Opinion: A graduate’s view of President Lefton

Daniel Moore

Boy, I was nervous. I was ready, but I didn’t feel it. I kept reviewing my typed questions and scribbled handwritten modifications that made certain phrases more friendly and less confrontational. I stretched awkwardly in the plush waiting room of the Executive Offices, waiting for my first interview with President Lester Lefton.

This was two-and-a-half years ago — September 2011 — when I sat down in the president’s office and got the interview underway in a shaky sophomore fashion. Lefton pulled out lunch and started to chomp.  

I began by asking things like: What’s the new vice president for research up to? What do you think about the general trend of privatization in higher education? Do you like the most recent budget passed by the Board of Trustees?

Then I ended with a question about the fate of elderly people in Silver Oaks retirement community, who were being forced out of their homes to accommodate Kent State students (see: University Oaks). Of course I didn’t say this, but rumors were swirling that the school was somehow involved with encouraging the sale of the community to a student housing developer.

“The university has nothing to do with Silver Oaks,” Lefton said bluntly, in between sloppy chews.

Before I left, he asked me to turn off the recorder. He said the Stater had written lots of good and lots of bad things about him over the years, and he hoped I would be fair and accurate.

Regardless of this pointed, strange and almost threatening message, I was.

Throughout the semester, I wrote the good and the bad. I broke news of the school’s historic fundraising success of Centennial Campaign. I was the first to report on the school’s interest in acquiring the Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine, where my father had attended school and had heard the news through the grapevine. I wrote about the student trustees and how they promote student success. I wrote about the smart investments made by Lefton’s cabinet that led to budget growth at a time other universities were cutting. I wrote about the Esplanade expansion.

But later in the semester, it turns out Kent State was somehow involved in Silver Oaks. The story wasn’t mine, but I gave the Silver Oaks reporter the audio of Lefton denying any involvement. When the Stater published it, he refused to let me record him anymore.

Things, needless to say, started to go downhill.

The proverbial “last straw” came soon after. I wanted to write a story about how he was converting an unused storage space into a private waiting area for guests, a project enigmatically named “Entry Improvements” by the architect’s office and billed at $100,000. It soon became clear it was not the big investigative exposé on wasteful spending I had thought — rather, there was asbestos in the ceiling. Plus, Lefton didn’t have an existing waiting area for high-level guests, so they had to stand around in the lobby.

OK, that makes sense. It was worth the expense.

But the story took weeks to write. No one would talk about it. Photographers were chased out of the executive offices by his staff. After my last interview with Lefton, I quietly asked a communications official to see the broom closet that was to be converted into the waiting area. She did, and Lefton, visibly agitated, pulled her aside and told me to leave.

These anecdotes serve no end other than to show what could be considered common knowledge: Lefton does not have an award-winning personality, particularly toward student media. I have never been part of a conversation with him that did not feel tense and adversarial. I always had a sense he thought I was up to no good, that I somehow knew too much and didn’t know anything at all.

The point is, Lefton and I will both be taking life-changing leaps this summer. These leaps often call for reflection and brutal honesty that are never a priority during frustrations of the daily grind.

As I graduate in a few weeks and leave Kent, my sentiments toward Lefton are similar to those written by Jody Michael, a former opinion editor and a damn levelheaded individual. In his exit editorial, “Lefton is not the problem,” Jody wrote about the outrage that consumed most of the university about Lefton’s obscenely large bonuses during years that cost of college here increased.

“Lefton is an easy target, but the Board of Trustees is the university’s true systemic problem,” he wrote. I’d go a step further and say it’s the fault of a broken education system. School presidents’ pay should never increase when tuition and fees increase. That’s common sense.

In addition, I’m proud of this university. How could I not be? I’m proud of my college and my school and my department. I’m proud of this newspaper. I’ll graduate with an incredible sense of accomplishment that never would have been achieved without Kent State.

But my journalistic intuition tells me to issue a warning for those who are sticking around for another year or more: If you’re angry about lavish spending or high-level administrators or a mix of both, think critically about it. Go to the source of the problem and complain loudly. But be reasonable. Don’t waste energy on people who are simply doing their job.

As I reported on Lefton, I saw all the good he has to offer. He wore a mask at times, but he’s been a hell of a college president. I’m proud to say I’m from Kent State, and how could the president not be a part of that?

Contact Daniel Moore at [email protected].