Joseph J. Helble

Joseph J. Helble, Lehigh University's 15th president

Getting to Know Lehigh’s 15th President: A Q&A with Joseph J. Helble ’82

Upon his appointment as Lehigh’s 15th president, Joseph J. Helble ’82 answered questions about his return to his alma mater as its new leader, the experiences that have helped prepare him for this role, and his thoughts on the future of Lehigh and higher education.

Photography by

Christa Neu

Your first exposure to higher education was as a Lehigh student. What drew you to higher education as a career?

I never imagined myself being an educator when I was growing upnever. But my parents and my family always stressed the importance of education. I come from a first-generation family. My grandparents were immigrants, and education was always viewed as a way to help yourself take a step towards becoming a productive member of the community and of the country. There was always value in learning and there was always value in education. But it's when I got to Lehigh that I really began to appreciate what that meant and how pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone could be transformative.

I was a chemical engineering student at Lehigh, but some of the most impactful classes I took were in history and international relations. An introduction to the law seminar that I took as a first-year student really helped me begin to think about the world in all its complexity in very different ways. That's why I'm so committed to higher education: I have experienced very personally the impact higher education can have.

What attracted you to the Lehigh presidency specifically?

There is so much I could say here. I’m not sure where to begin. I see an opportunity to help build on and expand the research excellence that's characterized Lehigh, particularly over the past several decades. I see an opportunity to work with the faculty and the staff to expand on some of the creative interdisciplinary programs that have developed. I see tremendous opportunity to draw from the range of academic programs that Lehigh has for undergraduate students—between arts and sciences and engineering and business and population health—a breadth that is unusual for a research university of Lehigh’s size and personal scale—to provide a distinctive residential education for every Lehigh student. And there is so much Lehigh offers outside of the classroom for students, the kinds of opportunities that a student-focused residential university can provide, such as developing the critical thinking and reasoning and communication skills that we need today from college graduates. These are fundamental. 

I want to commend President Simon for the incredible momentum Lehigh has built over the past several years. The construction and planned construction of new facilities on campus, the expansion of the student body and the faculty, and the launch of the new College of Health—these all present new and exciting opportunities for the entire Lehigh community. 

What do you think are the biggest challenges we face as a university in the years ahead?

First and foremost, all universities face the challenges of access and affordability. We need to make sure we're investing appropriately in financial aid so that any student who qualifies has the opportunity to experience a transformative Lehigh education. I think we face the challenge of telling our story—the story of higher education and the Lehigh story—more crisply, and more clearly. There has been a change in public attitude over the past several years, and we now see more people unfortunately questioning the value of higher education. We need to articulate the benefits—the economic benefits to the individual of a college education, of course, but also the broader societal benefits that come from advancing education. And I think we need to focus even more on translating the work of our scholars and making clear how their work, regardless of discipline or field, changes the world. That is true whether it is directly through innovation and entrepreneurship, through commercial enterprises being developed from our research, or from sharing the work of our humanists and social scientists who ask important questions that help us understand the world, understand who we are, and understand the choices we are facing as communities.

What experiences or people have influenced you most throughout your career?

My family, and particularly my parents, of course, played a huge role. They stressed the importance of education from my earliest days and encouraged me to experience a residential university education, even though it's something they never had the opportunity to consider, and even though, financially, with me and my two younger sisters all going away to college, it was a huge stretch for my parents. Without financial aid, it would have never been possible.

My undergraduate advisor at Lehigh played a huge role in ways that I don't think he recognized, simply by encouraging me to think about research as a student and then consider graduate school, something that was not part of my worldview. That is a great example of how a single faculty member can have such a positive impact; it is one of the reasons I have continued to be an undergraduate faculty advisor, even as provost. I know that that level of faculty engagement continues at Lehigh, and I want to do all that I can to support and encourage that. My late PhD advisor at MIT played an important role as well, helping me learn how to frame research questions and learn how to experiment. And my wife, who I met in graduate school and who came from an academic family—I’m not sure I would have gone down this path without her support and encouragement.

As an accomplished researcher yourself, how do you plan to support the continued growth and development of research at Lehigh?

The growth in the scope and breadth of research at Lehigh since the time I was a student has been extraordinary. And I see real opportunity for Lehigh to build on that foundation and do even more. For me, it's really about working with the faculty to identify areas of excellence and making focused investment, even placing bets: Are there areas where focusing some of our resources more narrowly and more deeply would enable us to truly excel? I see the role of the president and the leadership team in helping to identify those areas and then building and providing the resources to make that happen.

What role can an institution like Lehigh play in the important work related to diversity and inclusion?

Diverse communities are stronger communities. We know this, studies show this, and I have seen this firsthand. This is especially true for institutions like Lehigh. I believe universities can and should lead in valuing diversity and striving for equity on our campuses and in our society. We must listen to and learn from one another, even if—especially if—it makes us uncomfortable.

