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President Lefton's Inauguration Speech

The Relentless Pursuit of Excellence and Ideas Lester A. Lefton, President Kent State University April 27, 2007

Chairperson Harbrecht, Members of the Board of Trustees, Members of the University community, Colleagues, and Honored Guests from near and far:

What a great day to be at Kent State.  Those words capture my feelings every time I enter a Kent State campus, and they’ve become my customary opening for campus speeches.  Today, they are imbued with a rich, new sense of personal meaning and an overwhelming sense of gratitude. 

I’m deeply grateful for your generous and supportive welcomes.  Sandy Harbrecht, Kent State owes you a special debt of gratitude and so do I.  Your strong leadership and deep commitment to your alma mater are truly inspiring.  I also wish to thank my other esteemed colleagues on the university’s Board of Trustees.  Individually and collectively, your wisdom and dedication to Kent State – especially its students – are remarkable.

And what can I say about the gift-in-words presented by my daughters?  Today, and every day of their lives, they have been sources of pride and joy.  My immediate family tree also includes a terrific son-in-law, Amit; and a nine-month-old grandson who amazes us.  And then there is the most exceptional person I know:  my wife, Linda.  Her unwavering love and support have made her my best friend and partner for 37 years.  Each day, Linda sustains my efforts both as an individual and as president; she is a vital force in my life.

Words are not adequate to convey how honored I am – and how humbling it is – to be Kent State’s 11th president.  I’m delighted that numbers nine and 10 could be here today:

  • Dr. Michael Schwartz.  In the 1980s, you spearheaded an era of prosperity and growth in the university’s programs, facilities and stature.
  • And Dr. Carol Cartwright.  You deftly navigated the sea changes of the 1990s.  And you led Kent State into a new millennium with tremendous, positive momentum.

Both of you have set the presidential bar very high.

I’m truly appreciative and truly delighted that everyone here could join us on this meaningful day for Kent State.  It’s gratifying to be surrounded by so many other distinguished members of the academic community as well as members of my extended family – cherished friends from across the country and across several decades; and valued, new colleagues from the university that I have been fortunate to call home for 10 months.

In all the places I have called home, I‘ve tried to remember a quote by Mark Twain and act accordingly.  Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones that you did do.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”

On this day of good will and great expectations, let us resolve that, in the months, years and decades to come, our academic community will be able to look back without regrets.  Let us proceed with the goal of giving everything we have to the dream of Kent State as a place that attracts and cultivates the finest scholars and students; ignites ideas; and that, with nimble minds and giving spirits, applies scholarship and creative activity in ways that strengthen our region, our state, and our nation.

The application of scholarship for the public good is one of the fundamental values of public higher education.  I’m proud to be part of a community that has cherished and championed those values for nearly 100 years.  I want to focus on the role of Kent State – and all great public universities – as defenders of intellectual freedom and growth, as fertile fields for new expressions in art and science, and as incubators of ideas.  And I will make a case for the relentless pursuit of excellence and ideas by every member of the Kent State community.

Your father was probably just like mine; he regularly said, “Do it right, or don’t do it at all.”  My dad has long since passed, but his words stay with me today because I think Kent State has the ability to do it right, and to do it now – flourishing as a center for great ideas.  I refer to theories, intuitions, and innovations that have the power to change the way we understand our world and, in turn, change the world itself.  Such transformational ideas can, for example, ameliorate social ills; revolutionize the tools we use to live and work; and replace major disciplinary question marks with periods and exclamation points.

The pages of Kent State’s history are punctuated with groundbreaking scholarly ideas.  Our visionary first president, James McGilvrey, saw the value of offering education at off-campus sites.  Around 1912, he launched 25 extension centers to provide area students with immediate access to higher education.  More than 1,000 students took advantage of what was then a unique opportunity. 

In the 1950s, a Kent State chemistry professor turned his attention to a curious class of chemical substances.  Dr. Glenn Brown saw that these substances – which flowed like liquids but shared properties of solid crystals – held enormous scientific potential.  More than 40 years later, the Liquid Crystal Institute he founded remains the best and the largest academic center of its kind.

