New kid on the block

Jackie Mantey

Get to know the man who plans to ‘dream big’

Kent State President Lester Lefton sits in his new office while discussing his personal ambitions and plans for the university. CARRIE WICKS | SUMMER KENT STATER

Credit: Steve Schirra

The phone rings in President Lester Lefton’s new office on the second floor of the Library. He looks around for a second trying to determine which phone he should answer and which button to push.

“I’m still getting used to it,” he laughs.

After seven days, the office and the campus are still a bit unfamiliar to the university’s 11th president, but he said he can’t wait to learn the ropes of the university he hopes to successfully impact.

On July 1, the 59-year-old man made the flight to Kent State and said good-bye to a university he called home for four years. After working at Tulane as provost, Lefton said he is ready to take that experience and apply it to Kent State, all while learning to find home in a new region of the country.

Home sweet Kent

Having never lived in the Midwest, Lefton said Ohio is a place he can see himself living for the long haul.

“People are friendly and nice here, but in a different way,” he said. “People go out of their way to be helpful – that is uniquely Midwest. They are more taciturn and quiet than, say, New York City. There are so many things that stand out – the people are friendly, and I get positive feedback.”


Increase graduation rates

“I want to put particular concentration on graduation rates. It’s important for Kent State’s reputation, students and finances. Student retention is a very high priority”

Improve funding from the state

“Students and their families are the ones carrying (the higher education cost) burden. Students are struggling, and the legislature is putting other priorities ahead of us.”

Dream bigger dreams

“We seem to think we can only go so far. It’s like we’ve set up a glass ceiling. Let’s be great.

Why not? There is so much talent. I want us to dream big and turn those dreams into realities.”

Increase retention and fundraising

“Increased retention means better faculty, better rankings. I also want to increase fundraising. We have many donors willing to help wherever we ask.”

He made the “bittersweet” move from Tulane with Linda, his wife of 37 years. The couple has two daughters, both of whom live in California. The older daughter, Jesse, is expecting her first son, and Lefton’s first grandchild, in August.

But he isn’t spoiling him yet.

“We’re just buying her the essentials now. We’ll be sure to spoil him later,” he said.

Photos of his family line the boxes that sit anxiously at the bottom of the shelves in his presidential office, which Carol Cartwright inhabited for 15 years. Slowly making the office his own, he describes the stained glass window that is waiting to be hung.

“I have lots of hobbies, but I’m so busy,” he said.

A fan of the arts, Lefton said he makes his own stained glass windows. He likes music, theater and the symphony. Exercising, model railroading, bicycling, stamp collecting and painting all make his list of favorite things to do.

Lefton is soft-spoken until he starts talking about subjects he feels passionately about. His voice gets louder with excitement as he discusses Linda and his hobbies, and his ambitions for Kent State are not excluded from that excitement.

Making connections

Like every new member to campus, Lefton said he knows he has a lot to prove, and wants to make a good first impression on the varying public.

He said he has many plans to engage the faculty and students and intends to make his presidential focus academic oriented.

The personal connection between president and student is one he wants all students to feel. Lefton will be sending weekly e-mails to all students to help establish that connection.

Among the many life changes he is experiencing, in September he will also be moving into a new house overlooking the Cuyahoga Valley which is being built this summer.

And for Lefton, mi casa es su casa.

“It’s so beautiful. We hope to have students over a lot,” he said.

He said making a personal impact can help student/administration relations and the student’s relationship with the university.

“I want to make it so every student has the opportunity to have experience here that will affect them in profound ways,” he said.

To make that possible, he said first he is learning as much as he can about the campus.

And guess who’s helping?

Filling ‘diminutive pumps’

The Board of Trustees announced at its May 26 meeting that former President Carol Cartwright would be staying at the university for another school year as Lefton’s adviser.

He is the first to welcome that helping hand.

“She has been very helpful in making the transition,” he said.

With Cartwright’s years of experience and numerous contributions to the university, Lefton said he knows he will live up to expectations.

“There is no question that her diminutive pumps will be difficult to fill, but our priorities will be slightly different,” he said.

He said each president of a university has area that they focus on. He said he would like to touch on all of those aspects but have a significant portion of his contributions come back the Kent State student by having a larger emphasis on academics.

Making elective class sizes smaller, introducing more professors and creating more faculty positions funded from endowments into the system are several ways he plans to improve that academic atmosphere.

Lefton said he knows the pressures of college academics – he got a D in bowling at the University of Rochester.

“I just wasn’t good. I have bad eye-hand coordination,” he joked.

Learning from experience

Lefton said he would like to be at Kent State for a while, but for the rest of his second week, he plans to continue meeting faculty and trustees and tour building by building so he knows the ins and outs of the campus.

With all the new changes and lessons in store for Lefton, there is one thing he said he already knows the university can do.

“Dream bigger dreams. We seem to think we can only go so far. It’s like we’ve set up a glass ceiling. Let’s be great,” he said. “Why not? There is so much talent. I want us to dream big and turn those dreams into realities.”

Contact editor Jackie Mantey at [email protected].