Lefton forges ahead with longterm plan

Ben Wolford

Vision set since his initial interviews

Every administrator and dean at Kent State has a copy of “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done” on his or her desk, a gift from Lester Lefton.

“That book that he gave us, what’s that tell you?” said Yank Heisler, dean of the College of Business Administration. “I think there’s a little symbolism in the book that he gave us all to look at. He wants us to get things done.”

Lefton became president of Kent State in the summer of 2006 with change in mind. Two-and-a-half years later, the university community is in the thick of it.

The new guy

Lefton’s bid for the reins of a major university system began with interviews. Lots of them. Some happened fresh off a plane from Louisiana, where he was provost at New Orleans’ Tulane University.

“It was a lengthy process with multiple meetings with the search committee and airport interviews and then with the Board of Trustees,” Lefton said. “And it was all done in secret because they didn’t want anyone to know who was being interviewed.”

Lefton said he wasn’t nervous.

He didn’t appear that way to his interviewers, either.

“He did very well,” said Patrick Mullin, chair of the Board of Trustees. Mullin was vice-chair of the presidential search committee in 2006. “He came across as extremely thoughtful and extremely prepared in terms of understanding Kent State and in terms of the issues that we faced.”

That wasn’t an accident, Lefton said. He had done his research.

“When I was being considered for this presidency, I was actively thinking about what do I know about Kent State?” he said. “I studied a great deal, and I formulated a plan and laid it out to the board in very specific detail. The board happened to agree with me.”

So did the 28-member search committee.

“He was a no-brainer, unanimous choice by the entire committee,” Mullin said. “I’ve never seen anything that was that unanimous in a group setting like that.”

‘Excellence in Action’

In his first address to the Faculty Senate on July 17, 2006, Lefton started doing what leaders do best: goal-setting.

Kent State had “untapped potential,” he said. “One of my goals – my highest goal – is to help those departments, schools and colleges punch through those ceilings to really achieve national recognition.”

The path to that, as Lefton’s recently unveiled “nine-point roadmap” suggests, involves a many-pronged plan, including multiple initiatives and restructurings that are nearly all deployed.

But first, Lefton wanted to improve the image.

“At the beginning of my second year I found myself talking about excellence a lot,” he said. “I found myself talking about excellence in academics, excellence in advising, excellence in research. That’s where the ‘Excellence in Action’ slogan came from.”

One student who said “Can’t read, can’t write … ” wasn’t able to tag on the punchline because Lefton interrupted. “Don’t even think those words,” he said.

Who knows? Maybe Lefton’s efforts in the field of public perception contributed to Kent State’s move to the third tier – the top 150 schools in the country – from the fourth tier in August 2007.

Or maybe it had more to do with the tangible changes.

Now dubbed the “Excellence Agenda,” Lefton’s plan has several points: increasing enrollment and retention, which involves reforming Liberal Education Requirements and recruiting higher-quality students; increasing research grant applications; and implementing a new budget model, Responsibility Center Management, next year.

“The direction of the plan is pretty much the same as it was when I interviewed,” Lefton said.

And every part of the plan is linked.

More research translates to more prestige for the university, which increases enrollment. Greater enrollment means more money to improve educational quality by hiring more advisers and better teachers.

Making deans balance their own college budgets is a cost-saver that Kent State financial officials say could come in handy as the state economy struggles.

“We are re-establishing Kent State as a national university, a four-corner university in the state of Ohio, and reasserting our intellectual capital,” Lefton said. “It doesn’t happen by just laying one cornerstone. You’ve got to be doing a bunch of things simultaneously.”

A changing of the guard

“We’re all interim deans at this point,” one of Kent State’s 10 college deans said.

When Lester Lefton assumed leadership, the other administrators assumed responsibility.

“I think he is an accountable guy,” said Heisler, who originally came to Kent State as a special assistant to the president and interim vice president for finance. “And so when he’s working with a member of his cabinet, you are accountable for achieving certain objectives that you talk over with him.”

Since Lefton became president, he was able to replace five of nine vice presidents, including his right-hand man, Provost Robert Frank. In addition, four new deans have been appointed under Lefton, and another is on the way since Jim Gaudino announced he would leave the College of Communication and Information last month.

The people who formerly occupied those posts didn’t necessarily leave because they balked on their duties. Some, like former Provost Paul Gaston, simply decided to return to teaching.

“All of us, with maybe the exception of Dean Heisler, were faculty members,” said Gaudino, who took a president job at Central Washington University. “So the idea of going back to the faculty is not unattractive.”

But even faculty can’t escape accountability under Lefton.

“There’s a task of getting everybody on board and working toward the same goals,” he said.

The solution: “Holding people accountable,” Lefton said. “Everyone wants to hold the administration accountable for all kinds of things. The reality is there are a whole bunch of other people who have to do stuff to make things happen. The Faculty Senate, the faculty of the departments and the staff have to execute their respective roles.”

Faculty respond

Nothing Lefton has done has affected Gene Pendleton yet.

Working as an associate professor in the department of philosophy is no different now than under former President Carol Cartwright.

“It’s rarely the case that an administrator at that level can have an effect on individual faculty,” Pendleton said.

The Commission on Inclusion, the Task Force on Sustainability, the Expense Management Initiative – such things are lofty, long-term agendas, Pendleton said.

“There’s a difference between strategy and tactics,” he said. “What administrators develop are strategies. The chair of my department develops tactics, to use military terminology.”

But Pendleton said Lefton is taking the university on as good a path as any.

Molly Merryman, associate professor of justice studies at the Trumbull campus, applauds Lefton’s moves toward diversity tolerance.

“He has brought a level of acceptance and encouragement with diversity and inclusion issues,” she said.

The academic in her approves of Lefton, as well.

“As a faculty member, many of us in the profession want to be the best we can with our academic departments and research,” Merryman said. “I do think that element is being encouraged and fostered and stewarded in a significantly better way.”

Contact administration reporter Ben Wolford at [email protected].