Lefton gets personal about Kent State

Kate Bigam

He’s not exactly the new kid on the block anymore. After 10 weeks in Kent, President Lester Lefton said he has a pretty good feel for the city and, more importantly, for the university.

In an hour-long meeting with the editors of the Daily Kent Stater last week, Lefton reflected on the issues that matter most to him and to Kent State – from diversity to underage drinking to student retention, and everything in between.

The president, who called his job a seven-days-a-week gig, has spent his first months meeting with student and faculty organizations, traveling to the university’s regional campuses and kicking off a fundraising campaign. He spent part of last week in Columbus, discussing education policies with Gov. Bob Taft.

The governor, whom Lefton called “well-briefed” on issues regarding Kent State, asked for the president’s support on the Ohio CORE program, a piece of legislation that would require high school students to receive high grades in certain courses in order to graduate. Although the program would ensure students preparedness for college, Lefton said he doesn’t wholly agree with the proposed legislature because it would remove remedial-level courses from universities.

Lefton said he worries what Taft and other “lame duck” politicians could do before they leave office in January.

“They could introduce all kinds of bills over the next few months,” he says. “All of higher education is concerned about what they’re going to do. They could take some draconian measures that would not be good for our students.”

Meanwhile, Lefton said he is doing all he can to ensure students at Kent State receive the best education possible. He listed academic excellence and student retention as top priorities, but said there are innumerable other issues of importance.

Lefton speaks of lofty plans for the university, but some might wonder how those plans translate into reality. Retention, which he has relentlessly promoted since arriving at Kent State, is one area where he hopes to see improvement as early as next semester.

“I’m deeply committed to ensuring that students are able to complete their degrees,” he said. “The big test will be, do the first-year students come back next year at higher rates?”

Lefton said many students don’t realize that improving retention rates benefits the university immensely, which in turn benefits students’ education. Increased retention increases Kent State’s placing in national rankings and leads to more state funding.

Acknowledging the importance of improving financial situations for students, Lefton said he is also committed to funding more scholarships. President emeritus Carol Cartwright, who he sees a few times a week at social functions, has introduced Lefton to numerous potential donors.

“I would love to be able to say, ‘There’s no student who’s academically qualified who cannot come to Kent State,'” Lefton said, although he noted that results of his fundraising efforts may not be evident for a few years.

Lefton said so far, most student concerns have been generic – better dorm food, more parking, smaller class sizes – but he’s giving special attention to a few issues.

His meetings with organizations such as Black United Students and the Pan-African Studies department have shown him that Kent State is abuzz about diversity, an issue he said he’s placing extreme importance on.

“This is a more diverse place than people give it credit for,” he said. “Other places I’ve known are less diverse and less committed to diversity.”

Despite university-wide speculation that he may be creating a task force on diversity or hiring a diversity consultant, Lefton said he is “still musing” over concrete plans.

The university does a good job of attracting minority students and faculty, he said, but then the issue of retention resurfaces. He praised the Kupita/Transiciones program for helping to create a welcoming, supportive environment for minorities, but said the university needs to do more.

However, he questioned some of the campus community’s idea of diversity.

“I get the sense that they don’t care about intellectual diversity, or Latino diversity, or gay and lesbian diversity,” Lefton said. “Diversity, to me, is about more than just being African-American. I’m about trying to create a more humane society, not a blacker society or a more Latino society or whatever.”

Keeping diversity in mind, Lefton acknowledged the Undergraduate Student Senate’s recent decision to support domestic partner benefits at Kent State, but said until the state of Ohio legalizes these benefits, he will not recommend that the Board of Trustees move forward with providing them at Kent State.

“I don’t know any way to spin this positive,” he said. “Either we do it or we don’t do it, and if we do it, I’m the president who goes against the constitution.”

Lefton said he personally supports offering domestic partner benefits, as do most university administrators, and that if Ohio legalizes them, he wants Kent State to begin providing them.

Contact administration reporter Kate Bigam at [email protected].

On Kent State’s football team:

“I’m much more concerned about academics … If we win some football games, it’ll be a lot of fun, but we do a good job in our intercollegiate programs.”

On student drinking:

“It’s about personal danger. When students get drunk and are roving around in packs, they create dangerous situations for themselves.”

On town/gown relations in Kent:

“The city has a funny relationship with Kent State. They love us because without Kent State, there wouldn’t be a Kent, practically. But when the faculty and students come back, when we invade, it creates a very tough situation.”