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Down from the Mountain

In the summer of 2013, inside the former Bethlehem Steel research complex atop South Mountain, Lehigh launched a unique experiment in higher education. It was called Mountaintop.

Four summers of intellectual exploration have since passed, and with a fifth under way, Khanjan Mehta doesn’t hesitate for a moment to call Mountaintop a success—so much of a success, in fact, that he believes the time has come to take the lessons learned there and embed them into the fabric of the entire Lehigh experience.

Formerly the founding director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program at Penn State University, Mehta arrived as Lehigh’s first vice provost for creative inquiry in January. Over the past few months, he’s been working to develop an innovative new array of programs that will build on the success of Mountaintop, with the ultimate goal of allowing more students than ever before to take part in experiences that will challenge them intellectually, while pushing them to solve real problems and make the world a better place.

Mehta recently spoke with the Bulletin about his early impressions of Lehigh, his views on the university’s unique strengths, and most importantly, how he intends to expand Mountaintop far beyond the Mountaintop campus.

What attracted you to Lehigh, and to this new position?

I was captivated by the platform here, and my first meetings with senior administration and board members showed me that they had a real commitment to their thinking and planning. With the idea of creative inquiry already in place at Mountaintop, I felt we had an existing platform on which to build something that could have a larger impact. I’ve always been driven by the idea of ‘impact,’ and I think we can leverage our students and faculty and our academic infrastructure to have a real influence on the world.

You’ve been here six months. What stands out to you so far about Lehigh?

I love our students. They have so much potential and so much passion, and seeing that, I feel more compelled than ever to craft something that will be truly unique and impactful. I also like the varied interests among the faculty and their deep commitment to undergraduate education. There’s remarkable faculty interest in what we’re trying to do, and that is pivotal to our long-term success. On a very different note, I think our campus is exceptionally beautiful. Every time I walk past Leadership Plaza and look around at the trees and up at the spire of the Alumni Memorial building, I am filled with this deep sense of place, privilege and history.

How do you build on the academic strengths Lehigh already has, and what is your vision for how those strengths can be leveraged to create maximum value for our students?

I believe that a university is where you find your place in the universe. Learning doesn’t only happen in a classroom. We want students to step out of the classrooms and their comfort zones. We want them to blur the boundaries between academic and non-academic activities—to find themselves, to learn, to grow personally and professionally.

The World Economic Forum recently identified the top 10 skills that will be needed in the 2020 workforce. They include complex problem-solving, cognitive flexibility, critical thinking and emotional intelligence, among others. These skills are for everyone. We need engineers, doctors, lawyers, social scientists, humanists, artists, business people, educators, basically everyone to have these skills. Think about negotiating. Negotiating encompasses a set of skills but also a mindset—a way of thinking, empathizing, working, being, engaging, making meaning, playing by strengths and getting things done. Humans rarely solve complex problems alone. We need to prepare students to work in teams—teams across concepts, disciplines, and epistemologies; across cultures and countries; across linguistic, political, geographical and temporal boundaries. And we want these teams to work on very real projects—new ideas, new questions, new opportunities, new intellectual paths that might (or might not) lead us to better understandings and better solutions. What we’re trying to do, broadly speaking, is pivot from a GPA-focused mindset to a skillset-focused mindset.

Is Mountaintop focused more on students or faculty?

Mountaintop is about the journey from creative inquiry to sustainable impact. It is about standing on the shoulders of giants and envisioning what could be. It’s about big ideas and big impacts. Mountaintop is for everyone that dares to dream and envision a new reality. And yet, what has been happening at Mountaintop, and particularly Building C, in the summer is just one snapshot of what creative inquiry and value creation looks like and how it might work at Lehigh. The ethos of Mountaintop is much more important to me than the physical space in Building C. We want to take this ethos of Mountaintop, or what I have been calling Mountain Dust, and sprinkle it across campus.

How do you go about accomplishing all of these ambitions?

It’s all about finding like-minded partners, people who can champion your vision and help others drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak. We already know that we have the support of senior leadership and the board of trustees, whose vision it was in the first place to create the Mountaintop program and elevate creative inquiry as a foundational principle of the Lehigh experience. If you look at Mountaintop, that’s something that everybody wants to see happening year-round, and we are going to do that. But to make that happen, we need to really get into the weeds and figure out a strong academic model that will work for all colleges. We are striving to find the right frameworks and champions to achieve that.

You have many different ideas and lots of exciting plans in place for Lehigh. But if someone were to ask what your singular goal is, what would you say?

An overarching goal, I would say, is to optimize the Lehigh experience, from the time students decide to come to Lehigh to the time they graduate. We want to get students started on all kinds of exciting projects early. We don’t want them waiting until they are juniors or seniors before they start doing a Mountaintop project. We really want to integrate the ethos of creative inquiry into our culture, so that even before they arrive for orientation the summer before their first year, or before they begin a graduate program, they know that Lehigh is a place where creative inquiry is not only possible but encouraged, and where they can try, fail, and try again.

We’re trying to create a hundred other snapshots of programs that can advance the idea of creative inquiry at Lehigh, too. We are supporting larger dreams and aspirations, and by extension, want to support teams that are committed to those types of projects, with one team passing the baton on to the next team until they reach the end zone or they have a spectacular failure. What’s important is that every step of the way they share the new knowledge they have created and lessons they have learned so as to inspire and inform other innovators. That’s how the world’s problems are solved, and we want Lehigh to be the place where small inquiries lead to big impacts.

For more information, go to lehigh.edu/mountaintop

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