Building on Brown’s brainchild, James Ferguson invented the liquid crystal display in 1967.  LCD technology is responsible for the view whenever we log on to a computer, watch television, or check the dashboard while driving.  Today, Kent State researchers Chris Woolverton and Oleg Lavrentovich, with colleagues from the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, have taken liquid crystal technology to yet another level.  They conceived and created a liquid crystal-based biosensor that detects pathogens – as well as bio-terror agents – and cuts the time for medical diagnoses from hours to minutes.

Another current member of our faculty had an idea heard ‘round the world:  University Professor Dr. Owen Lovejoy, who is a leading authority on physical anthropology.  He developed what some consider a grand unified theory of early hominid evolution – a theory that explains why our human ancestors began walking on two legs.

Out-of-the box ideas abound at Kent State – and not just in the scientific arena.  In 1983, fashion industry giants Shannon Rodgers and Jerry Silverman had the idea that Kent State could be a major force in fashion education – despite our non-glamorous, Midwest location.  They invested in and helped create our School of Fashion Design and Merchandising.  Today, the school is ranked in the nation’s top tier of fashion education institutions.

These are just a few great ideas that took flight at Kent State.  I have no doubt that our faculty, students, and alumni will produce many more in years to come.  In fact, I believe it is our responsibility to provide the kind and quality of education that is capable of fostering entrepreneurship and innovation, patents and licenses, new books and new ideas.

Ideas have transformed our world.  But as we all know, our world is flatter than ever, with the competition clock for new ideas ticking louder than ever.  As Tom Friedman concluded in The World is Flat, globalization has “accidentally made Beijing, Bangalore and Bethesda next door neighbors.”  The fact that our global neighborhood contains many nations in which advanced knowledge is prevalent and low-cost workers are a mouse-click away has become a serious problem for America.  Case in point:  The number of U.S. science, technology and engineering graduates is about 5 percent of all college graduates compared to India and China, where it’s about 45 percent.

Given these realities, it’s an understatement to say that our nation is facing an enormous challenge: repairing and reversing the erosion of our pre-eminence in the marketplace of goods, services and ideas.  The key to meeting this challenge – to regaining the competitive edge – is a significant investment in education and research.

I often think about an observation made by computing pioneer Alan Kay:  “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”  The best chance for our nation – and certainly for our region – to ensure a bright future lies in harnessing the thinking – knowledge-based, discipline-spanning, and creative thinking – that thrives on university campuses.

We need today’s faculty to conceive the innovations of the future in the fields of the future – from nanoscience to neuroscience, from molecular biology to media psychology.  And we need them to continue exploring our rich past in architecture, archeology, and art.  That means empowering our faculty to take intellectual and scholarly risks – the kind of bold risks that often give birth to great ideas.  Of course, we need ideas that are more than bold.  We need ideas that also are tested and true.  George Washington Carver tested and advanced the potential of peanuts.  Ohio’s Orville and Wilbur Wright experimented with DaVinci’s concept of a flying machine.  And Steve Jobs found a way to make a personal computer in every home the modern equivalent of a chicken in every pot.

Ideas like flying machines and computing machines – and the concepts they stimulate – help us find answers that we might call the truth.  Will today’s new ideas lead to cures for MS, autism, and cancer; to new, alternative energy sources; to a day when no one in the world goes hungry?   I expect so.  Will today’s ideas help us find “the truth?”  Probably not.  In some cases, the truth will be highly subjective.  And in most cases, truth seeking will be difficult and disquieting.  But truth seeking – in the sciences, humanities, and arts alike – will always be one of humankind’s highest callings.

For members of a university community, truth seeking takes many forms. It can mean deconstructing text, discerning the molecular basis of disease, redefining the way cities are designed, training the voice to achieve joyful sounds, or challenging the mind’s eye to design new art.  It can also mean building character and teamwork and advancing the student-athlete model.  Faculty and students seek truth that is grounded in data and distinguished by exhaustive, thoughtful analysis.  In the end, it usually connects with other ideas as well as the broader community of scholars.  The search for truth occurs in laboratories, libraries, studios, and stages.  And with a little luck, the search can be accelerated and advanced by the intellectual leaps to which I’ve been referring.

But this is not a time to rely on luck.  It’s time for America to confront the challenge of producing the scientists, engineers and technology-literate graduates on which much of our nation’s future will hinge.  We need more high-school teachers and more college professors, not to mention stronger Ph.D. programs.  I’m proud to note that Kent State already plays a vital role in preparing teachers for 21st-century classrooms.  Our Research Center for Educational Technology is a shining example.  Its state-of-the-art AT&T Classroom allows K-12 teachers and students to explore a topic using tools from digital cameras to digital microscopes.  The center is respected nationally for its leading research, as evidenced by a recent $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.  Efforts like this – which serve societal needs and strengthen our capacity to produce world-class scholarship – will have my strongest possible support.

