Students, faculty and staff gathered for an all-campus Community Conversation Tuesday where President Joseph J. Helble ’82 answered questions and gave key updates on topics including Lehigh’s potential acquisition of three Lutheran churches in Bethlehem and plans to host a community input process for the St. John's Windish Evangelical Lutheran Church.
He also provided updates on admissions, the increase in participation in campus events and the hate crime directed at a Lehigh student by individuals from outside the Bethlehem area earlier this month.
“In terms of campus this year, I’d like to start by saying what I am sensing and seeing, overall, is a very upbeat and positive movement. That doesn’t mean perfect…it doesn’t mean there aren’t challenging incidents that we need to work through as a community,” Helble said to the crowd gathered in the Health, Science and Technology building’s Forum 101 room. The hybrid conversation also was broadcast to about 130 participants over Zoom.
Following up on a hate crime that took place on campus earlier this month, Helble thanked the Northampton County District Attorney and Lehigh University Police Department, who he said acted swiftly in their investigation. He reminded the audience that Lehigh is a diverse and supportive community for everyone and called on faculty, students and staff to work together to report any instances of discrimination.
“I will say once again … that we need to stand together and do all we can to call this out and bring [such hate] to an end,” Helble said.
After the pandemic, the Lehigh community is coming back together again. Numbers reveal greater participation in on-campus events, more prospective student visitors and the most diverse student population in Lehigh’s history, Helble said.
“It’s a moment when we are coming back together in person, and it’s reflected in what I hear walking around campus, when I’m speaking to students, [and] speaking to members of the community…” he said. “But we still remain what I have always thought of as a humble, determined, pragmatic community, a grounded community, and one that I find incredibly inspiring.”
There were 18,414 undergraduate applicants to Lehigh this year, the largest number in Lehigh’s history that represents more than a 20% increase over the previous year and a 49% increase over the last three years, he said.
For the first time in Lehigh’s history, the number of female applicants exceeded the number of male applicants, and Lehigh also has the largest number of international students to date.
Participation in campus events also has increased significantly over the past year.
Lehigh After Dark reports attendance is up 25% with nearly half of attendees saying they met someone new during the event. The Office of Student Engagement reports 1,700 unique student events versus 700 a year ago. Zoellner events for the first half of the year more than doubled their participation rate.
Lehigh also saw a 30% increase in the number of prospective students who are visiting campus so far this year.
The university also has been expanding its facilities.
Renovations at the Clayton University Center are underway with the facility on track for a summer 2025 reopening. The new, 74,000-square-foot Business Innovation Building opened last month, expanding the College of Business footprint by 50%. The new, interdisciplinary HST building where Tuesday’s forum was held has also been open for one year, Helble noted.
Lehigh is also in the process of acquiring three Lutheran churches in Bethlehem that are being sold and merging because of declining membership. The churches are St. John’s Windish on Fourth Street, St. Peter’s on the corner of Vine Street and Packer Avenue, and Light of Christ off of Easton Avenue.
The university anticipates closing on the properties next month.
If that happens, there will be a broader conversation with both the campus and South Bethlehem communities about potential uses for the St. John’s property, which has attracted much community interest, Helble said.
In the question-and-answer segment that followed, Helble addressed a variety of topics posed by students, faculty and staff.
With the goal of connecting the Lehigh community, the Community Conversations are intentionally designed for students, faculty and staff to be able to learn together from questions that are asked by fellow community members.
Tuesday’s Community Conversation was Helble’s fourth. He plans to continue hosting a Community Conversation each semester.