Strategic Plan forum

Research for Impact is one of four themes of Lehigh's strategic planning process. 

Fall Forums Focus on ‘Our Future, Our Lehigh’

Faculty, students and staff share ideas as Lehigh’s strategic planning process gets under way.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Over the next decade, how can Lehigh build on its unique strengths? What strategic steps can it take in its academic program offerings to further distinguish a Lehigh education? What research opportunities exist to achieve national and international distinction? 

How can the campus experience be improved for all? Looking to the future, what opportunities should Lehigh pursue to grow its physical assets, programs or enrollments? How, for example, should Lehigh envision its Mountaintop campus? Should it include student housing? 

In a series of four separate forums held on campus earlier this week, faculty, staff, and undergraduate and graduate students began tackling these questions and more, and offering ideas and insights as part of Lehigh’s strategic planning process titled “Our Future, Our Lehigh.” 

Four themes are providing both a focus and scope for an open dialogue on the strategic direction of the university: education with purpose, Lehigh user experience, research for impact and smart growth. 

President Joseph J. Helble '82 addresses attendees

President Joseph J. Helble '82 addresses attendees at the faculty forum Monday, Aug. 29. Photo: Christa Neu

At each forum over the three days, President Joseph J. Helble '82 welcomed attendees. “It's really good to have you all here for the beginning of an important, and I hope exciting and engaging, series of conversations that will help all of us chart the path for Lehigh’s immediate and longer-term future focused on strategic planning,” he said at the faculty forum.

As Lehigh began its work earlier this year, Helble said, he was often asked why Lehigh was embarking on a strategic planning process at this moment in Lehigh’s history. “First, it's a matter of time and timeliness,” he said, noting that Lehigh last went through the process more than a decade ago. “In that period of time, so much has changed in the world, so much has changed in the world of higher education and so much has certainly changed at Lehigh. 

“And if we think about the world of higher education very specifically since our last strategic planning effort,” he said, “hybrid, online and distance learning … have exploded, both for intentional reasons, and then of course, because of a forced adaptation and adoption by everyone of new technology or new approaches to delivering content because of the pandemic.” 

Additionally, he said, “There's been tremendous questioning, concern and criticism of higher education around outcomes for our students. “Does the education they get matter? Does it provide them with the tools, learning, awareness and skills that they need to go out and lead impactful lives of meaning and difference–make a difference in their communities, make a difference in their employers and be gainfully employed?”

The great news, Helble said, is that Lehigh is “extraordinarily well positioned,” both financially and in terms of student outcomes. In the past year, student applications increased, the number of faculty increased, and research funding grew.

“The challenge for us is to identify the true points of excellence here at Lehigh and build on them, to invest in these areas that truly make us distinctive, to do more of what we do extraordinarily well and to identify opportunities to do the new, to focus, to make choices, to have investments that follow and stick with it,” he said. 

Rather than have a small group deciding Lehigh’s future, Helble said, the university can bring together the campus community to work hard in identifying the broadest and most creative ideas. “We are doing it from a position of strength,” he said, “but it is essential that we do it now."

The Strategic Planning Process

At the forums, Provost Nathan Urban and Vice President of Strategic Planning Chris Cook, who are leading the strategic planning effort, alternately explained the scope and timeline of the process, the structure for campus engagement, the themes guiding discussion and the ways that faculty, staff and students can join the conversation about Lehigh’s future. 

They said the process also will include identifying hurdles to accomplishing new initiatives. The campus is invited to submit operational challenges that are in the way of the strategic discussions by sending an email to inHurdle@lehigh.edu.

Chris Cook and Nathan Urban address attendees at the forums

Vice President of Strategic Planning Chris Cook (at the podium) and Provost Nathan Urban are leading the strategic planning effort. At the forums, they alternately explained the scope and timeline of the process, as well as the structure for campus engagement. Photo: Christa Neu

“The strategic planning process is all about the conversations–our ideas, our future, our Lehigh. It takes all of us,” Cook said.

