July 1, 2006 – Lester Lefton becomes the 11th president of Kent State University.
September 2006 – Lefton changed the position of Provost to Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost.
February 2007 – Lefton commissions Lewis-Burke Associates LLC, a government relations firm specializing in public policy interests of higher education and research institutions, to compile a report of the university’s research activity in hopes of increasing research initiatives at the university.
February 2008 – Lefton creates 11 new positions to focus on university fundraising.
February 2009: Lefton creates a College of Public Health. It is one of only two colleges of public health in Ohio, and the first in the state to offer a Bachelor of Science degree in public health.
May 2009 – Lefton announces at the Board of Trustees meeting that he, along with the 10 members of his cabinet, will donate his pay raise. The money will go to a scholarship fund to assist students who are struggling to pay tuition due to the economic recession.
September 2009: Lefton creates position of Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Alfreda Brown is appointed as the first person to hold this title.
November 2009 – Lefton signs a revised contract that extends his term as president to June 30, 2014. The new agreement automatically renews on July 1 of each succeeding year after July 1, 2013, unless either Lefton or the university provides a one-year written notice of the desire not to renew.
January 2010 – Lefton announces plans for a $200 million main campus reconstruction plan to be completed in 2016.
August 2010 – Lefton buries a time capsule at Risman Plaza in commemoration of Kent State’s centennial to be dug up and examined in 2060.
June 2011 – Lefton becomes the second-highest-paid university executive in Ohio behind President Gordon Gee of The Ohio State University with the approval of his annual performance bonus by the Board of Trustees at more than $100,000.
July 1, 2012: The University acquires the Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine, which officially becomes the Kent State University College of Podiatric Medicine.
March 29, 2012: Lefton established the Presidential Speaker Series, bringing prominent figures such as Elie Wiesel and Trey Ratcliff to speak at Kent State.
August 6, 2012 – Construction begins on University Esplanade expansion project, which will create a connection between Kent State and downtown Kent. Expected completion was scheduled for May 2013 but has been delayed as a result of inclement weather.
September 11, 2012 – Over its eight campuses, Kent State reaches record enrollment of 42,513 for Fall 2012. Enrollment has increased by 25 percent since Lefton began his presidency in 2006.
Oct. 20, 2012: May 4 Visitors Center opens. May 4, 1970, site added to the National Register of Historic Places.
2013: The University celebrates Kent State’s centennial year and completes a $250 million fund-raising campaign for student scholarships and other university priorities that exceeded its goal by $15 million
April 17, 2013 – Lefton announces his plans to retire on July 1, 2014, after his contract ends for the 2013-14 academic year.
Lester Lefton walked onto the field at Wednesday’s baseball game, after his plan to retire next July was announced earlier that day.
Standing on the sideline with the team, Lefton was there to help dedicate new lights for Schoonover Stadium, one of the many changes he’s made as the president of Kent State University for nearly seven years.
“Everything has a season and unlike lots of sports and athletes, we [university presidents] sort of stay a little bit too long,” Lefton said. “I’d like to go out at the top of my game, and I think right now things are going pretty darn well at Kent State.”
And on Wednesday, he announced plans to retire on July 1, 2014 at the end of his 2013-14 contract year.
“You don’t just decide one day, ‘Gee, I think I’m going to go to college.’ You don’t decide one day, ‘Gee, I think I’m going to retire,’” he said. “You think about it when you get to be 60 or 63, 64, and then as time passes, you become more serious about the decision.”
Lefton became president of Kent State on July 1, 2006. His original contract was effective through June 30, 2011 and was extended to June 30, 2014. Beginning on July 1, 2013, this agreement would automatically renew on July 1 of each succeeding year unless either the president or the university provided a one-year written notice of the desire not to renew.
Eric Mansfield, executive director of university media relations, said Lefton’s retirement comes at a time when the university is in a good position to move forward.
“I think he feels very confident that he’s made a bold impression here on the campus — enrollment is up, graduation rates are up, donations are up,” Mansfield said. “The campus is headed in the right direction financially; it’s headed in the right direction educationally; it’s headed in the direction as far as the physical structures. He’s accomplished an awful lot in nearly seven years here.”
During his time as president, Lefton has been praised for many developments with the university, especially his fundraising efforts.
As part of the Centennial Campaign, Lefton helped raise $265 million. Gene Finn, vice president for institutional advancement, said there was a record high of $40 million raised two years ago with Lefton’s help.
Finn, who has known Lefton since they worked together at George Washington University in the late 1990s, said he thinks Lefton wants to focus on the next stage of his life.
