From farmland to Portland

Starting out in rural Ohio as the son of a power company linemanand church secretary, Jay Kenton didn’t seem poised to become aPortland powerbroker responsible for the revitalization of a majorstate university, but during his tenure at Portland StateUniversity that’s exactly what he has become.

Growing with the university for sixteen years, from director ofbusiness affairs to vice-president of finance and administration,the 54-year-old Kenton is now headed to Idaho to take over afailing university in Moscow, and is openly melancholy about themove.

“I’m melancholy about it, but I’m looking forward to the newchallenges, and I feel like I’m leaving PSU stronger than when Ifound it in 1988,” Kenton said.

“I’ve been looking for a lifestyle change. I was born and raisedin the country and it was always someplace that I wanted to returnto.”

So when the troubled University of Idaho began courting Kentonfor the top financial job at the school, he was more thaninterested. But his love of PSU required him to make sure theschool was a perfect fit.

When Kenton moves to Moscow this summer to take up the job offinancial vice-president at the University of Idaho, he’ll surelyfind the rural splendor that he is seeking. He talks wistfullyabout the groves of Ponderosa pines just east of the city, where heis looking to settle down with his wife.

But the town of Moscow isn’t all quiet serenity. The universityhas been rocked for the past year by financial improprieties andbudgetary woes. Two university presidents, and two temporarypresidents between them have passed through the halls of the 1400acre rural campus. The university is sitting on a pile of debt andhas been forced to cut popular programs to make ends meet.

Some might say that Kenton is crazy to move out of the thrivinguniversity district that he’s often credited with, but Kentonshrugs off such concerns and likens the University of Idaho todayto PSU 16 years ago. He is just as optimistic for its future.

“When I came [to PSU], my colleagues said ‘Are you crazy?’ And Isaid, ‘Hey I can be part of its rebuilding.'”

“I’m looking forward to new challenges and new sets of people,I’ve been successful here because I grew up with this university,”Kenton said.

He acknowledges that he’ll be a duck out of water at his newhome and hopes to rely on community members and the university’salumni organizations for help in forging a new direction.

“I’m going to have a steep learning curve, there’s no question,and there are going to be some real dilemmas,” he said, “But I’mnot afraid of those things. I don’t shy away from them.”

In fact, Kenton describes his need for challenge as a nearmasochistic urge, always needing to be over his head, alwaysneeding to be grasping for something new.

“You could say I’m going from the frying pan into the fire,” hesaid, ” but I kind of thrive on those kinds of challenges in a sicksort of way.”

At PSU, that urge expressed itself in Kenton’s piling togetherbundles of money from different sources to find funding forbuilding projects when there was no available state support.

Onlookers have called him a visionary and inspiring, but Kentonshrugs off such idolatry.

“I don’t walk on water, I’m not a messiah,” Kenton said,explaining that he’ll need a great deal of support from the newteam at the University of Idaho, including former OSU provost TimWhite, whom Kenton has a good relationship with.

PSU faculty and administration have high praise for Kenton, andthat praise works its way to the students as well, who Kenton saidare vital to his position.

Christy Harper, PSU student body president, said she’s sad tosee Kenton go.

“Whether you saw him in the Park Blocks talking to students, orat an OUS board meeting, he was the same,” Harper said, “honest andstraightforward.”

That trust is the key to Kenton, “We need to rebuild thepublic’s trust in [University of Idaho], and it’s going to requireprudence and hard work, but I wouldn’t go there if I didn’t think Icould do that.”

“Do I think I’m going to do there what I’m able to do here?Absolutely not,” Kenton said, “Does that bother me? Maybe, but Ithink I’ll be able to find other challenges.”

“I’m not a one-dimensional guy, I’ve got a lot of arrows in myquiver.”


Corrections 5-19-2004
In the May 18 article “From farmland to Portland,” Jay Kenton’s agewas reported incorrectly. He is 46. We regret the error.