John D. Simon

John D. Simon’s tenure as president, which will come to a close this summer, will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most impactful in Lehigh’s history.

John D. Simon: Building Excellence and 'A Culture of Possibility'

As Lehigh’s president, John D. Simon worked to raise the ambition of the entire university. As his tenure ends, he shares his reflections on his years at Lehigh, and the university’s many achievements over the past six years.

Photography by

Christa Neu

By the time John D. Simon was named Lehigh’s 14th president on Oct. 17, 2014, he had come to recognize a few key strengths about the university he would soon lead.

Simon viewed Lehigh as an institution respected nationwide for its excellence in academics and research, and an innovator and leader, in particular, in the world of interdisciplinary education. He recognized the university’s longtime success in delivering an outstanding residential experience for its students, and its willingness—via programs such as the then-newly launched Mountaintop program—to explore new ways of educating the next generation of innovators and leaders. Even before he officially stepped on campus for the first time as president, he learned just how much people in the Lehigh community love their university.

But as impressed as he was with Lehigh, Simon all those years ago also knew this: the possibilities for this proud institution were almost limitless.

Over the past six years, he’s been proven correct.

Simon’s tenure as president, which will come to a close this summer, will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most impactful in Lehigh’s history. And it will be remembered as such specifically because of his success in rallying the university leadership and its students, faculty, staff and alumni to support a vision for a more vibrant, global and dynamic Lehigh.

On the occasion of his installment, the centerpiece of the university’s 2015 Founder’s Day celebration, Simon announced the Board of Trustees would invest $250 million to strengthen Lehigh’s infrastructure and programming in the areas of teaching, learning, research and student life. It was certainly a bold step forward for Lehigh, but as it turned out, it was only the first of many to come. In the years to follow, Simon led several major initiatives, each of which advanced the university in critically important ways.

The successful implementation of the Path to Prominence, the launch of GO: The Campaign for Lehigh, the university’s expanded presence on the West Coast, the opening of the innovative Lehigh College of Health, the university’s growth on the global stage, efforts to make Lehigh a more welcoming and supportive place for people of all backgrounds; all of it speaks to Simon’s tenure at Lehigh as a time of growth and change.

As he prepares to step away from the university this summer, Simon sat down with the Bulletin to reflect on his time as president.

I know it must be difficult to answer a question like this succinctly, but as you sit here today, how would you describe your experience serving as president of Lehigh University?

Bed races at Lehigh

Simon takes part in Lehigh's annual Bed Races.

I would start by saying that I have truly enjoyed my time here at Lehigh. It has been a tremendous experience for me and my family, and one we are all grateful for. What the university has accomplished these past six years is a testament to the creativity and ambition of the people who make up our university community. When I was a candidate for the position, I had the opportunity to meet with several Trustees and members of our community, and I was immediately struck with how deeply people cared about this university. This love of Lehigh was a real draw for me, and my initial impressions have proven to be correct.

Our students, faculty, staff, alumni and neighbors in South Bethlehem have been wonderful to work with. We’ve moved the institution forward over the past six years, and I’m proud of what we have accomplished together.

Think back to when you were first appointed as Lehigh’s president. What was your vision for the institution?

I wanted to create a culture of possibility, with the idea that we could change the way that we and others think about Lehigh. This context led to things like the Path to Prominence, the idea of increasing our impact through growth, creating new opportunities for students through our efforts in creative inquiry, our strategic partnership with the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco, our engagement with new and strategic partners around the world, and the GO! Campaign that is reflective of our collective thinking about how we could take this great institution to the next level with confidence that we could raise $1 billion-plus dollars. Those funds will strengthen Lehigh in so many dimensions—academics, the student experience, research, facilities and infrastructure, athletics and much more.

Kevin Clayton and John Simon

Board of Trustees Chair Kevin L. Clayton, left, and Simon at the launch of Go: The Campaign for Lehigh

I wanted to harness the strengths of this university, move it forward on several different fronts, take risks, and get us out of our comfort zone. Everyone from the Board on down was supportive from the very start, and over these past six years we've done exactly what we set out to do—to further define Lehigh as an institution that innovates and leads in the world of higher education by changing the ambition and aspirational level of the institution.

The Path to Prominence plan will be a key aspect of your legacy, and one of the pillars of that plan was the College of Health. Can you talk to me about how that came to be?

When you examine any list of the top universities in the country—a list that Lehigh is always included in—you see most have connections to health and healthcare. As president, I felt strongly that we needed to begin to think about how we could move into this area in an innovative and distinctive way. [Former Provost] Pat Farrell had been thinking about starting a school of public health. We took this idea, and vetted it on campus and with private-sector, government and healthcare leaders across the nation. Those conversations shaped the program and initial degrees that are now a reality in our new College of Health. When I think back on some of the pinnacle moments during my tenure, the Board of Trustees meeting where we formally approved the College of Health will be viewed as a major milestone in Lehigh’s history.