“I do know that he’s got grandchildren and his daughters are in California, and he’s got a lot of outside interests,” Finn said. “So did it come as a surprise to me? No, not at all. I think naturally after you have such a successful run, and he said many times he wants to leave on top and on a high.”
Paul Farrell, Faculty Senate chair, said in an email he did not always agree with Lefton or his policies but found him willing to listen, adapt his plans or agree to disagree, and that his time as president will be remembered as a time of rapid change.
“As in any period of rapid change, there will always be a mix of outcomes ranging from resounding successes to inevitable failures,” Farrell said in an email. He said people will remember the successes with improving retention, graduation and enrollment rates, managing finances during state and national crises and working on the collaboration between the city and university.
Lefton had a tremendous vision for Kent State and an amazing run as president, said Greg Jarvie, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs.
“When he first got here, he talked about putting Kent on the map and making it a place of destination. I don’t think there’s any doubt that he’s done that. People see Kent and Kent State hand-in-hand now. He’s done a wonderful job with the collaboration he’s done with the city. He’s really done what he said he was going to do.”
Several university and city officials also praised Lefton’s impact with both the university and downtown, especially with the Esplanade expansion to connect both.
“There’s been a significant improvement in communication and cooperation between the university and town,” said Ron Burbick, the developer of Acorn Corner and Acorn Alley 1 and 2. “He is a valuable member in what’s going on downtown. He had more of a vision of downtown and the university becoming one.”
Provost Todd Diacon said he actually came to Kent State because of Lefton and the changes he has been a part of with the downtown expansion.
“Those struck me as the kinds of dynamic changes that transform a university,” he said. “And when you combine that with I read his speeches, I watched some of his video clips, I was just very impressed by President Lefton.”
Diacon, who had no hints to Lefton’s retirement, found out about it five minutes before the announcement was made.
“I told him that I had had the pleasure of working with great presidents, and he was at the top of the list of presidents,” Diacon said.
Yet not all memories of Lefton will be of the work he’s done.
“I guess an image that I always have in my mind is when Lester puts on that blue cowboy hat at homecoming,” Diacon said. “It just always makes me chuckle the way he interacts with students [there].”
Students took to social media sites, such as Twitter, to say how they feel about Lefton and his retirement.
@JamesJacksonKSU tweeted, “So you take a pay raise and then retire a few months later… ?#Scumbag. At least you’re leaving.. ?#LesterLefton???”???
@Lord_Joseph tweeted, “Lester Lefton’s retiring on July 1st, 2014; Kent’s going to throw one Hell of a party for this one, I can feel it”
@OCDmike527 tweeted, “Lester lefton did a good job! Look at all the sidewalks! And he removed parking spots for some nice grass! GOOD WORK! [email protected]”???
@mjbanks93 tweeted, “Why is everyone excited Lefton is retiring as if he was solely responsible for everything regarding KSU? Lose the high school mentality.”
As for finding a successor, Diacon said he wants someone with the experience and the ideas to move the university on from here.
“You have these incredibly successful leaders who have sort of oversized personalities,” Diacon said. “That’s not an easy thing to find.”
Mansfield said Jane Murphy Timken, chair of the Board of Trustees, will appoint a member of the Board to head the search committee for Lefton’s successor. It is not known whether this will be a public or private search.
Still, Lefton has one year left to follow through on his goals. But after he retires, Lefton expects to spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren and pursue his interests, such as his photography.
“The truth is, this job is all consuming.” Lefton said. “It’s seven days a week. This week, during the week, I’ll be working three nights. And then I work all day long. It is really a 24/7 kind of job, and going into retirement maybe doing some other kinds of things will allow me more time to pursue other passions, as well as do some writing, and maybe do some teaching as well.”
However, he’ll come back to visit downtown after all the construction is finished.
“You couldn’t keep me away,” he said.
Maggie (Yimeng) Li, 25 (Student Business Manager at the Tannery)
“I have been here for two-and-a-half years, and I think from my perspective, since I have been here, I have seen Kent as a city change a lot … That growth has attracted more students to come here, and that fact made the city of Kent want to develop the city more and make more investments here. That is from my own experience, especially as an international student, I can see more and more international students come to Kent to study.”
Leander Walker, 41 (Owner of Leander’s Barber Shop):
“I think he has meant a lot because he partnered with the city to bring more students to the city, the downtown area and bring more traffic. That is how our businesses survive; the bars have more traffic. It is going to keep the businesses successful.”
Contact Alicia Balog at [email protected]
Leighann McGivern, editor; Lyndsey Schley, academics reporter; and Caitlin Potts, on-campus entertainment and performing arts reporter, contributed to this story.