Connection to community priority for Lefton, university

Ben Wolford

Hotel construction ‘flag’ for other new city developments

A Kent State hotel and a welcome center are not a distant fantasy, President Lester Lefton told Daily Kent Stater editors, outlining his visionary goals for the university.

“We are closer than we have ever been to making this a reality,” he said in the meeting Friday. “Probably within a year, maybe a year-and-a-half from now, we’ll be breaking ground.”

The hotel and welcome center will act as the figurehead of a plan to seal the geographic rift between the Kent campus and downtown Kent, Lefton said.

Ideally, he wants to extend the University Esplanade across Haymaker Parkway, leading up to a hotel near Depeyster Street.

“If you get the hotel built, that’s the flag,” he said. “As soon as you get a hotel, you’ve got lots of people downtown. Until you get people downtown, none of this other stuff happens.”

This other stuff might include the building of small restaurants, clothing shops and bookstores, he said, pointing to model college towns like William & Mary.

Kent State wouldn’t underwrite construction of the hotel, but it would certainly steer business toward it and even offer urban design students to help develop it.

A welcome center at the base of the extended University Esplanade would support the campus-downtown connection.

“That would be the link, the gateway, to downtown,” Lefton said. “We could even put the admissions office in there and have a fabulous – not big – but fabulous building.”

Such developments would bridge the physical distance between campus and community, but the psychological rift will be a little harder to patch up.

“It doesn’t exist,” Lefton said of the would-be bond with the community. “This is a hundred years old. I can’t fix it over night.”

But he does have ideas for how to do it slowly.

“We’re actually talking about building a big sign between the city of Kent and Kent State,” Lefton said. “(The sign would) make the city feel part of us and us part of them.”

It would publicize campus events like the Black Squirrel Festival and also athletic events, which Lefton called a big part of a university’s prestige.

On finances

To renovate Dix Stadium, Kent State estimates the cost to be about $8 million.

“Is it worth all of this money?” Lefton said. “We are a university. Universities are made up of a whole prestige of a lot of different things that is hard to put a dollar value on.”

But he added that Kent State is relatively conservative in its construction projects, often opting to renovate rather than to rebuild.

President Lester Lefton couldn’t pick one

accomplishment over the last year at Kent State he was most proud of – “that’s like asking which of your six

children you like best,” he said. So here are all of them:

&bull the completion of Franklin Hall

&bull starting construction on the Roe Green Center

&bull athletic programs creating “the right kind of environment for student athletes”

&bull increases in research dollars for faculty

&bull swift and easy conclusion to faculty contract negotiations

&bull beginning of the implementation of Responsibility Center Management

Thrift and efficiency is becoming an increasing priority as a result of Ohio’s limping economy, which has affected state subsidies and spurred the current tuition freeze.

“As state money has decreased, we have to be more efficient and more careful,” Lefton said.

Consequently, Kent State has hired a sustainability consultant to suggest ways for Kent State to operate better ecologically and save money in the process.

It has even prompted a reconfiguration of how the university budget works, moving toward a system called Responsibility Center Management that places the money in the hands of each college to spend as it sees fit.

“Under RCM, because the deans get to keep the money they don’t spend, you will see them being a lot smarter,” Lefton said.

But he made it clear that the idea isn’t to “pinch pennies, it’s just being smart.”

Nor has he lost sight of the fact that Kent State is not a corporation.

“We don’t close things because they lose money,” he said. “We’re not a business, that is, in the business of making money. We’re in the business of educating students in the best way possible.”

A diverse student body

One way to keep that quality up is by recruiting students from a range of social and cultural backgrounds and from many areas of the country.

All Kent State needs is a couple hundred diverse, high-quality students, Lefton said.

“It would change the nature of discourse in the classroom,” he said. “Growing up in New York is very different than growing up in Tuscarawas. They have a very different world view.

“As we diversify the student body, you will get a better experience.”

Lefton’s strategy for attracting those diverse, high-quality students is by “reasserting our four-corner status.”

Kent State is one of the four-corner universities, along with Ohio University, Miami University and Bowling Green, which the University System of Ohio has encouraged to be magnets for out-of-state students.

“We need to assert our brand more, and make sure that people in Arkansas and California and Alaska understand what Kent State’s all about,” Lefton said.

He would like to do so by promoting the university’s “marquee programs”: journalism, nursing, fashion, architecture and liquid crystals, among others.

Lefton thinks the view of Kent State is changing for the better in the eyes of the world – and in its own community.

“I think the campus is turning a corner on a belief in ourselves,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time being down on Kent State, saying ‘We can’t do this, and we can’t do that.’

“I think people are starting to believe we can do it.”

Contact administration reporter Ben Wolford at [email protected].