Installation Address During Founder's Day Ceremony

Friday, October 02, 2015

Thank you, Chairman Scheler.

Faculty, students, staff, trustees, alumni, friends of the University, both here in Packer Memorial Church and in Grace Hall, thank you for joining us this afternoon. I very much appreciate your participation in this event, and I am honored by your presence.

Most of all, I want to thank my family for being here, and for their love and support: my wife, Diane, my sons Evan and Alec, my father and stepmother – who made this trip from New Hampshire, and my sister, Jane, and brother-in-law, Joe, – who drove from Cincinnati. You are my rock and help me keep balance when life gets crazy. 

On behalf of my family, I want to thank the entire Lehigh community for the incredibly warm welcome we have received. You have made our transition a wonderful experience. We have been touched by the kindness you have shown us. I have found there are two categories of Lehigh people – passionate and fiercely passionate.

The warm welcome we have received extends to the community around our campus. I have met many terrific people in my short time here and look forward to meeting many more. It’s great to see our elected officials and representatives of their offices here this afternoon, including my local partner Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez.

I see some of my fellow university presidents from around the region – thank you for joining us and I look forward to furthering the relationships between our institutions. I thank my friends who have travelled from afar – from UCSD, UVA, and Duke; I would not be here today without your support and the wisdom and guidance you provided me at different stages of my career. I want to thank Mostafa El-Sayed, my friend and scientific mentor for over 30 years, for being here today. And I want to thank my friend Bob Sweeney for introducing me. Bob, you taught me much during our four years together at the University of Virginia.

I stand here today profoundly honored and deeply humbled by the confidence that our Board of Trustees has placed in me. I am thankful for the opportunity to serve an institution with a rich history and bright future – an institution that is important to our nation and to our world.

Today is Founder’s Day, and as I started thinking about this speech, I thought I would end up feeling constrained by all the traditions around this day. As I learned more about how Lehigh celebrates Asa Packer and the founding of this great institution, I saw that the underlying theme is one of leadership, and what better topic for an installation speech given the complex challenges and opportunities
facing Lehigh and higher education today.

I live in the President’s House, just a few buildings away from where you now sit. Every day I pass by the statue of Asa Packer and travel through time as I walk through Leadership Plaza. I often stop and gaze upon the names and years etched in those stone benches; many of those I first saw as names in stone I have now met, and some of them are here with us today. The excellence Lehigh embodies today derives directly from the founding vision of Asa Packer, is driven by the constant pursuit of excellence by our faculty, and is fueled by the leadership and generosity of fiercely loyal alumni who have supported the institution for nearly 150 years.

This ceremony, this installation, is not about me, or my predecessors. It is about our institution and the commitment we make to the Lehigh students, past, present, and future; to provide you with excellence in education, to engage you in the advancement of knowledge, to develop in you the capacity and skills necessary to grow as people who will do creative and constructive work in the world.

In the history of any institution, there are certain key moments in time that present themselves, moments when the institution collectively arrives at a crossroads. I think of these moments as “pivot points,” because how the institution reacts to them, the decisions made and the courses charted, have reverberations (positive or negative) for years to come.

Nations experience pivot points as well, and the United States certainly faced one at the end of the Civil War. With much of the country in ruins, over a million soldiers killed or wounded, the national psyche fractured, it was a time that cried out for leadership and vision. One person who heeded the call was Asa Packer. Packer saw an urgent need for educated people who would rebuild the country, and he laid out his vision for how to fill that need. In 1865, he donated 57 acres of land on South Mountain and $500,000 – the largest gift to any educational facility at the time – to establish Lehigh University.

In so doing, Packer changed the notion of what a university could look like, of what higher education could be like. At Lehigh, you did not choose between studying the classics and studying technology. Lehigh fused them together, to provide an education that was purposeful in its intent and wide-ranging in its application.

In a perspective on Asa Packer written by Ross Yates, we learn that our founder was responsible for the abolition of tuition in 1871, which made Lehigh accessible to all who were qualified; and he subsequently paid the bills that tuition would have covered.