At this point, all of the goals of Path to Prominence have either been achieved or are in the process of being achieved. How does this position Lehigh going forward?

We intentionally crafted the Path to Prominence to create a more nimble university culture and position us to be able to seize opportunities as they emerge. This will be important as we move into the post-pandemic world. Lehigh excels in delivering an outstanding education for our students. The future of higher education will focus more intentionally on experiential learning.

Lehigh is an innovator and early mover in this area. We have embedded experiential learning in many of our majors and interdisciplinary degree programs. We have created such opportunities through our international collaborations and creative inquiry programs, and we are now immersed in experiential opportunities in Silicon Valley through our close partnership with the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center. Given our core strengths, we have the depth and capacity to make experiential learning a signature of a Lehigh education.

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez and Simon

Simon walks with Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez along Third Street in South Side Bethlehem. The two shared a strong partnership.

You have always seemed very excited about the various initiatives that we have pursued on the West Coast. Why?

One of the things I've really enjoyed learning about Lehigh is all of the entrepreneurship programs we have on campus, and the entrepreneurial mindset many of our students possess. Lisa Getzler, executive director of the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity, and Innovation, invited me to join the “Lehigh in Silicon Valley” program in January 2016. My time with students and entrepreneurs opened my eyes to a world of possibilities for Lehigh on the West Coast. When Lisa introduced me to the leadership of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, the opportunity arose to create Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, a partnership between the two institutions that benefits many Lehigh students and faculty. You can feel the energy when you are at the Center with student groups.

You’ve also engaged with the Lehigh community internationally and broadened programs. What are you most proud of in terms of those efforts, and what are some of your best memories?

When I arrived in 2015, I wanted to expand Lehigh’s global reach. In 2016, we appointed Cheryl Matherly as Lehigh’s vice president for international affairs, and under her leadership Lehigh has made great strides.

Simon plants a tree in India

Simon helps to plant a tree at Ashoka University as a symbol of Lehigh's commitment to expand its presence and partnerships in India. Photo: Contributed

As I look back at some of the work we’ve done in this area, I have to say, my trips to India, England, France, Peru and China were fantastic experiences. One year we took Lehigh's Parents Weekend directly to our parents in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. The pride parents had in their sons and daughters for earning the opportunity to experience a Lehigh education was inspiring. While in Beijing, I was able to meet with the vice minister of education, and we had a far-reaching and engaging conversation about education in the U.S. and China and the challenges universities need to solve in today’s world. We also did a lot of important work in India, creating international partnerships with Ashoka University and the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. On the trip to Ashoka, I was asked to plant a tree as a symbol of our partnership—the tree will grow and broaden with time, as we hope our relationship with Ashoka, and India more broadly, will as well.

Building on strong programs such as the Iacocca International Internships and the Global Village, Lehigh was deservedly recognized this year by being awarded the 2021 Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization.

It would be impossible to do this interview without mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic. From the perspective of a university president, just how challenging has this year been? What has it been like just keeping the university moving forward given all the hurdles you faced?

As a university president, situations end up on your desk where you have to make decisions based on incomplete information. Many times, similar situations have been faced by other leaders and you can reach out to a colleague or a Trustee and learn from their experiences. COVID-19 was different; there was no playbook. For most of 2020, we were navigating this pandemic with incomplete data and often conflicting guidance from health experts and officials. It has been difficult and frustrating. In a situation like this, the leadership team must place as its highest priority to make decisions that are in the best interest of the university—and Lehigh was fortunate to have such a team.

As we worked to understand the impact of the pandemic on Lehigh’s ability to deliver on our mission, I quickly realized how little I actually knew about the daily operations of the university. With the flip of a switch, it became crucial for the senior leadership team to understand how housing, dining, maintenance, facilities, the heating plants, the
technology infrastructure and many other areas operated.

Simon address graduates at 2018 Commencement

Simon addresses graduating students, their families, trustees and alumni at the 2018 Commencement.

In your view, what is the current state of higher education, and how well positioned is Lehigh to succeed as an institution of higher learning going forward?

When I spoke to the faculty about serious challenges facing higher education in the spring of 2019, I framed my thoughts in three categories: “The Great Decline, The Great Unknowing and The Great Unbundling”; these thoughts were published in Inside Higher Education in the fall of 2019. This framing was done prior to the pandemic. I think the pandemic will accelerate change in higher education, and could potentially exacerbate my greatest fear for higher education, which is the stability of the four-year degree. Educators have always talked about the importance of “lifelong learning,” but the students who attend elite universities like Lehigh see this as engaging with educational opportunities during their working careers following their four-year degree. We are witnessing the rise of certificate programs that offer alternatives to our residential university model. Top universities like Lehigh would be foolish to let third-party providers dominate that space. This rapidly changing educational landscape, the costs of a college education, and the creative and innovative discussions taking place about the future of work will increase the pressure to justify why a college education requires four years.

I remember asking you this about a year after you arrived as president, and I'm curious if your answer would be different now: Is there one thing about the reality of being a university president that you didn't understand or fully appreciate until you were in the job?

I underestimated and did not fully appreciate the fact that building relationships is very important. I value the relationships I’ve developed with students, faculty, staff, other college presidents. I’ve learned so much from alumni I’ve met, who’ve spoken about the impact Lehigh has had on their careers and on their lives. I have enjoyed a very special relationship with Bob Donchez, the mayor of Bethlehem. We have worked well together and we both deeply believe the futures of Lehigh and Bethlehem are linked. I have also spent significant time in Washington, D.C., participating in briefings for university presidents by elected officials and in one-on-one meetings with our state’s U.S. Senators, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, and our local representatives to the U.S. House, Charlie Dent [formerly in the House] and Susan Wild. All have been great supporters of Lehigh, and I appreciate all they have done for Lehigh and how they have always been open and willing to discuss policy issues with me. I have also enjoyed working with several of our elected state officials, who also care deeply about higher education.

Simon embraces his son Evan at his graduation

Simon fondly recalls the moment he embraced his son Evan as he crossed the stage at his Lehigh graduation in 2019. Photo: John Kish IV.

What are the moments you look back on during your time here as president most fondly?

There is really a very long list. At the top of the list is a personal experience: embracing my son Evan as he crossed the stage at his Lehigh graduation in 2019. At that moment, I understood what every parent in Goodman Stadium was feeling. That was almost as much fun as when he dressed up to look like me and walked out of the front door of the President’s House to join me in greeting parents on the front porch during Parents Weekend in 2017.

When on campus, I began my day at Saxby’s, either meeting with a student or a faculty or staff member. Some days I would just sit down at a table and see who would join me. It’s how I met people and learned what was happening on campus and in Bethlehem. I loved attending plays, athletic events, charity events, the annual bed races (we had a President's Office team, and with no handicap for age, we were preordained to lose), and DanceFest. In terms of unique experiences, I had the opportunity to serve as a guest coach (I ended up with an 0-2 record, so I’m not sure Coach Sue [Troyan] will invite me back again) of the women’s basketball team.

Diane and I were on vacation in Spain and met up with the Lehigh Choir in Granada; we heard their performance in a small church in the city (an amazing experience) and toured the Alhambra with the students. We also joined the Marching 97 in London and marched with them in the New Year’s Day parade. We also took a day trip down the Thames to Greenwich, and the students enjoyed having their pictures taken straddling the prime meridian. Watching our women’s and men’s soccer teams compete against professional teams in Stade Océane in Le Havre, France was a wonderful experience. (Thank you, Vince Volpe ’80, for making that trip possible.) Eugene Albulescu asked me to be part of two performances, in which I had the honor of narrating an original poem as the Lehigh orchestra played one of his newest compositions. I think the students really enjoyed it when Eugene would correct my delivery and tone during rehearsals. I fondly recall sitting in the green room with Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” before introducing him at the Lehigh-sponsored event of the NAFSA meeting in Philadelphia. And of course, I’ll never forget my very first Lehigh event: the 150th Rivalry game vs. Lafayette in Yankee Stadium back in 2014.

My first campus event was the annual Scholarship Dinner—I have looked forward to this event every year since, as it is an emotional evening. I am so proud of our donors who support the education of our outstanding students. This event inspired Diane and me to create our own endowed scholarship. Our inaugural Alumni Awards in 2019 is a strong memory; I remember the words of Dr. Frank Douglas ’66. Just hearing his insights from an amazing career; you could have heard a pin drop. Watching Halsey perform at the campus launch of our GO! Campaign was great, and I remember the opening night of the “Our Lehigh” Tour, my inaugural tour; the event was held at Cipriani’s in New York City with 900 people in attendance. I wasn’t nervous until I walked in the room and experienced the size and energy of the crowd that had shown up to meet the new president of Lehigh. I learned such events give me the energy to do this job.

Finally, I want to say that my senior leadership team is an outstanding group. In fact, they are the best team I have ever worked with. I learned from their perspectives and know all have Lehigh’s best interest at heart. It has been a real pleasure, and I am deeply appreciative of their work and their support.

What message would you like to send to the Lehigh community as your tenure comes to a close?

One of my first trips after accepting this position was to visit Lee Iacocca to present him with the 2015 Alumni Award. It’s hard to capture this visit in words. I was in the presence of one of our great alumni, an icon of American business, an innovative and inspirational leader whose imprint on American manufacturing is legend. For me, I was in the presence of the person who brought the Ford Mustang into reality, the coolest car of my generation. I had read his books and in my new role as president, I was inspired and guided by his words: “Apply yourself. Get all the education you can, but then … do something. Don’t just stand there, make it happen.” I think Mr. Iacocca captures what all in the Lehigh community do and will continue to do. It has been an amazing honor to become educated in all things Lehigh and to make things happen to move this great institution forward. I am optimistic that those who follow will take Mr. Iacocca’s words to heart and take Lehigh to new heights.

Story by Tim Hyland

Photography by

Christa Neu

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