Five years ago, Lester Lefton ’74 (PhD) was the provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Tulane when Hurricane Katrina struck, bursting levees and flooding the New Orleans university.
“It was life-altering,” Lefton says. Within days of the arrival of students for the fall semester, the university closed, and he, the president, and a handful of other officials relocated to Houston, where they prepared the transition into a daunting and unpredictable future.
“We had a lot of changes take place,” he says. “But if I ever wanted a crash course in how to run a university, and how to manage crises, it was certainly the Katrina experience.”
A year later, Kent State University, seeking its 11th president, figured Lefton would be up to the job.
A vast organization, Kent State enrolls almost 40,000 students who are spread across its main campus in Kent, Ohio, and seven regional campuses. It plays an increasingly important role in the economy of northeastern Ohio, a once-flourishing region struggling to emerge from a long decline following the collapse of its steel industry.
One of Lefton’s earliest, and biggest, successes was in offering a home at the university’s then nascent research park to AlphaMicron, an expanding high-tech green manufacturing company founded by three faculty members from Kent State’s Liquid Crystal Institute. The company had outgrown its facility in Kent and was on the verge of moving out of town. In 2009 the Kent Record-Courier declared the company’s new home at Kent State’s Centennial Park a “triple win for the community,” crediting Lefton for making the research park— and hence the company’s home—a reality.
For many American baby boomers, however, Kent State is less likely to conjure up images of liquid crystal technology than it is the memory of May 4, 1970. That’s the day the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of students, some of whom were protesting the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine others. The shooting became a watershed moment in post–World War II American history. This year, Lefton shepherded the Kent State community through the 40th anniversary of that tragedy during a year that also marked the university’s centennial celebration.
“What happened at Kent State in the aftermath was not particularly good,” Lefton says of the 1970 shooting. “They tried to sort of forget about it.” This year, he says, “we have embraced May 4th,” while driving the point home that the anniversary and the centennial are inextricably related to Kent State’s mission as a major research and teaching institution.
“The lessons of Kent State are about civil discourse, and open dialogue, and free speech,” he says. “We’ve embraced May 4th as a teaching moment—to learn, to inquire, and to reflect.” The two-day commemoration featured guest speakers and roundtable discussions, as well as a ceremony to mark the listing of the site of the shooting on the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s an approach well-integrated with Lefton’s overall message that while Kent State primarily serves a regional population, it’s also an open, diverse, and cosmopolitan institution. Lefton’s initiatives include expanding international student exchange programs and opportunities for students to study abroad. He’s also set higher standards for faculty, which has led to an overall increase in funded research.
Lefton is overseeing the development of a downtown hotel and conference center that he hopes will enhance the ability of faculty to run national conferences and, Lefton believes, better connect students to the town. “I’d like Kent to resemble Ann Arbor or Ithaca more than it does right now,” he says of the “college towns” of the University of Michigan and Cornell.
Michigan, in particular, is a model. “We see ourselves looking more like the University of Michigan 10 years from now than we do a local community college. We’re not there yet; but that’s our goal.”