Kent State University president to retire

By Carol Biliczky
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Kent State University President Lester Lefton stands next to the university seal on Risman Plaza. Lefton announced his plans to retire effective July 1, 2014 in an email sent to the Kent State community.(Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal file photo)

Kent State President Lester Lefton announced Wednesday he will retire at the end of his contract, June 30, 2014.

He will leave Ohio’s second-largest public university after seven years at the helm.

Praise for Lefton flowed after the university announcement, which included a list of 14 of his accomplishments, among them raising money and refreshing the Kent campus.

Lefton’s contributions to KSU have been “extraordinary,” Jane Murphy Timken, head of the university’s board of trustees, said in the media release. “He has brought a new sense of purpose and pride in Kent State.”

Dave Ruller, the Kent city manager who worked with Lefton on so-called “town-gown projects,” said Lefton “helped us see that it’s not enough to have great ideas. You’ve got to have the kind [of] energy and vision that can get people up out of their seats and rolling up their sleeves to turn ideas into actions.”

KSU Provost Todd Diacon said he had the privilege of working with many great university presidents — and Lefton was atop that list.

“He’s always open to new and very big ideas,” Diacon said

Lefton, 66, came to KSU in 2006 after four years as a top administrator at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he helped to rebuild the campus after Hurricane Katrina.

He was tapped as the lone finalist from a field of more than 100 candidates. The search committee supported him so much he was the only candidate they brought to the board of trustees and to faculty leaders. Usually a handful of finalists is brought to their attention.

Early on in his presidency, Lefton chose “excellence” as his mantra. Everything was excellent — students, faculty, staff, academics, you name it. He began calling Kent State Northeast Ohio’s “research university,” even though the nearby University of Akron long had laid claim to that title.

Era of growth

Only weeks into the job he said he wanted KSU to “bust through the Plexiglas ceiling” by improving student quality, retention, academic accomplishments and more — and many would say he has done that.

He spurred a $200 million building program on the Kent campus, the first major improvements since the 1960s. He worked with city of Kent and Portage County leaders to build a town-gown alliance with blocks of new business construction, a hotel and conference center and an extension of the campus’s brick and concrete esplanade.

“That is a huge accomplishment that will be his strongest legacy,” said Gene Finn, KSU vice president for institutional development.

Kent State’s enrollment grew last fall to a record 42,500, making it the second-largest public university statewide.

The university developed a College of Public Health, acquired the private College of Podiatric Medicine and raised a record-breaking $265 million in its 2010 Centennial Campaign.

Lefton also spearheaded the renovation of KSU’s Risman Plaza and the development of the Student Green in front of the plaza. These changes acknowledged a shift that already had taken place: that the south side of campus had replaced the oval driveway on the north side as the Kent campus’s new “front door.”

Some controversies

Still, Lefton took some actions — mostly related to money — that raised eyebrows.

Last year, he spurred faculty rancor and threats of a no-confidence vote over negotiations for a new contract with the American Association of University Professors. Some faculty accused him of “showing contempt for the faculty,” but backed down without taking a vote.

Early in his presidency, he and his wife, Linda, also took a four-week trip to Europe that cost more than $40,000, including an $1,800-a-night hotel in Florence, Italy.

KSU paid $20,000 of the tab, the KSU Foundation $10,000, and Lefton ended up paying $10,000 for the trip to four cities in which KSU has interests.

“It’s the cost of doing business,” Lefton said at the time. “The trip was very important to the institution.”

About a year later, Lefton agreed to pay $88,000 for KSU Vice President Ed Mahon to get a doctorate in business leadership at the private Case Western Reserve University.

Hints of change

The announcement of Lefton’s retirement was not entirely a surprise.

Two weeks ago, he and his wife sold the home they built on Elizabeth Court in Kent to a private buyer for $700,000.

Cleveland attorney Ed Cochran then agreed to lease the home to KSU for $56,000 a year for the next 20 years as the home for future presidents.

Lefton also is coming to the end of his second contract with the university.

He makes a base salary of $417,799, plus a performance bonus equal to 25 percent of his base and a longevity bonus that this year will be $100,000. Until he sold his home, the university also was paying him $65,000 a year to use it for KSU functions.

He gets a new American-made car every two years, six weeks of vacation each year and will be entitled to a paid one-year sabbatical at his base salary when he leaves the university.

Lefton didn’t announce what he would do in retirement, but it’s known that he has family in California and loves photography.

Carol Biliczky can be reached at or 330-996-3729.

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