I see great value in learning about difference and across difference, and I believe universities are one of the few remaining places where we can do that with intention. A university like Lehigh brings together people from different backgrounds and individuals who have experienced life in fundamentally different ways. This environment offers us all—students, faculty and staff—opportunities to really consider the perspectives of others and to begin to recognize our own assumptions and biases.

Real, honest conversation can lead to change. We should challenge one another to ask difficult questions, to communicate and take action. We all play a role in this work, and if we do it right, we can set our students on the path to be leaders in their workplaces and in their communities. Events across the country have shown us that we have much work to do. We can and should do our part.  

Can you talk about the value of the liberal arts to the student experience and to society more broadly?

In the conversations I have with my undergraduate engineering student advisees, one of the things I focus on from the very beginning is the value of the liberal arts as a core part of their education. The liberal arts—and in these conversations I mean the arts, humanities, and social sciences—help us learn how to ask questions, how to see an issue from a range of perspectives, how to interpret and understand, and how to appreciate and recognize context in ways that are very different from what the sciences or engineering provide. The perspective that deep exposure to the liberal arts provides also helps us learn how to communicate in different ways.  Engineers sometimes describe themselves as ‘problem solvers,’ and as an engineer I have often said that if all one had was engineering—without history, without context, without understanding the community whose problem you were ostensibly trying to solve—you risk developing a technologically brilliant solution that does absolutely nothing for that community's needs. For undergraduate students, the best thing we can do while helping them find their major is encourage them to draw broadly from the full breadth that the liberal arts can offer.

How do you hope to engage with Lehigh alumni?

I look forward to welcoming alumni back to campus, and to having the opportunity to travel again this fall, to begin to get out and meet more of the alumni community. I know how transformative the Lehigh experience was for me personally. I want to hear the stories of other alumni and understand what it was that made Lehigh such a special place for them, understand what they learned at Lehigh, and how they've stayed connected through the years. These conversations for me are one of the enjoyable parts of being an academic leader. And the alumni community is a great sounding board for ideas, a great community for discussing our shared aspirations for helping Lehigh become something even better for the next generation of students.

What have we learned from the pandemic that can guide institutions like Lehigh into the future?

It’s shown us how adaptable we are—far more adaptable than higher education ever gets credit for being. Think about how quickly every college and university transitioned much of the curriculum to remote learning last spring, focusing on continuity of education for our students in the face of very challenging circumstances. Unprecedented almost feels overused as an adjective, but higher education had truly never faced anything in magnitude nor rate of change like the changes brought on by the pandemic.

One year in, I think we have all learned that not only can we make online learning work at a high level, but also that there are some aspects of it—the ease of collaboration and video interaction across distances, for example, that will persist. I think we will see far more universities offering online education coming out of the pandemic. But at the same time, the pandemic has made even more clear the importance of face-to-face learning and the importance of the interactions that come from being part of a local community. We don't engage with one another the same way by Zoom as we do in person. Most of us don't ask the same kinds of questions. I think more than anything we've learned the importance of drawing energy from one another, from being part of an in-person community, and the importance that has in supporting our ability to learn.

What are some of the things you’re most proud of from your time at Dartmouth?

I'm proud of the growth in the engineering programs that took place during my time at Dartmouth. I’m proud to see the way the engineering student community has become so much more diverse. Dartmouth was the first major research university to achieve gender parity in a graduating engineering class, something that came in large part from having a dedicated community of faculty and staff committed to a common goal. It came from thinking intentionally about pathways and barriers to engineering, finding different ways to engage and support all students, and partnering with programs in the liberal arts to help provide different entry points to engineering.

I'm also really proud of the growth in programs in innovation and entrepreneurship that occurred in engineering and also at Dartmouth more broadly during my time. When I was the dean of engineering, Dartmouth developed and launched the first program of its kind in the country to help PhD students, as part of their PhD thesis, to develop the knowledge and skills to translate an idea into the marketplace, and to see this not as orthogonal to their PhD education but integral to it. That program has grown in size, it's grown in impact, it's attracted incredibly talented students, and it led to Dartmouth being recognized by the National Academy of Engineering for its development. I’m really proud of that.

I also have to say I'm proud of the way the campus community has come together this year in my time as provost to navigate our way through the pandemic. It has not been easy for any of us, but to see the way faculty and staff have worked to support students has been extraordinary. I’m proud of any role that my office and I played in helping make that possible.

What do you do for fun?

I love being outdoors, particularly with family and friends, and try to do a fair amount of hiking in the summertime. And I’m still a reasonably serious runner—much slower than I used to be, but I get out most days, even when the temperature is below zero, and cover a fair amount of mileage. I ran two virtual marathons last year and am hoping to run Boston later this year for the first time.

 

Photography by

Christa Neu

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