Asa Packer made the decision to build a library against the advice of others, who argued that it was not yet needed – but Asa was confident it would be needed, and it was and is. And the year before he died, he met a group of young alumni who asked that Lehigh be transformed into a strictly technical institution. Packer quietly observed that the university seemed to be getting along fine as it was, securing its path to becoming the intellectually rich university that it is today. Asa knew Lehigh had to make choices even when not everyone agreed.

Several generations later, following World War II, there was an entire world to be rebuilt. But at Lehigh, the focus was inward. Tension filled the air, a tension that arose from two opposing views of the university’s future. One group believed we should remain primarily an undergraduate school. The other felt that our strong undergraduate foundation, especially in engineering, could only be maintained by making a major push into doctoral programs and research. The proponents of enhancing research and graduate education voiced that Lehigh had lost ground because of the failure of its leadership to take advantage of post-wartime research opportunities.

At that pivot point in the university’s history, President Martin Dewey Whitaker made a bold decision. He asked the trustees for permission to use nearly half of the university’s reserve fund of $600,000 to purchase research equipment; the trustees agreed. In tandem with a newly revitalized Institute of Research (led by future Lehigh President Harvey Neville), the die was cast: Lehigh had made the decision to become a research university of international distinction. Not everyone agreed with this choice – choosing was pivotal. During Whitaker’s tenure, Lehigh’s assets nearly tripled, the endowment more than doubled; many buildings were renovated, and Dravo House and McClintic-Marshall residence halls were built. The number of professors increased by 75 percent, and the first distinguished professorships were established. Later, in subsequent administrations, would come a similar realization that Lehigh had opportunities to excel in the humanities, social sciences, arts, education, and business – and that these opportunities needed to be seized, or the possibility would be lost.
Now, in our sesquicentennial year, I would argue that we stand at another critical juncture in the life of this great university. We don’t have a post-war landscape as a backdrop; the choices before us are not as starkly black and white as those faced by Packer and Whitaker. Today’s pivot point results from the confluence of economics, technology, demographics, global hot spots, and changing societal expectations that demand we prepare a new generation with the skills and experiences they will need to navigate an ever-changing world at an affordable cost.

So how do we begin our next 150 years? Above all else, we must accept that there is a sense of urgency to the work that lies before us. We may need to be more inventive than ever before. Our founder would expect no less of us. He would believe, as I do, that now is the time for Lehigh women and men to go forth from this place, armed with the best and most progressive education in all areas of study that Lehigh offers. Simply put, we must commit to excellence and situate Lehigh to excel as a research university that prepares students for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

Lehigh’s basic educational mission has remained unchanged for 150 years. John Karakash, longtime dean of our engineering college, described our institutional mission as the following: “Our goal is to produce good people – young men and women who learn to think to the point where thinking is a habit; who have been exposed to, and encouraged to develop and live by, a set of values; who have developed methods and approaches to the intelligent application of knowledge; and, last but not least, who accept the virtue of work as a vehicle of service and the will to work as a self-discipline.” If there has been a more eloquent case made for what higher education is all about, I have not heard it. We have been true to this mission for 150 years and it will serve us well going into our next 150 years.

It is how we go about achieving that goal that has, by necessity, evolved over time. The students of today yearns for educational experiences that will prepare them for the increasingly global and complex world they will have to navigate. If our students are going to be the leaders they aspire to be, the leaders we expect and need them to be, they must be able to think in an integrative, cross-disciplinary way. More than ever, it is imperative that we provide a purposeful education, building on Lehigh’s distinctive ability to connect theory and practice.

Think about how the typical college and career arc has changed: In Asa Packer’s time, only a small, select group of people earned degrees. Four years was sufficient to gain the knowledge necessary to become a leader in your chosen field. And you often spent your entire career with the same company, or at least in the same industry.

By the mid-1940s, students’ expectations of college had changed. The returning soldiers were older and somewhat disillusioned (natural after two world wars) – but focused. Students understood that the world was quickly shifting from a focus on people who knew things to those who could do things: discover, design, build, produce. While a four-year degree was still sufficient for many fields, growth in professional degrees linked success with additional schooling. The Ph.D. began to emerge as the surest path to the best jobs in technical disciplines in industry and academia.

