Board highlights praise, hides criticism in Lefton evaluation


Kent State President Lester Lefton. Photo by Matt Hafley.

Rex Santus and Doug Brown

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that current and past heads of Undergraduate Student Government, but not Graduate Student Government, were interviewed.

For the sixth year in a row, the Kent State Board of Trustees evaluated and voted to award Kent State

President Lester Lefton his full performance bonus, $102,402, at its June 6 meeting.

But documents from an outside evaluator raise questions about Lefton’s role in his own evaluation, including his influence in choosing interviewees and how the evaluation was conducted.

Deviating from what was previously the normal procedure, the board hired the Aldridge Group, a Westlake-based firm specializing in employee assessment, to provide an outside evaluation of the president, paying the company $10,387 for its work.

The board issued a public summary of the evaluation following the June meeting, praising Lefton and saying the Aldridge Group gave him a positive performance review.

But public records requests produced the Aldridge Group’s six-page evaluation, which was not publicly released at the June meeting. While Gary Kustis, a management consultant with the Aldridge Group, gave Lefton a favorable review, the group’s evaluataion also raised issues about Lefton’s personality and ability to get along with people — issues left out of the board’s public statement.

Developing the review

Kustis outlined that the list of people chosen to evaluate Lefton “will be developed and approved by the Board Chair [Jacqueline Woods] and the President.”

In a March 1 proposal letter to the university, Kustis wrote, “The visit was certainly helpful for me to better understand the nature of what President Lefton wants from an outside assessment.” The proposal letter was composed after a meeting with Charlene Reed, the president’s chief of staff and the board’s secretary, Joe Vitale, a Kent State human resources director, and Willis Walker, the vice president for human resources and chief legal counsel, about conducting Lefton’s performance review.

The first step for Kustis was to meet with Lefton and Woods “to discuss the assessment process, who will be a part of it, and what will be covered. Any changes suggested will be incorporated, accordingly.”

The interviewees

  • The 11 trustees (including the two student trustees who have no voting authority)
  • The 10 members of Lefton’s cabinet
  • Two members of the board of the Kent State Foundation
  • The current and past chairmen of the Faculty Senate
  • The current and past heads of University Undergraduate Student Government
  • Kent City manager Dave Ruller
  • Home Savings Bank president Howard Boyle
  • Of the 29 total people interviewed, there were four students and two professors.

    21 of those interviewed have worked closely with the president as part of the Board or as part of his cabinet.

Twenty-nine people were interviewed during the review. Of them, 21 have worked closely with the president as part of the board or as part of his cabinet.

“Each was chosen by virtue of position,” wrote university spokesman Eric Mansfield in an email. “All had interaction with the President and had worked closely with him in some capacity ensuring that they were in a key position to provide feedback.”

Rita Bornstein, a higher education consultant and former president of Rollins College, said faculty members are the most important contributors to a president’s review, and interviewees should represent a variety of points of view in regards to the president.

Kustis said in his report that students and faculty are Lefton’s “harshest critics.” Of 29 interviewees, only four students and two professors were interviewed.

The two professors interviewed in the report, Faculty Senators Tom Janson and Paul Farrell are “not necessarily likely to be a true barometer of the President’s popularity among the entire faculty,” Kustis wrote. Farrell refused a request for an interview, but Jansen responded and said he supports Lefton.

The review

Kustis addresses a number of Lefton’s attributes in his evaluation of the president. He wrote Lefton shows “difficulty in forming relationships with faculty and staff,” as well as being a “bit prickly” and “thin-skinned” when “people push back or he does not get his way.”

In the board’s three-and-one-half page public summary, which was distributed at the June board meeting, no negative aspects discussed in Kustis’ evaluation were addressed. Nothing was said about Lefton’s weaknesses — “concern for others” and “patience” — as they were defined in the Aldridge Group’s evaluation, or his problematic relationship with some students and faculty.