I like to think of classrooms – and universities as a whole – as “organic” entities that live and breathe ideas; that keep us thinking about the larger issues and the big picture.  I’m enormously proud that Kent State faculty, students, and staff are working on many of the most pressing issues of our time – from pollution to poverty; from mental illness to illiteracy; from developing new sources of energy to developing peaceful solutions to violent conflicts.  They’re part of a community of scholars who not only want to change the world, but want to ensure that the next generation carries the torch of knowledge even farther.

For that to happen, our students must see how science and business operate and connect, how texts should be read, how the fine and performing arts elevate and enrich the world, and how civil discourse is conducted.  In short, our students must see the interconnectedness of the disciplines to which we expose them.  For students and faculty alike, that means work in the classroom and lab must be interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary.  Transdisciplinary thought cuts across disciplines into business, government, and the arts.  The idea is to spark and define new ways of thinking.  Kent State is home to a number of outstanding transdisciplinary programs, including those in financial engineering, information architecture and knowledge management, and biomedical sciences.  Expanding such barrier-breaking and bridge-building efforts also has a prominent place on my list of priorities.

We must help our students become the open-minded, flexible thinking, culturally sensitive citizens that our society needs – citizens who can exercise their political and social freedom responsibly, and who can articulate their views effectively.  As I mentioned, our students must be able to succeed in a global society, one in which their co-workers and competitors will be graduates not only of local universities, but also of the Sorbonne, Oxford, and Tokyo University.  We would therefore be remiss if we did not put academic excellence – and a myriad of ideas and people – at their fingertips.

One of Kent State’s strengths – something that distinguishes us from many of our public-university peers and something I intend to enhance – is our wide array of international connections.  They do much more than offer students and faculty unique experiences and opportunities.  They allow Kent State to share knowledge and change lives on a global level.  For example, we’re part of a UNESCO-sponsored project to help Turkey and other nations manage their increasingly limited water supply.  This far-reaching effort takes advantage of faculty expertise in our College and Graduate School of Education, Health and Human Services, and our Water Resources Research Institute.  Our students can also broaden their perspectives in 28 exchange programs in 18 countries.  One of them takes students to the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland.  It’s an honor to have a representative of the university, Mr. Tony Emmerson, here today.

These examples are part of Kent State’s strong academic foundation – a foundation that stands ready to support a new era of excellence.  Let me share some recent news that validates my belief that our future will be even brighter.  In the area of scholarship:

  • Earlier this month, two Kent State faculty members were awarded Fulbright scholarships to teach and conduct research abroad.  Exercise science specialist Dr. Michael Kalinski will work at Asia’s largest sports center.  And geologist Dr. Daniel Holm will travel to Poland to study how deeply buried rocks are brought back to the Earth’s surface.
  • Kent State physicist Dr. Mikhail Kopytine was ranked the world’s second most cited scientist by the periodical Science Watch.
  • Kent State’s Library and Information Science faculty was ranked 20th nationwide for scholarly productivity.  
  • Our counselor education program was ranked number one in the nation by the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index.

We will continue to encourage and support such top-flight scholarship.

Let me cite a few recent achievements that highlight our students:

  • The pass rate for Kent State graduates on the professional licensing exam for architects was in the top 15 nationwide – on par with graduates of Harvard and MIT.
  • Our doctoral program in audiology, a partnership with the University of Akron and The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, earned the prestigious Award for Education Excellence from the Audiology Foundation of America.
  • Once again this year, students from our School of Journalism and Mass Communication returned from the regional competition held by the Society of Professional Journalists with a multitude of awards.
  • And after 35 years in higher education, I know how rare it is to be part of a university community where academic and athletic success are seen as complementary goals.  Our Golden Flash athletic program is respected nationally for its integrity and its commitment to academic success.

