Presidential personality


Lester Lefton listens as Beverly Warren speaks to those in attendance as she is announced as Kent State University’s twelfth president January 9, 2014.

Jimmy Miller

When Matthew Lilley woke up and checked his email on the morning of Jan. 25, 2012, he, as he remembers two years later, “felt my jaw drop.”

“I was at a loss for words, really,” Lilley said in a recent interview.

Lilley, then a Kent State student and veteran of the U.S. Navy, had sent an email to Kent State President Lester Lefton asking why he had not seen the president around campus as promised at his Destination Kent State orientation his freshman year. He also wanted to ask about the 3.5 percent tuition hike — which Lilley erroneously said was 20 percent — and what Lefton planned to do about it.

“I didn’t really care too much about tuition rates since I don’t pay them,” said Lilley, now a graduate. “But I know a lot of people had a problem with them, and I just decided to go for it.”

It appears Lefton’s response was one that was never supposed to be sent — he accidentally replied to Lilley instead of to university secretary Charlene Reed, to whom he addressed the email, which included misspellings.

“Please respond to this guy within 36 hours, tell him tuition has not gone up 25 percent, and invite him to lunch with our student lunch w the president meetings,” Lefton wrote. “And anything else you want o say to give him some rreason to be reasonable. His anger level is disproportionate [considering] he does not pay tuition.”

Reed, who recalled the 2012 email exchange, defended Lefton.

“Everybody’s human, and I don’t think he meant any ill-will toward the student,” Reed said. “He has tried to respond to emails or to make sure students get a response.”

University spokesman Eric Mansfield said Lefton was unavailable for interviews before publication.

While Lefton has worked behind the scenes to raise record amounts of money and expand opportunities at Kent State, he has come under fire for having a “prickly” and “thin-skinned” personality when it comes to directly interacting with faculty and students. Outside of private meetings with his staff, according to a 2012 performance evaluation, he does not come off as an “overly warm and extroverted person, by nature.”

Lefton’s performance evaluations, as well as interviews with faculty and students, paint the picture of a president who excelled at administrative duties but feared to “have his guard lowered” outside of his close circle of staff.

Relationship with Faculty

Paul Farrell, chair of Faculty Senate from 2011 until this spring, said Lefton’s relationship with faculty has been one with a “willingness to discuss things.”

“Generally, we think of Lefton as being concerned with outside matters,” Farrell said. “I don’t know [whether] he would agree with that. We’ve had frank discussions, we have disagreed, and we share our opinions and he shares his.”

Lefton’s concern with “outside matters” is reflected in a 2012 independent review by the Aldridge Group, a Cleveland-based employee assessment group. Based on interviews with 10 university administrators, four faculty and staff members and four students, the report credits Lefton with infusing in the school and the city a feeling of “excitement and renaissance.”

The report also said his legacy will “someday include the physical changes to the City, as well as the University, during his tenure.”

It also details areas for improvement, such as a need to increase his “concern for others” and “patience.”As part of the report’s recommendations, Lefton was advised to improve working relationships with two key constituencies — faculty and students.

Reed said the evaluation’s purpose was to find aspects of Lefton’s presidency he could improve because a review without criticism has “no point.”

“He’s taken [the criticism] to heart,” Reed said. “It’s not a failure to have something that can be improved.”

However, a Board of Trustees statement about the review said those interviewed by the Aldridge Group for the review gave Lefton favorable marks. While the board’s statement describes Lefton’s accomplishments in great detail, it mentions little about Lefton’s relationship with faculty and students.

The board’s statement also said those interviewed said the president has the skills “well matched to meet these challenges,” including “improving the relationship between the faculty and the administration.”

“I think once you get to know him, he’s a lot different than the perception of him,” Reed said. “He’s funny. He spends a lot of time reflecting. The impressions may not be accurate.”

But the report also said the Board of Trustees expected Lefton to spend more time with community leaders and activists, as well as raise tenure and promotion standards. The Aldridge Group offered these suggestions as ways to alleviate the tension between the president and key university groups.

During that same year, Kent State’s chapter of American Association of University Professors proposed a petition expressing a no-confidence vote in Lefton, condemning his presidential actions and the length of time it took to negotiate the union’s contract, which was almost one year.

The petition circulated but was never voted on by Faculty Senate because it was not brought up by an individual faculty member, said Kara Robinson, associate professor and former tenure-track AAUP president .

“It didn’t go anywhere,” Robinson said. “It was a matter of timing and a matter of settling.”

Joseph Altobelli, associate professor of mathematical sciences, said he felt compelled to draft and circulate the petition because of the “administration’s repeated and egregious violations of the agreement between the faculty and the university under President Lefton’s leadership.”

“While I can certainly understand that the president will and should be a tough negotiator during contract negotiations, once the president signs the contract, he should honor the agreement and make sure that the rest of the administration under his leadership does the same,” he said.

The petition garnered the required 100 signatures to present it to the senate, but a vote of no confidence wasn’t held.

“I feel that President Lefton has left a legacy of mistrust between the faculty and the administration that the new president will have to work hard to overcome,” Altobelli said.

Chapter coordinator Coleen Casey said the faculty union declined further comment about Lefton’s legacy at Kent State.

Relationship with students

While faculty opinion varies about Lefton, students have also voiced their opinions about Kent State’s outgoing executive.

Marvin Logan, incoming president of Undergraduate Student Government, said he thinks Lefton will be remembered for growing the university.

“Despite people’s reservations about President Lefton and him on a social level, on a development level, I think he brought the university to the 21st century,” Logan said. “I think in order to continue to recruit quality talent, we have to be able to compete, and I think he gave Kent State the opportunity to compete with other public institutions in the state of Ohio.”

Logan said Lefton “is not a socialite,” but once he got he got the opportunity to know the president personally, he understood what the presidential position entails.

“I think it’s different for Dr. Lefton, who spends most of his time, just by nature of being an administrator, spends most of his time away from students, where I spend most of my time with students,” Logan said. “We think we know what goes on up there, and they think they know what goes on down here. That’s not the case.”

Current USG Executive Director Amish Patel did not respond to phone calls or emails about his thoughts on Lefton’s legacy at Kent State.

Michael Allen, chair of the Graduate Student Senate, has had limited experiences with Lefton but recalled this year’s homecoming as one of his favorite memories with the outgoing president.

“He was throwing candy and taking selfies with students,” Allen said about the celebration.

Allen said he understands the critique about Lefton’s personality, but ultimately, the “face of the university” will not leave these miscommunications as his legacy.

“In 20 years, we’re not going to remember [that] Dr. Lefton didn’t take a selfie with me,” Allen said. “We’ll remember him for [his work] downtown.”

Contact Jimmy Miller at [email protected].