In Memoriam: Gary Sasso, Former Dean of the College of Education

Sasso is remembered as a beloved colleague, a dynamic leader and a gifted researcher dedicated to helping children.

Story by

Kelly Hochbein

Gary M. Sasso, former dean of Lehigh’s College of Education, passed away on March 27. He was 71.

Gary Sasso

Gary Sasso

Sasso served as dean from 2008 until his retirement in 2018. Among his many significant accomplishments during his tenure, Sasso increased federal grant funding and major gifts to the college, grew the college’s faculty and staff, and created Lehigh University Autism Services.

Sasso earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in special education from the University of Kansas, where he received training in the field of applied behavior analysis. He dedicated his more than 30-year career as a teacher, researcher, faculty member, and administrator to improving the lives of children with emotional and behavioral problems and autism spectrum disorders.

He was a prolific researcher, co-authoring nearly 100 scholarly publications and more than 125 conference presentations. He was honored on numerous occasions by his peers, most recently with the Award for Outstanding Leadership in Emotional and Behavioral Disorders from the Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavioral Disorders. Sasso also was a member of several professional associations, including the Council for Exceptional Children, the Autism Society of America and the Association for Behavior Analysis.

Sasso began his career as a professor at the University of Northern Colorado. There, he developed Colorado’s first academic and research program for individuals with autism spectrum disorder. In 1985, Sasso joined the University of Iowa’s College of Education as a faculty member in the Teaching and Learning Department, as well as in the Department of Pediatrics in the School of Medicine. He later served a seven-year term as chair of the Teaching and Learning Department before his arrival at Lehigh in 2008.

As dean of Lehigh’s College of Education, Sasso prioritized faculty research. Under his leadership, the college significantly increased its research revenue over the course of several years. He also increased the number and quality of faculty and staff hires, created a multi-disciplinary program in early development education, and worked to elevate the college’s profile nationally and internationally. He also aided in the creation of Lehigh University Autism Services, which opened in 2018 and provides intervention programs for young children and their families. During a transitional period, Sasso stepped in as interim vice president and associate provost for the Office of International Affairs from October 2015 through March 2016, continuing to serve as dean during that time.

‘A Truly Extraordinary Person’

Faculty and staff in the College of Education and across the university remember Sasso’s dedication to his work and to his students, his sense of humor and infectious laugh, and his ability to make those around him feel valued, which defined his leadership of the college.

“When I think of Gary, many hilarious moments immediately come to mind: deflated balloons affixed to my office door, fake letters from disgruntled students, announcing he had adopted the nickname Polar Vortex,” said Lee Kern, professor of special education and director of the Center for Promoting Research to Practice and Lehigh University Autism Services. “But it was his many kind and considerate acts that also have lasting memories. Just one example: My daughter had a discussion with Gary about evolution. Two days later The Beak of the Finch came in the mail for her. He was a truly extraordinary person, and his impact on our field, his colleagues, and his friends will be remembered always.”

Said George DuPaul, professor of school psychology and associate dean for research: “I am extremely fortunate to have been a friend and colleague of Dean Gary Sasso beginning when he joined the College of Education at Lehigh in 2008, including five years when I served as department chair under his leadership. Gary was not only a bright and accomplished scholar in the field of special education, but he also was a strong advocate for students of all ages, especially those who were identified as having a behavior, emotion, or developmental disability. One of the many reasons he was such an effective leader was his ability to connect with folks from across the university and in the community through his patented mix of research-grounded knowledge, passion for education, and unique sense of humor. It truly was a pleasure to work with Gary and I am grateful to have had that opportunity. He will be sorely missed by his Lehigh friends and colleagues.”

Stacy Burger, director of global partnerships and strategic initiatives in the Office of International Affairs (OIA), was Sasso’s main point of contact during his time as interim vice president and associate provost for that office. She recalls that Sasso’s priority was to ensure the OIA staff was prepared and excited for the transition to a new vice president.

“For me, Gary's strong mentorship, and later friendship, made a huge difference in both my career and life in general. With his incredible sense of humor and solid guidance, Gary led by empowering his staff with his trust and support,” said Burger.

“Work never felt like work with Dean Sasso,” said Gina Sierzega, senior research program development officer for the College of Education. “He kept it real, he got it done, and he made it fun. Fortunately, for me, he recognized the importance of research and grant funding and created the unique position that brought me to Lehigh and the COE. I will forever treasure our spontaneous talks, his invaluable support of a work/life balance, and the gem of a human that Gary Sasso was. He made coming to work at Lehigh an absolute pleasure.”

Pat Farrell, professor of mechanical engineering who served as Lehigh’s provost during Sasso’s tenure at Lehigh, remembered Sasso’s passion for the college and for serving children in the most effective way possible.

“Gary was a strong advocate for the College of Education and its faculty,” he said. “More than that, Gary was an advocate for kids and helping them get the best education we can give them. He waded into the difficult discussions of charter schools versus public schools and how to develop the next generation of leaders in education and better equip them to succeed. I think the most excited I ever saw Gary was when he was giving my wife and I a tour of Centennial School. I think, to Gary, this was everything in one place: pioneering best practices, educating and training the next generation of educators and leaders in special education, and, most of all, helping students develop in ways that would not have been possible without the people of Centennial School, the College of Education, and Lehigh.”

In her previous role as manager of the College of Education LTS support team and the assistant director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, Ilena Key, now Lehigh’s chief technology officer, worked with Sasso to support the goals of the College of Education.

“Gary impacted the Lehigh community in so many ways,” she said. “He was an advocate for our students, a proponent for out-of-the-box thinking and new technologies, and someone we just loved to be around. I’m grateful I had the chance to collaborate with him.”

Said Brook Sawyer, associate professor and program director of the teacher education program: “The moment Gary entered a space, the energy became more vibrant. There were more smiles and there was definitely a lot more laughter. Gary cared deeply about the people he worked with and the broader community which he served. He endeavored to improve people's lives, and he tremendously valued research that would positively impact the community. Gary pushed us in the COE to be and do our best while ensuring that we all had an amazing time in the process. I will deeply miss Gary, and I will forever carry the lessons that he taught.”

Upon Sasso’s retirement, he described in an interview the legacy he hoped to leave at Lehigh.

“... I spent most of my adult life trying to help children, and I did it as a teacher, as a researcher, as a consultant, as a faculty member and then a chair, and as a dean. And in all those positions, I always tried to keep one thing in mind, and that is, we’re here to make kids’ lives better, to teach them, to help them learn, to help them find the best path in life. If people will know me for that, that will be enough,” he said.

Sasso is survived by his wife, Christine G. Novak, and their son, Spencer.

In lieu of flowers, individuals may make a gift in memory of Gary Sasso to support Lehigh Autism Services at Lehigh University. Gifts may be sent to Lehigh University, Development and Alumni Relations, 306 S. New St. Suite 500, Bethlehem, PA 18055. Please note that it is in memory of Gary Sasso and will support the Lehigh Autism Clinic. Gifts also may be made online at

Story by

Kelly Hochbein