Inauguration of President Joseph J. Helble ’82 Opens Founder’s Weekend

The ceremony inaugurating Lehigh’s 15th president was held Friday in Tamerler Courtyard.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

Calling it “the privilege of a lifetime,” Joseph J. Helble ’82 was inaugurated as Lehigh’s 15th president Friday in a joyous ceremony under Lehigh’s Tamerler Courtyard Tent in which he outlined “the Lehigh promise” to expand signature interdisciplinary programs, create new interdisciplinary programs and make key elements of the business, engineering and arts and sciences colleges available to all undergraduates.

Helble, with his family in attendance, including his 89-year-old mother, wife, three children, sisters, brother-in-law and son-in-law, spoke about the opportunity to shape the university that helped shape him. 

“One of the reasons I was excited by this opportunity to return to Lehigh is because this is a research university that, for much of its history, has been quietly giving lie to the idea of narrow focusing,” Helble said. “What makes Lehigh distinctive? How can we raise our profile even higher? Where can we be ‘first, best or only’? I believe we need to play to our strengths, and there may be none more significant than our legacy of interdisciplinarity. The problems that confront the world in 2021 demand solutions drawn from different disciplines. Curricula must evolve to meet these needs—and that is something that Lehigh does extraordinarily well.”

Former Lehigh President Greg Farrington, as well as delegates representing more than a dozen colleges and universities, joined members of the Lehigh community at the inauguration ceremony, held on an unseasonably warm October afternoon. The ceremony kicked off Lehigh’s 2021 Founder’s Day weekend celebration.

President Joe Helble with Kevin Clayton

Lehigh Board of Trustees Chair Kevin Clayton ’84 ’13P presents Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble ’82 with the Chain of Office Medallion of the university.

“This is truly a wonderful day for this institution,” Lehigh Board of Trustees Chair Kevin Clayton ’84 ’13P said before officially investing Helble as president.

In introducing Lehigh’s new president, Clayton focused on Helble’s leadership skills, saying he will move the university forward while staying true to its core values. Clayton also mentioned Helble’s ability to listen, explaining the time he has spent learning as much as he can from the campus community.

“Joe is a genuine listener,” Clayton said. “During his first months on campus, he has devoted himself to engaging with students, alumni, families, faculty, staff and the entire Bethlehem community in order to better understand, to the best of his ability, what Lehigh stands for today and to formulate what Lehigh tomorrow will look like. And to put it simply, and personally, one can’t help but to like him.”

Helble said his early conversations included all six living former Lehigh presidents, and he credited each of them with making the university what it is today.

This is truly a wonderful day for this institution.

Lehigh Board of Trustees Chair Kevin Clayton ’84 ’13P

While Helble has been listening during his first few months on campus, he said he has also been asking questions. One of them was, what if Lehigh made its signature interdisciplinary programs—such as IDEAS [Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts and Sciences], CSB [Computer Science and Business] and IBE [Integrated Business and Engineering]—accessible to more students? He also asked about creating new interdisciplinary programs that included the College of Health and making key elements of business, engineering and arts and sciences available to all undergraduate students while encouraging them to explore.

In order to address these questions, Helble said he asked Provost Nathan Urban, deans and the Office of Admissions  in his conversations with them to increase the size of Lehigh’s signature programs by 50% over the next several years and explore the creation of new programs with the College of Health. He also asked what is necessary to allow all students to “draw from the fundamental elements” of the PC Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, the College of Business and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble ’82

Joseph J. Helble ’82 delivers his remarks at his inauguration on Friday in Tamerler Courtyard.

Helble said he believes his thoughts on the undergraduate programs also applies to graduate programs, particularly Ph.D. programs. And while he said the current “expectation of original publishable scholarly research” should not change, he does think there is an opportunity for Lehigh to innovate and lead. He said he will begin a series of conversations over the next year exploring those opportunities.

“I think of this as ‘the Lehigh promise’: an educational approach that draws together different disciplines, is focused on real-world problems, and through this, leaves Lehigh students prepared to contribute from day one when they walk out the door,” Helble said.

Clayton noted that higher education is facing rapid changes, and that complex global challenges await the next generation. He explained the responsibility Lehigh has as a university to prepare students for the world they are about to enter. While not easy, Clayton said, he believes it’s one Lehigh will successfully achieve with Helble at the helm.

“Joe understands Lehigh’s practical approach to education, yet he remains focused on availing the university to new opportunities,” Clayton said. “He is committed to moving this institution forward with utmost excellence, also while certainly enhancing its reputation, yet he stays grounded in our core values and the goal of preparing students who will contribute in meaningful ways to our global society. Joe has a tremendous appreciation for diverse perspectives and strives to comprehend varying points of view in all scenarios. Yet, upon gaining an understanding of a situation, he is unafraid to be decisive and to lead.”

From day one Helble said he has not just been welcomed, but welcomed home by the Lehigh community, students, faculty, staff and alumni.

In speaking about that “home,” Helble talked about Lehigh’s history and its physical beauty—both natural and architecturally—touching upon the tradition of Lehigh and Lafayette’s most played rivalry in college football, its hills inspiring Jesse Reno, Class of 1883, to invent and build the first working model of an escalator and the founding of the national engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi.

“Strong academics, strong traditions, strong bonds of community, all forged in this incredible setting we call home,” Helble said.

A Lehigh graduate who received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1982, Helble was named president after a comprehensive and global search process that began last fall. He assumed the presidency Aug. 16. The former Dartmouth College provost becomes the second alumnus in Lehigh history to be appointed president. Henry Sturgis Drinker, Lehigh’s fifth president, graduated from the university in 1871 and served as president from 1905 to 1920.

Prior to Helble’s remarks, Clayton invited him forward and entrusted him with three symbols of the university: A walking stick, in the tradition of Lehigh’s founder Asa Packer, the mace of the university and the Chain of Office Medallion of the university, which is a symbol of the university and the Office of the President and is worn by the president at all academic ceremonies.

Helble and Clayton

Lehigh Board of Trustees Chair Kevin Clayton ’84 ’13P presents President Joseph J. Helble '82 with a walking stick, in the tradition of Lehigh’s founder Asa Packer.

In addition to Clayton, two student speakers, Lehigh Board of Trustees Vice Chair Maria Chrin ’87 ’10P, who co-chaired the presidential search committee, and two of Helble’s former colleagues at Dartmouth, Laurel J. Richie, Trustee and Board Chair Emerita, and Philip Hanlon, Dartmouth president, also provided remarks.

Hanlon began his remarks by noting that Helble is likely the only person this week to complete the Boston Marathon on Monday and be installed as a university president on Friday and likened Helble to Spiderman. Borrowing a line from the movie, “With great power comes great responsibility,” Hanlon, a Dartmouth graduate, said “to lead the institutions that did so much for us is a great responsibility.”

“It is a vast yet bifurcated responsibility,” Hanlon said. “On the one hand, it involves skillfully stewarding the institution through today's choppy waters, the crises and issues that inevitably arise. On the other hand, it's about executing the vision that catapults the institution forward over the long term. Fortunately for Lehigh, Joe is one of the rare academic leaders who excels at both.”

Hanlon listed some of Helble’s accomplishments as dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth and said that Helble oversaw substantial increases in research funding and enrollment while also aiding the school as it became the first school of engineering in the country to graduate a class that was majority women.

Dartmouth’s president also recounted one of the first meetings he had with the deans in his position and how impressed he was with Helble. Helble proposed a plan to double the size of the engineering school and had detailed plans and projected revenues and expenditures all prepared to answer each question Hanlon asked.

Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon

Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon spoke about the impact Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble '82 had on the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth during his time as dean.

“Just one hour into that very first meeting with Joe and I was sold 100% onboard with his bold vision for the west end of our campus,” Hanlon said. “A transformation that is at this very moment, expanding and integrating our approaches to technology, engineering, business entrepreneurship and design.”

Hanlon said that none of Helble’s accomplishments happen by accident.

“They were a direct result of his ability to think big about the future, his thoughtful and thorough planning and all that he does, his data-driven approach to decision-making, and his ability to build consensus through evidence and reason,” Hanlon said.

Richie, who said she was visiting Lehigh for the first time, told the Lehigh community that she is “a huge fan” of Helble, calling his leadership “dedicated and compassionate.” She said finding common ground, building community, empathy, integrity, civility and a will-to-win are all foundational to Helble’s leadership.

Joseph J. Helble and Laurel J. Richie

President Joseph J. Helble '82 and Laurel J. Richie, Trustee and Board Chair Emerita, embrace after Richie told the Lehigh community that she is “a huge fan” of Helble.

She also spoke to Helble’s character in trying times. In a particularly challenging moment at Dartmouth, she said a number of students sought Helble’s counsel.

“This was a true testament to his leadership and to his character: Our most vulnerable students reached out to him in a very difficult moment not because of his role, his title or his rank; they were drawn to his ability to listen intently, engage deeply and thoughtfully, and to create safe spaces for uncomfortable conversations,” Richie said. “To me, this is more than a reflection of his leadership. It is a manifestation of the kind of accountability and engagement that humanizes institutions of higher learning.”

Throughout the pandemic, Richie said Helble was a strong and steady leader who made himself visible, but “during less challenging times, Joe’s optimism, perseverance and persistence were on full display.”

Students and community members joined in the festivities, watching the ceremony from overflow seating on the Clayton University Center lawn. The inauguration was broadcast on the lawn on a theater-sized screen. In the background, food trucks and games, such as Skee-Ball and “axe throwing” with Velcro axes awaited attendees, who all were invited to an inauguration festival following the ceremony. An academic procession preceded the inauguration, which was also streamed online for those who were unable to be present on campus.

Note: The Lehigh Philharmonic performed Trumpet Voluntary by Jeramiah Clarke for the Processional, the Procession of the Nobles by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov prior to remarks from President Joseph J. Helble ’82 and George Frideric Handel’s Alla Hornpipe from Water Music Suite No. 2 in D Major, HWV 349 for the Recessional. … A capella versions of the national anthem and Lehigh’s alma mater were performed by Joshua Venick ’22. … Reverend Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain, offered the invocation and closed the ceremony with the benediction. … Victor Cochrane ’22, undergraduate Student Senate president, and Kadia Hylton Fraser, graduate Student Senate representative, were the two student speakers.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Videography by

Stephanie Veto

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