7.21.20: Lehigh's Role in Cultivating Connections

A message from Provost Urban to faculty and instructional staff. 

Dear Colleagues,

As we move into the fifth month of the pandemic and approach the Fall, I know that all of you are working hard to meet the challenge of providing a distinctive Lehigh education for our students. I want to say how much I, as a new person here at Lehigh, appreciate that effort and the effort to come as we move into the Fall semester. 

One phrase that has stuck with me from one of my Zoom meetings or phone calls over the last few weeks is that “the short-term is part of the long-term.” This phrase reminded me that while we are very much focused on decisions that are important for this week, this month or this semester, these decisions will also create the path to the next five and ten years of the University. So while some actions or decisions are driven by short-term considerations, we need to act in ways that also align with our long-term plans whenever possible. What we do now will have a tremendous impact on the future—not just the future of Lehigh as an institution, but on our students’ futures as well.  

One critical step in the path from the short- to the long term is the connections we develop with our students (and with each other as faculty and staff). When we teach our students, we try to develop their knowledge and their skills, but when we connect with our students as people, we help them develop the confidence and sense of belonging they will need to persist through challenges and believe in their own ideas and potential. In my experience, typically these connections develop through conversations in office hours, when working with students on research projects or even during a chance encounter in line at a coffee shop. But the critical moment is when students realize that faculty recognize them as people, and are interested and even take pride in their learning and success.  

The pandemic has impacted how we build these connections, but that does not mean they are any less essential.  

Our students care about what we do. When I read student comments about the Spring semester, one thing that stands out for me is that students were very forgiving of professors who had technology challenges, and of professors whose lectures were disorganized or unclear, as long as they thought that their professors cared about the students in their class and made an effort to connect. Students appreciated when faculty had empathy for their students’ struggles and when faculty asked how they were managing through the pandemic. My own experience teaching and also scholarship in learning sciences make me believe that when this connection was made, students attended class more regularly, worked harder and learned more. According to research from Gallup, students who say that they had a professor who cared about them as a person also are more likely to describe themselves as “thriving” economically, socially and personally. 

We cannot overestimate the value of such connections. Our challenge today is creating them no matter how we deliver instruction. Connection seems easier to develop through face-to-face meetings than online interactions. Starting a conversation because I see a student reading an article in the Economist or wearing a Radiohead tee shirt seems natural to me. Is the online environment more challenging because there are fewer opportunities for chance meetings? Is it because Zoom (perhaps especially when using backgrounds) gives us such a narrow view of people, their environment and their interactions? Despite these challenges, I am convinced that these connections can be created in any environment, and that we need to make it happen. This is our responsibility to students.

I am interested in creative ways to help develop these connections, for students located in Bethlehem and for students who engage remotely. Lehigh faculty are known for their ability to connect with students. How have you been thoughtful and intentional about your interactions with students? How have you made human connection an essential part of your instruction? I invite you to reply to this message if you have ideas to share. 

The pandemic has presented us with many complex challenges, but in these I also see an opportunity to consider how our actions now can lead to an even better Lehigh in the years to come. Thank you for your continued commitment to our academic mission and our responsibility to our students as individuals navigating the same uncertain terrain on which we find ourselves.  

My Reading List
To connect with the Lehigh community, I plan to include in my emails to faculty a list of articles, books and other things that I am reading. I will admit that in the last few months my reading has been more focused than usual on higher education, pandemics and social justice. I welcome dialogue on these, as well as your suggestions for additional reading. 

  • “Less Punishment, More Justice,” The New York Review of Books by David Cole
    I am a big fan of the NYRB for the way it allows me to gain a perspective on work in many fields and points me to books that I might want to read.  In this article David Cole raises questions about defunding the police and the consequences of mass incarceration and places them in the context of the current era.  
  • Polio: An American Story by David Olshinsky
    I read this book a few years ago, but I have gone back to reread parts of it to remind myself of how people faced the fear of their children getting polio year after year until the vaccine was developed. It also is a great story of the politics of science and the role of philanthropic funding in promoting scientific impact. For me, reading about a past pandemic is somewhat reassuring.  

Key University Updates

Sincerely, 

Nathan Urban
Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs