Joseph J. Helble speaks to audience at Community Conversation

Joseph J. Helble ’82 speaks inside Williams Hall's Global Commons during his third Community Conversation Wednesday morning.

Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble: ‘It is Our Moment to Identify What We Do Distinctively’

Helble ’82 holds his third Community Conversation and provides updates on the strategic planning process and other initiatives.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

For the third time since Joseph J. Helble ’82 was named Lehigh’s president, students, faculty and staff gathered for an hour-long, all-campus Community Conversation. The end-of-semester event, held Wednesday morning in Williams Hall’s Global Commons, offered those in attendance, who were seated on the room’s first and second floors, an opportunity to ask questions, share thoughts and engage with Helble and the Lehigh community.

Ric Hall, vice president for Student Affairs, kicked off the Conversation and introduced Helble, who opened with five general updates:

  • Helble addressed the report of a racially motivated assault that occurred off campus in South Bethlehem on Nov. 19.

    “I can't say strongly enough that the safety and security and participation and full membership in this community is and has to be our highest priority,” Helble said. “I have spoken often about every student and every employee feeling as if they can be, and bring, their full selves to campus to work every day.”

    He said the focus needs to be on engaging and supporting every student. Because the incident occurred off campus, the Bethlehem Police Department took the lead. The investigation is continuing.
  • Work surrounding the support and structure of the Title IX office is nearly complete. Helble said he expects a formal communication to the campus prior to the holiday break.

    He said its response and communication times show opportunities for improvement, and that both the internally appointed committee and TNG, an outside consulting firm, perceive it is preferable to have separation and independence between the Title IX office and the Office of General Counsel.

    The office is also launching a search for an investigator and deputy Title IX coordinator “as an initial investment in additional staffing,” while additional staffing needs are being assessed.
  • Noting that fencing has been erected around the Clayton University Center, Helble said the renovations to the building have officially begun. “When we return from the holiday break in January, there should be a good visual perspective on the exciting renovations that are going to take place there,” Helble said.
  • Helble referenced Tuesday’s town hall on the DI&E (Diversity, Inclusion and Equity) Strategic Plan Process. As part of the plan, which was unveiled to campus in Fall 2021, Lehigh will outline metrics that will be used to hold itself accountable and assess progress. Those metrics were released in the spring and now preliminary data will be provided to help understand where Lehigh is in regard to each of the metrics.

    Helble said websites with that information will be live in the beginning of 2023.
  • Helble briefly described Lehigh’s Strategic Plan process. He specified the Lehigh User Experience and the university’s desire to remove barriers that sometimes make the day-to-day on campus tougher than it needs to be.

    He also said: “It is our moment to identify areas that we can invest in and build. It is our moment to identify what we do distinctively and distinctly well and invest in them and support that differentially. It's our opportunity to expand all of the creative things we've done, interdisciplinarily.”

    He said he’s started to use the term “radical interdisciplinarity” to describe what he sees as the opportunity to really think about Lehigh’s undergraduate and graduate education, including its Ph.D. programs.

    “What would it mean if we can become radically interdisciplinary in those programs in all these areas? … I think it's an opportunity for Lehigh to lead in ways that matter to this country, and based on the conversations we've been having with the graduate students through the strategic planning process, matter deeply to our students.”

Following his updates, Helble welcomed a range of questions, which he answered for just over 30 minutes. A submitted question from an undergraduate student, which was read by Hall, asked about recommended resources for students to “push themselves outside of just classrooms and clubs.” Helble echoed Hall’s suggestion of reading through the university announcement email that is sent out each day but also asked if there might be a better way to more effectively convey information to students.

Helble also was asked how Lehigh can better retain its high-performing staff.

Joseph J. Helble ’82 gives campus updates

Joseph J. Helble ’82 gave campus updates Wednesday including information on the Clayton University Center renovations and Lehigh's Strategic Plan process.

Helble acknowledged there’s not a simple answer, though “ideas are surfacing through the context of these conversations.”

He recognized the competition from private sector companies that might offer higher compensation, as well as the workload and uncertainty that comes with being understaffed.

“If we want to be this institution that attracts and retains talent and gives people the opportunity for meaningful and purposeful work… you have to be coming to an organization where you know that your work is valued, appreciated and it doesn't feel as if the organization is putting impediments in your way,” he said.

While Lehigh does have to take “a really hard look at compensation,” he said, it cannot compete with the private sector. “We will do the best that we can,” Helble said.

He explained that Lehigh’s revenue comes largely from tuition, and a balance has to be struck if the university is truly committed to making its education “accessible to the entire socio economic spectrum of this country.”

Helble also was asked about the status of the search for a dean for the College of Health. He said the process was “on track” and anticipates the first round of the interview process will take place early in 2023. He expects the new dean to be named, appointed and in place by July 1.

As attendees left, they were encouraged to scan a QR code to provide feedback on the in-person Community Conversation. Helble said he is committed to holding these events regularly, as long as they are valuable to the community. “We would like to have your feedback,” he said, “because this is part of our commitment…to communicate as openly as we can about where we are as a campus and where we're heading.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

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