James Lentini comes ‘home’ to Michigan


Oakland University’s new Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs has an interesting past. Google the name James Lentini and you’ll see links describing an accomplished composer and guitarist, one who has performed for audiences around the world.



Lentini grew up on the east side of Detroit in a music-loving Italian family. He “goofed around” on his family’s piano and sang in his Catholic school’s choir, which led up to guitar lessons at age 8. 

“I was pretty smitten with the guitar, as so much of my generation was, through The Beatles and other rock bands,” he said.  

His passion for guitar continued throughout his youth and led him to study music at Wayne State University. He triple majored in classical guitar, music theory and music composition. “I took just about every course in that music catalogue,” he said. “I loved it all.” 

Lentini continued on to earn his Masters degree in Music Composition at Michigan State University in 1984.  

“I always had this certain need to be able to express what I heard in my head,” he said. “To me, composition was a great way to do that.” 

At the time, Lentini said he wasn’t sure that he wanted to be a professor but loved composing and going to school. So he headed west to pursue a doctoral degree.

He first enrolled at the University of California-Los Angeles before transferring to the University of Southern California after he was offered a full scholarship. He graduated in 1988 with a doctorate of musical arts in music composition and a cognate in guitar performance. 

Lentini then returned to Michigan to teach at his alma mater, Wayne State University. In the 15 years he taught there he developed a music technology degree and rose through the ranks as a professor, associate chair and acting chair of the music department. 

But he started to wonder about the possibilities outside of WSU and took a position as the founding dean at the School of Art, Media, and Music at the College of New Jersey in 2003. 

He stayed there until 2007, when he moved to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio to become the dean of the School of Creative Arts. 

Miami’s location afforded him the chance to be closer to his family in Michigan, and the housing market allowed Lentini to build a home for his wife and three children.   

One of his most proud moments at Miami was when he brought 417 students to Carnegie Hall to perform. They packed the prestigious concert venue and performed Lentini’s own arrangement of Miami’s Alma Mater. “It warms my heart,” he said. “The students are going to remember it for the rest of their lives.” 

Lentini thought he was settled, but in summer 2012 former Oakland Provost Virinder Moudgil announced that he was leaving to become the president of Lawrence Technological University in Southfield and a public search for a new provost began.

That’s when a search firm contacted Lentini, who wasn’t even aware of the vacancy.  “When I added it all up, it seemed like a good possibility.”  


Lentini vision 

Lentini officially started his new post on July 8 and is already looking at ways he can expand Oakland’s visibility around the country. “We can do that through the great work of our professors and students and try to figure out ways that people know about us beyond Oakland county and southeast Michigan,” he said. 

He is also looking for academic areas where Oakland can shine as a leader. “In some ways it’s very hard to compete with certain universities,” he said. “You want to find your strengths.”

His goals include increasing the student retention rate and the percentage of students that graduate in a “timely manner.” “We can make some improvements there,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge because so many students commute, maybe transfer.” 

Day to day, Lentini is getting used to his role as the main academic leader on campus. He readily communicates with the deans of all schools and must set goals for professors “in terms of research and creative accomplishments.” 

He also is concerned with what students are getting out of their education. “What are we doing for students in the classroom and what happens when they leave Oakland?” he asked. 



It is hard to overlook the fact that Lentini is entering Oakland amidst a time of change, including the retirement of President Dr. Russi, 

the firing of women’s basketball coach Beckie Francis and the resignation of other top university officials. 

“I would’ve been new no matter what so to me it’s not so much a jolt in terms of what is or isn’t going to happen with the goal setting,” he said. 

Lentini assures students that everything will be okay. “Oakland’s going to be fine and Oakland will continue to do great things,” he said. He is confident that he can make the best of the situation, citing interim President Betty Youngblood, who said that there is no crisis. 

“I think that all changes present opportunities and you have to look at it that way and I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative that change has happened,” he said. 


Bringing it together

While Lentini settles into his new position, his music may have to be put on the backburner.

“It’s possible that I will be … not able to get to the music like I’d want but… I will continue my work to some degree,” he said. 

That doesn’t mean he won’t take what’s he’s learned from music and apply it everyday. 

“It’s how you communicate, it’s how you express, it’s how you interact, and you learn a lot of those things in music and in the arts,” he said “You still need those skills when you’re dealing with science and the humanities and everything else.”