Opinion: Parting words: Lefton is not the problem



Jody Michael

Jody Michael

Jody Michael is a senior news major and opinion editor for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at Jody Michael.

Today is my last column for the Daily Kent Stater, as I will be graduating next week. But I have no intention of forgetting about this university. I’ll still be living in Portage County, at least for the time being. I hope to come back to attend events occasionally.

This is partially a case of separation anxiety, but my vow to keep Kent State close to me is mostly due to a sincere hope that the university will forever remain as great an institution as it was for me.

I got to experience a lot of new things and make new friends. I’m grateful for the scholarships awarded to me. Most of my professors were great, and a few not only fulfilled the “course objectives” on the syllabus, but also helped me better understand the world. I hope Kent State continues to offer a great education like that to thousands of incoming students each year, for generations to come.

But sometimes, the university’s actions give me pause and make me worry about the people in charge.

Last June, I watched the Kent State Board of Trustees meeting out of curiosity. The Board was deciding whether to award President Lester Lefton his $100,000 bonus again, despite raising tuition in the previous meeting, and I wanted to see it with my own eyes. (Technically, I saw it via a TV screen in the overflow room, but that’s close enough.)

The Trustees said they hired an outside firm to perform Lefton’s evaluation, which was good to hear. But as I listened to the Board summarize the evaluation, it seemed far more glowing than it should have been. The Board did not mention that the university faced a financial shortfall that necessitated increasing students’ tuition costs. The Board did not mention that Lefton’s administration had clearly violated its contract with the faculty and almost received a vote of no confidence from the union.

Lefton obtained his bonus. Three months later, the university sent the Stater a copy of the full evaluation in compliance with a public records request. It had plenty of criticism, and yet the Board had mentioned none of it at the meeting. The Board did not mention that some of those interviewed for the evaluation “referred to him being a bit ‘prickly’ or ‘thin-skinned’ when people push back or he does not get his way.” The Board did not mention that the evaluation outlined specific weaknesses like “concern for others” and “patience.”

This March was more of the same. Lefton set his own goals for the year, and since he met them, the Trustees awarded him a $104,450 bonus in the same meeting they forced students to pay $180 more for room and board.

It is never OK for the president to take more while students are forced to pay more. No one will ever convince me otherwise.

Lefton’s supporters will continue to defend his bonuses — because they’re in his contract, or because the tuition increases are due to state budget cuts, or because Lefton donates back to the university sometimes. None of that matters. It is wrong that students feel the pain while Lefton gets a bonus. It’s not illegal, but it’s not an admirable way to get rich.

The widespread anger about Lefton’s bonuses meant many celebrated when he announced he will retire in 2014, but I’ve realized that Lefton was never the real problem. Indeed, he has presided over a period of impressive enrollment increases and a stunning downtown redevelopment project.

His successor has big shoes to fill — and when the shoes are filled, are we to believe that the Board of Trustees will suddenly behave any differently? Even once a new president arrives, I fear the Trustees will continue awarding $100,000 bonuses and raising tuition in the same breath while whitewashing any criticism of the administration. They’re not embarrassed.

Lefton is an easy target, but the Board of Trustees is the university’s true systemic problem — and perhaps the administration’s excess has sustained because of the deep-rooted belief that Lefton is the problem. Start contacting the Trustees; force them to listen to the students whom their decisions affect. That’s my final advice to students as I graduate. It’s our best hope of making Kent State a better university.