In the end, Urban said, “This will not be a plan that gets left on the shelf,” but instead be used to make decisions. He said metrics and measurables will be put in place to track Lehigh’s performance in accomplishing what it will set out to do. Urban said the plan “will seek to inspire, be aspirational and operational.”

Lehigh expects to have an informed set of key initiatives that will compose its strategic plan by June 2023.

To make sure conversations can be fruitful, Cook said, working groups made up of six to seven people have been identified for each of the four themes. The working groups can be found here: education with purpose, Lehigh user experienceresearch for impact, smart growth

Also, through-line champions who are well versed in the initiatives already under way at Lehigh–diversity and inclusion, environmental and fiscal responsibility, operational excellence and global responsibility–will listen to the conversations, engage and make sure that their areas are considered in the discussions. Additionally, the physical and structural resources that might be needed to support any new initiatives will be considered. 

Throughout the planning process, an advisory council that includes Lehigh senior leadership, deans and the Faculty Senate will be joined by the working group co-captains and goalkeepers, as well as the through-line champions, to hear about the progress on the strategic planning process and to provide feedback on the emerging ideas. Toward the end of the process, the advisory council will make recommendations regarding priorities and strategic initiatives for implementation of the plan.

student at student forum

Members of the Lehigh community are encouraged to continue to join the conversation in an online Idea Portal. Attendees, including a student at Wednesday's forum, also submitted ideas at the forums. Photo: Taylor Stakes

Cook and Urban encouraged attendees at each of the forums to join the conversation in an online Idea Portal. Many ideas have already been submitted, ranging from creating a medical school, to encouraging research projects in non-scientific areas of study, providing a broader and more inclusive way to hear feedback from both students and instructors, and increasing the buses that run to the Mountaintop campus. 

All members of the campus community who have a Lehigh email address can submit and comment on ideas. If someone wants to be anonymous in their submission, they can email inspi@lehigh.edu and someone will enter the idea on their behalf. 

Those posting to the portal also have begun raising additional questions for consideration: How can we better support our newest faculty? How can we make sure that staff is treated equitably on campus? How can we ask students to reflect on their learning? 

At Tuesday evening’s session, students asked whether the working groups are actively seeking feedback from the campus, while also complimenting the process and offering constructive feedback. One student acknowledged the amount of resources Lehigh already has for experiential learning, such as the United Nations Partnership and Creative Inquiry, but said it’s “such a separate part of Lehigh from the academic experience.” It’s something, the student said, that’s not integrated with the curriculum and has to be sought out.

Urban agreed with the assessment.  Despite programs such as Creative Inquiry and Mountaintop Initiative, the Baker Institute and study abroad, the perception is that these programs are “extras,”  he said. The College of Health is one example of Lehigh working to integrate experiential learning into the curriculum, he said. One of its goals is to have 25% of credits students earn toward graduation to come from experiential learning.

Next Steps

At the conclusion of the forums, Cook reflected on the launch of the strategic planning process.

"We are very grateful to the nearly 500 students, faculty and staff who attended the fall forums and shared ideas and feedback," she said. "We are asking the campus to trust that this process will continue to be transparent and that the community input will indeed shape the strategic plan that is delivered next June.” 

Cook said that in addition to the ongoing discussions in the Idea Portal and through the engagement of the working groups,  there will be two additional opportunities for the community to come together: in mid-November and early in the spring semester. 

"The formalization of these additional forums is the direct result of the dialogue and in response to the feedback we heard this week," Cook said. "Our desire is for this to be a transparent and connected process in which the community has critical ownership." 

To join the discussion, learn more about the process and stay informed, visit the Our Future, Our Lehigh websiteThe forums were recorded and are available at this link.

Stephen Gross and Christina Tatu contributed to this article. 

Attendees at the Strategic Planning Forums

Four themes are providing both a focus and scope for an open dialogue on the strategic direction of the university: education with purpose, Lehigh user experience, research for impact and smart growth. Photo: Christa Neu

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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