In the area of community:

  • Our Stark Campus received a Best Practice Implementation Grant from the Ohio College Access Network Fund.  The grant will expand a partnership with a local high school that leads to the admission of the entire senior class.
  • Kent State was one of just 76 universities nationwide recognized as a model of collaboration, outreach and public service by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
  • And we continue to benefit from the involvement of alumni who care deeply about Kent State and future generations of Kent State students.  Last year we received a transformative gift from Roe Green.  And in the last month, we have received remarkably generous gifts from distinguished alumni John Brinzo and Ron Pizzuti, and from one of the university’s long-time supporters, Olga Mural –affectionately dubbed a Kent State angel.  Their significant generosity will have a profoundly positive impact on Kent State’s capacity to excel in fields from nursing to business to theatre.

I believe that the next chapters in Kent State’s history can, should, and will tell the story of a community that makes excellence its hallmark.  Shakespeare was right when he wrote, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”  I think we create our optimum future – one filled with greater academic achievement and meaningful service – by focusing on six defining characteristics of all great public universities.  I suggest that they are the fundamental principles that should drive everything we do at Kent State University.  Although these characteristics already describe Kent State, we’re ready to bring them to life with even greater clarity, consistency, and commitment.

First and foremost, Kent State will be characterized by academic excellence.  I see a Kent State that stands as a beacon of excellence in every form of scholarship:  research, teaching, creativity, and outreach.  Excellence must identify who we are and this means focusing and building cathedrals of excellence – towers of intellectual strength where our faculty, students, and staff shine intensely.

Second, our community will be characterized by the joy of learning.  As we look to our centennial and beyond, I see a Kent State defined by an academic atmosphere that infuses every classroom, laboratory, studio, and stage with the joy of learning; inspired and inspiring teaching; the spirit of innovation; and the view that every project merits exploration, explication, and execution that are unbiased, nuanced, and meticulous.  I envision a university where all faculty engage with students in collaborative research; honest answers are sought every day; all students feel part of a community of scholars; where academic freedom is respected and valued; and where a diversity of opinions, ethnicities, and ideas is celebrated.

Third, Kent State will be characterized by our commitment to the success of all students.  I envision a Kent State that is synonymous with student success.  Everything we do as a faculty and staff should shepherd students to the timely completion of their degrees – degrees that graduate schools and employers nationwide associate with excellence, integrity, and the ability to think critically and creatively.  Kent State will be a magnet for high-achieving students.  It will be our graduates who help lead the revitalization so necessary in Ohio; it will be our faculty and students who think not just in interdisciplinary ways, but in transdisciplinary ways.

Fourth, Kent State’s defining features will also include accessibility and affordability.  I see a Kent State that’s a leader in keeping high-quality education accessible.  We’ll continue to welcome a broad constituency of learners – students who come to us from high school, graduate school, and from the school of life; students from across Ohio, across the nation, and around the globe; students who make our campuses diverse in every sense of the word.  Our students – nearly 50 percent of whom are the first in their families to go to college ­– must be able to work effectively with citizens of the world;  achieve peak performance in groups and individually; and tackle challenges that take them to all corners of the globe and all corners of cyberspace.  Today’s students must broaden their horizons and enlarge their intellectual bandwidth to cope with a world that changes with lightning speed.

Fifth, as I’ve already indicated, path-breaking ideas will continue to be central to our institutional identity.  I see a Kent State that builds on this proud history to become a national center of discovery and innovation; a renowned center of the arts and architecture; and a national resource for nursing and teacher education.  As W. E. B DuBois wrote in 1903, “The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.”  We must be an incubator of ideas, of souls, and of business; of great thoughts and great actions – it’s our responsibility to get it done, not just to think, but also to execute.  Superb public universities like Kent State help transform their states’ economies; produce some of America’s best-educated citizens; and become national beacons for ideas and economic energy. 

Last, Kent State will continue to be a productive and proactive partner in the public good.  We’ll continue to value this facet of our mission as we seek new ways to translate scholarship into solutions.   From my first day as president, I‘ve been deeply impressed – and deeply moved – by the many ways Kent State improves the lives of individuals, families, and communities.  I’ve talked to residents of Cleveland’s inner-city who started successful businesses because of a Kent State program.  I’ve observed nursing students caring for critically ill patients.  And I’ve met faculty, staff, students, and alumni who joined forces to rebuild a hurricane-ravaged community.  In the years to come, we’ll expand our proactive efforts to engage in mutually beneficial partnerships with other universities the world over; and with schools, hospitals, civic groups, social service agencies, arts organizations, government, and business and industry.  I’m proud of our strong and growing relationships with Summa Health System and the Cleveland Clinic. Taking the approach used in our classrooms, I see a burgeoning of partnerships that cut across disciplines with the goal of generating novel ideas and solutions.

As a social scientist, I believe in measuring progress and success.  How will we know if Kent State has made progress, if our shared aspirations are fulfilled?  We shall determine progress by asking: Is our student applicant pool growing? Are the credentials of applicants stronger?  Is our graduation rate increasing?  Are more of our professors being sought for national editorial positions?  Is our recruitment of faculty and staff members easier?  Are we attracting more significant private gifts?  Is our reputation growing as evidenced by national rankings?  Is our research being recognized with increased grant dollars from national agencies?

Each of us must do everything possible to feed the positive momentum we already have.  I’m fully confident that we will.  But my optimism is tempered by a firm grip on reality.  I know that the dream of a new era of excellence will not be realized overnight, and will be an ongoing process.  Even with our best efforts, the quest for institution-wide excellence will not be easy – especially as the competition for resources intensifies and the needs of our students and community change and grow.  But it’s a goal so important that I share Humphrey Bogart’s attitude when he said in the “The Maltese Falcon,” “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.”

The truth is, the beginning is often the most important step.  So how do we begin?  In the words of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle:  “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”   So, I ask every member of our university community to join me in the whole-hearted and relentless pursuit of excellence.  And, of course, I urge you to keep your intellectual antennae up for those sparks of insight.

Our shared commitment to excellence will turn our sparks of insight into flames that light the way to a better future for those we serve – flames that are visible far beyond Northeast Ohio.  In the process, we will continue to embrace the fundamental values of public higher education.  We will retain and enhance our identity as a student-centered research institution – one that provides students with opportunities to explore the boundaries of knowledge alongside faculty pioneers, and to apply what they learn in real-world experiences from internships to service projects.  And we will never forget that our most important duty is to introduce students to the life of the mind – a life of ideas – and then to cultivate that life every day they are with us.

I call this our most important duty because Ohio, our nation, and the world are in dire need of ideas – ideas to solve problems, to help people and to make progress.  But also because in the middle of the night, during moments of meditation, reflection, or prayer – when our spirits soar and we feel the value of our lives, our families, or our work – that sense of presence, that glimpse of perspective, that relationship with what is bigger than we are comes about because of our appreciation of ideas.  When we face trauma, illness, or family difficulty, that relationship with what is bigger than we are comes about because of our appreciation of ideas.  When music moves us, when thoughts leap from the page, from the stage, or from a sculpture garden, that relationship with what is bigger than we are also comes about because of our appreciation of ideas.

And so my friends and colleagues, I believe that if we are vigilant in safeguarding our core values; if we are unwavering in our commitment to cultivating, celebrating, and capitalizing on ideas; and, if we agree that at this university, academic excellence will never be an area of compromise, nothing can keep us from building extraordinary lives and an even more extraordinary institution.

Kent State already is a nationally recognized university in many disciplines and domains because of our talented faculty, innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and our leadership in applying research to real-world problems. I stand here today because I believe so strongly that it’s within our grasp to become even more – a world-class university. I feel an urgency to achieve our aspiration and I feel it among my colleagues on the faculty, in the administration, and on our guiding boards.  With our resolve to work together – and to put excellence into action every day – I know that we can invent a future that is significant and celebrated.

There are many ways you can help – let your state and national representatives know that their support for higher education is important to you; lend your talents to one of the many efforts to reinvigorate Northeast Ohio; be a mentor to students and help them secure internships and interviews; spread the word about this remarkable institution that we all care so much about; and please think about helping me and my colleagues as we strive to make Kent State the best university it can be.

Yes, there is work to be done, many opportunities to be realized, and more than a few tests to be passed – tests of our ability to pursue a vision that is focused and firm, yet flexible enough to adapt to whatever the future brings.  Today – as I look out at a sea of blue-and-gold believers – I see a future that makes me Kent State’s believer-in-chief.  In fact, I’m confident that we are well on our way to becoming one of America’s best universities; a bastion of student success and self-realization; and an intellectual force that is helping to usher in a renaissance of success for Ohio.

Together my friends,

let us explore,

let us dream,

and let us discover.

Thank you.