Now, in 2015, new jobs are continually being created that demand new skills. The careers of our current students are likely to encompass multiple jobs probably in several unrelated fields. In order to lead and innovate, they must be able to think in collaborative, cross-disciplinary ways. Skills and knowledge must be transferable from one field to a completely different field – another dimension of being able to think integratively. Four years is becoming increasingly insufficient to excel at the top levels in many fields; master’s degrees are growing in importance, yet there is mounting societal pressure for 3+1 programs – where students can graduate with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in the traditional 4-year period. Continuing education is a given, and we are seeing the rise of certificate and focused master’s programs that credential one for work in specific fields. With the growth of online programs, all of this can happen both within and outside the academy. We must consider this evolving landscape, these new ways of thinking about education as we commit ourselves to further excel as a residential research university.

Asa Packer recognized that our students – and the nation – not only needed superior applied skills, they needed the creativity, civic learning, communication skills, and critical thinking provided by the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Today all Lehigh students – whether undergraduate or graduate students, whether engineers or English majors – need the same things: an education that prepares them for success in professional and civic life, an education that prepares them for a changing world, and an education that teaches them to live a rich, full life. Never before has what Lehigh offers – what Asa Packer created and defended in realizing his vision of a university that blends outstanding technical and applied learning with the liberal arts – been more needed in our world.

Aristotle said, “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” Excellence in education entails those very principles – high intention, sincere effort, wise choices, and intelligent execution.

To seize the opportunity that the current pivot point presents, we must join together as a community and leverage Lehigh’s distinctive character to enrich our work – teaching, scholarship, research, service – in the context of our time. We need to be bold, take risks, push and define frontiers of knowledge, create and embrace new forms of pedagogy for engaging our students in learning and research. We must modernize our infrastructure and research facilities so they do not hold back the creativity and innovation of our faculty and students. We need to reinvigorate our fields of study by integrating experiential and technology-enabled methods into the student experience.

The challenges of our world, our time, are complex – food, water, and natural resource scarcities; religious, ethnic, and political conflicts; disease and poverty; energy availability and its impact on our Earth environment – and addressing them – even properly understanding them – requires integration of a broad range of perspectives and disciplines. Lehigh is well positioned as an institution to contribute – both by the people we produce and by the scholarship and research that we do.

And now, with full confidence in our mission and our means of accomplishing it, and following in the footsteps of their predecessors at other pivot points in the life of this University, I am very pleased to announce that our Trustees have committed $250M of institutional resources to help propel Lehigh to new heights. This investment in our future is driven by four goals.

  • First, to assure that our financial and merit aid packages attract the best students to Lehigh regardless of their financial situation;
  • Second, to re-imagine our University Center, and upgrade our physical plant, especially our laboratory and technical infrastructure;
  • Third, we are known for our hands-on and team-based approaches to teaching and learning, but now is the time to deepen our commitment to these hallmarks of a Lehigh education – an education that stresses innovation, integration, and entrepreneurship at all levels; and
  • Fourth, to globalize our campus, to assure that our graduates are educated about the world, and that they acquire the knowledge, skills, and experiences needed to be leaders in tackling the complex issues of their generation.

We intend this institutional commitment to leverage the private commitments we will seek over the upcoming campaign; together, our internal investment in ourselves and the external resources raised will assure that we begin our next 150 years with the strength to recruit and retain the people we need to take Lehigh ever higher.

I stand before you today thoroughly convinced of the power of higher education to shape how the future will look. And while we face uncertainties in our world today, Lehigh’s purposeful approach to education will create leaders with the capacity to take on the challenges and seize the opportunities of our times. Let us all come together, as the heirs to Asa Packer, and embrace our responsibilities to this next generation (and the next…), and prepare them to lead their world. It is great work and I cannot think of anything more rewarding.

It has been said that we do not remember days, we remember moments. Let us all remember this moment as one filled with possibility. A Lehigh moment.