The Evaluation

Top Strengths

  • “Strategic Thinking – formulating strategic plans for the institution.”
  • “Leadership – a willingness to lead, take charge, and offer opinions and direction.”
  • “Persistence – a persistence in face of obstacles.”
  • “Examples given for these strengths included his strategic plan for the University (strategic thinking), his efforts to build a coalition with the City of Kent (leadership), and his ability to find other sources of funding when State support for the bond evaporated (persistence).”
  • Areas for improvement

  • “Concern for Others – being approachable, sensitive to others’ needs and feelings, and being understanding on the job.”
  • “Patience – maintaining composure, being patient, exhibiting good listening skills, keeping emotions in check, even in very difficult situations.”
  • “In fairness, those who mentioned Concern for Others were quick to point out that Dr. Lefton does show concern for the people who work closely with him, but that others less familiar with him are not as likely to see it exhibited. This is consistent with reports from participants that Dr. Lefton does not come across as an overly warm and extroverted person, by nature. Those that saw a need for better patience generally referred to him being a bit ‘prickly’ or ‘thin-skinned’ when people push back or he does not get his way. Even in these instances, however, his behavior was perceived as being well within the normal range of behavior.”

Instead, the board lists his greatest strengths — “strategic thinking,” “leadership” and “persistence” — and asserted he had improved over his six-year presidency “by all accounts.”

Kustis said in his evaluation of Lefton that the board views Lefton as a “visionary leader who is appropriately setting the direction for the University. To a person, they have confidence in his ability to meet his goals, and see him as a professional administrator who has accomplished a great deal over the last six years.”

The verbal presentation

Kustis verbally presented his evaluation of Lefton while the board was convened behind closed doors in an executive session — this took place earlier in the day before the June 6 meeting where the board later awarded the bonus.

Executive sessions allow governing bodies of state institutions to discuss specific matters privately, meaning the matters discussed don’t have to be disclosed. All voting on the matters discussed must take place outside the executive session.

At that point, neither the board nor the university had any record of the Aldridge Group’s evaluation. No record was kept of what was examined during the executive session, which means no documentation must be made available publicly.

“I can’t speak for the board as to their decision, but the timing was such that they received the presentation in the morning and then crafted the evaluation the SAME day – June 6,” wrote Mansfield in an email explaining why no records were kept. “So it may have been easier to just have a dialogue with Aldridge during executive session as input for the evaluation that they were in the process of writing.”

The university released the interview list, the proposal letter, and the $10,387 invoice billed by Aldridge — the Aldridge Group’s evaluation report was not released until a public records request was made directly to the group.

Kustis, the Aldridge Group consultant, did not return multiple phone calls and emails made since June by two reporters.

After the Daily Kent Stater received a copy of the Aldridge Group’s report, Board Chair Woods, through Mansfield, declined a request to be interviewed further.

“She will not be available for a new interview on the topic [of] the President’s bonus, since she already spoke on the topic at the 6/6 board meeting,” Mansfield wrote in an email.

Multiple requests to interview Lefton about his evaluation were also refused.

Nine of the trustees were contacted via email, and several attempts were made to contact others by phone. Only trustee Dennis Eckart responded via email.

“Thank you for your call. We conducted a thorough review of the President’s performance including other stakeholders around the University,” Eckart wrote. “We are pleased that he has met the past goals outlined for him and has the University on track for future growth as well.”

Eckart did not respond to a follow-up email asking for more information about Lefton’s evaluation process.

What is the

Board of Trustees?

“The Board of Trustees is the governing body of Kent State University. By Ohio Law, the Board is responsible for selecting and appointing the president; setting the operating budget; approving personnel appointments; granting all degrees awarded by the University, including honorary degrees; establishing tuition and fee rates; approving contracts; and approving all rules, regulations, curriculum changes, new programs and degrees of the University.”

—Board of Trustees website

Looking forward

On the last page of Lefton’s evaluation, Kustis outlines the “conflict” Lefton faces about where to spend his time. “The board expects him to be spending more and more time out in the northeast Ohio community meeting and interacting with business leaders, as well as lobbying for the University in Columbus and Washington — in between visiting with high-potential alumni donors,” he wrote.

“In addition, the board’s direction to him to raise promotion and tenure standards helped to create the tension he is now dealing with. President Lefton will need direction on where to balance these competing demands while, at the same time, requiring the Board to appreciate that large strides in these areas may not be possible.”

Contact Rex Santus at [email protected]. Contact Doug Brown at [email protected].