students from Tokyo and St. Petersburg.”

Marcello Fantoni, associate provost for the Office of Global Education and director of the Florence program from 2005 to 2012, remembers meeting Lefton in Florence and showing off the Italy campus. The program was struggling financially and academically, Fantoni said, and it was in need of a restructure.

Lefton held extensive meetings with the understaffed faculty, toured facilities and took it all in, Fantoni said.

“We changed a lot after that visit,” he said. “Once he developed a better understanding of the potentials that we had in Florence, we came up with a plan to re-launch the program. And that’s the beginning of its success.”

Since 2007, the Florence program expanded recruitment efforts by creating courses that could align with more curriculums. With more deans in support of the program, Fantoni said, Florence has become the school’s flagship study abroad locale with 320 students enrolled this semester and almost every college invested in it.

Under Lefton, global partnerships have increased to expand global education opportunities.

This year, the school expects its study abroad enrollment to surpass 800 students, up from 473 students in the 2008-09 academic year, according to figures provided by Fantoni. Enrollment of international students — who number 2,500 from 102 countries — has nearly tripled since fall 2007.

But Lefton has faced public criticism for international spending. The Akron Beacon Journal highlighted the cost of the Florence trip as $40,500 — which included a plane ticket for his wife, Linda — of which Lefton ultimately paid $10,000 of the trip out of pocket, telling the ABJ it was “one way I could give back.”

In all, Lefton has spent at least $60,000 on international travel during his eight years as president, according to expense reports.

A second major overseas trip spanned June and July 2012, when the president spent another three weeks and $12,000 traveling through Europe, stopping in Lithuania to give a commencement speech in front of 10,000 students at Siauliai University.

Vidas Lauruska, rector of Siauliai University in Vilnius, called the 15-minute speech “some kind of performance” with lights and music. The visit cemented a deal, which began with a Memorandum of Understanding the previous year, to exchange students and faculty and open access to the University Library’s trove of Lithuanian archives.

“We invited President Lefton to visit, and I am very happy he agreed,” Lauruska said. “He spent a lot of time with our teachers, students and held meetings in different faculties. I think because Kent University is a famous university in USA … we decided to continue our relations between our universities and, after that, people from our university visited your university, and I think it is great for Siauliai University, this agreement and this visit.”

The school has 140 such agreements, Fantoni said, which Lefton has been “instrumental in opening doors for us to collaborate.” The agreements are basic legal framework from which the the Office of Global Education builds programs that range from student and faculty exchanges to building a joint degree and research programs, he said.

Most recently, Fantoni helped organize Lefton’s $11,000 trip to Israel in March 2013. Airfare totaled almost $8,000, which, like the 2007 trip, included plane ticket for Linda Lefton.

But Fantoni points out the trip finalized an agreement with Weizmann Institute of Science, a prestigious research center near Tel Aviv, as well as an agreement with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“He thought that we could do more with Israel because higher education in Israel is very high quality,” Fantoni said. “So we got together, developed an itinerary, and we made the first contacts, and we set up meetings. … When he came back, we had a debriefing and then we followed through.”

Improvements at home

Lefton has said in interviews with the Stater that he maintains a rigorous — and not nearly as glamorous — travel schedule necessary to connect with Kent State’s 200,000 alumni registered with the Kent State Foundation.

Almost one-third of all alumni live outside of Ohio, and more than 1,000 live outside of the U.S., according to numbers provided by the foundation. Florida and Pennsylvania are the two most popular destinations, followed by California, North Carolina and New York.

“All university presidents are expected to spend a great deal of their time, if not the majority of their time, on fundraising responsibilities,” wrote Gene Finn, vice president of Institutional Advancement, in an email interview. “That is simply the reality of the current state of higher education.”

Finn, who heads fundraising operations at Kent State, said Lefton “recognized very early in his presidency” his ability to fundraise.

The foundation connects with donors through larger alumni events as well as individual donors. At receptions, Lefton provides updates on recent successes from campus building projects, the downtown redevelopment, the current status of university resources, and even the impact of declining state support on the university.

“No two donor conversations are ever the same,” Finn wrote. “One of the reasons Dr. Lefton has been so successful with fundraising is because he knows so much about the university that he can talk in great detail about any topic that might be of interest to donors.”

Kent State Foundation accounts, which cover fundraising efforts with alumni, have generally paid for about 55 percent of the president’s total travel expenses. Lefton is among the highest-spending public school presidents in Ohio, but he also heads one of the most lucrative fundraising operations, raising about $1,300 for every dollar he spends traveling.

Comparatively, Ohio University President Roderick McDavis’ raises just $622 per dollar spent on the road. The University of Cincinnati has raised the most money per presidential travel, with more than $3,300 raised per dollar spent by its three presidents since 2006.

Ohio State’s Gordon Gee, who leads the state in both travel spending and fundraising, outspent Lefton by three times and raised 10 times as much.

Domestically, Lefton has spent the most time and money in California and Florida, where he has spent about $7,000 on trips to hold receptions for donors and meet individually with potential givers.

Beyond fundraising, Lefton has tapped regional resources. In 2007, he joined the board of directors for NorTech, a firm that helps innovate emerging businesses in Northeast Ohio.

President and CEO Rebecca Bagley has met with Lefton for lunch at least three times since 2010, records show. The two have talked “at a strategic level,” Bagley said, about how Lefton could fulfill two roles: one as a board member, and another as the head of the leading research institution in Northeast Ohio.

“You cannot have viable industry in a region without a strong academic institution,” Bagley said of her firm’s interests in Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute.

In turn, NorTech, with experts on staff and about 75 companies, has assisted Kent State in appealing for grants from the National Science Foundation.

Contact Daniel Moore at [email protected].