Spring beauty

The tower of Clayton University Center is seen behind magnolia blossoms. President Joseph J. Helble '82 addressed Lehigh Faculty, Staff and students during his regularly scheduled Community Conversation on Monday, April 8.

Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble: Lehigh Should Aspire to Be A ‘Community of Belonging’

Helble ’82 held a Community Conversation in person and virtually on Monday.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

During his latest Community Conversation Monday, Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble shared some wisdom from elementary school students that he said epitomizes what the university’s faculty, staff and students should strive for every day.

Before addressing the Lehigh community, both in person and virtually, Helble had spent the morning at the Centennial School, a school funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and supported by Lehigh’s College of Education. It provides services for students in need of special education from 40 school districts throughout the Lehigh Valley.

During Helble’s visit, he was presented with a collection of responses from students who were asked what they would do if they were president of Lehigh University for one day.

President Joseph J. Helble '82

President Joseph J. Helble '82.

“As you might imagine, there are many that said, ‘I would cancel homework, give free pizza, expand the playground,’ but there are three I’d like to read to you, three that really touch me,” Helble said.

The first one said, “If I were president of Lehigh University for one day I would drive go-karts with helmets and seat belts.”

“I love the fact that they are thinking about safety. There’s a future engineer right there,” Heble said.

The second student would make more speeches.

“I promise you I can act on that recommendation,” Helble joked.

But the third response, Helble said, resonated deeply because it reflected what the Lehigh community works to achieve every day: “If I was president of Lehigh University for a day, I would make the school better. I would build and fix things.”

“Isn’t that what all of us are here to do for our students at this incredibly challenging time? To build the programs, to help them build the skills that they need to go out and make a difference in an incredibly challenging world, a world with things to fix,” he said.


After President Joseph J. Helble addressed the campus community Monday, attendees stepped outside of the Health Science and Technology Building to view the solar eclipse.

During the update, Helble spoke at length about campus climate and how leaders continue to work on making Lehigh a campus for everyone. He also gave updates on strategic planning and facilities and answered questions from in-person and virtual audience members before the crowd dispersed to watch the afternoon’s solar eclipse. Below are the highlights.


  • A new inter-college program between the College of Business and College of Health is expected to be announced at the end of the Spring 2024 semester and will be open to applicants next year. It will be Lehigh’s first new inter-college program in approximately 20 years.

  • In addition to the Center for Catastrophe Modeling and Resilience that was announced earlier this year, Lehigh intends to establish two additional integrated, interdisciplinary university research centers, consistent with the goals of the university’s new strategic plan. Helble said university leaders have heard that the selection process itself would benefit from more clarity, and said that future announcements on the process would provide more detailed information about the selection process, metrics, timeline and steps needed to select these two centers.

  • For the second consecutive year, Lehigh received a record number of undergraduate applicants—20,395—for the Class of 2028. It’s the first time Lehigh has ever exceeded 20,000 applicants, he said.

Strategic Planning:

  • A campus planning open house will be held April 18 to obtain “community feedback on topics such as changes to buildings and landscapes and opportunities for a more sustainable campus,” Helble said.

  • Additionally, through April 14, both Upper and Lower Sayre Park Roads are one-way roads with vehicular traffic moving in a counterclockwise direction. One lane will be reserved for automobile traffic, and the other for pedestrians and bicyclists. The regular traffic pattern will resume on April 15. The Sayre Loop Pilot Project is an effort to improve connectivity between Lehigh campuses and increase motorist, pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

  • On May 1 another strategic plan information session will be held to provide more detail about implementation steps that have been taking place during the Spring 2024 semester.


  • Renovations of the Clayton University Center at Packer Hall remain on track and the building is expected to be ready for a summer 2025 opening.

  • The former home of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on the corner of Packer Avenue and Vine Street, one of three Lutheran churches that Lehigh acquired last year, is being explored for potential renovations that would allow the university to use the sanctuary space for some project work this summer. Eventually, some, or all of the College of Education, could be moved into the building to be closer to their partners, particularly Broughal Middle School.

“There’s nothing definite, but these are things we’re exploring,” Helble said.


When he thinks about his aspirations for community at Lehigh Helble said, “It is truly for us to be a community of belonging. To be a place where every individual can be and bring their full selves to each and everything that they do.”

When it comes to controversial issues, he encouraged faculty, students and staff to “listen first, pause and reflect. When community members do engage, do so respectfully around different points of view.

“That’s important on every issue and of course acutely important now as it relates to the war in Gaza and conversations that are playing out on college campuses, and broadly across the entire country,” he said.

Lehigh’s campuses remain peaceful, but there have been some incidents Helble said should be troubling to the entire community.

Last week, after a swastika was found etched on the handrail of an interior stairwell of a residence hall and immediately removed, Helble reiterated in an email to the campus that such acts will not be tolerated and will be met with appropriate consequences, including potential prosecution by law enforcement.

He said Lehigh has also recently been added to a list of 128 institutions the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is requesting information from to determine whether there has been discrimination involving what the complaint terms as “shared ancestry” on campus. The list, which is growing, includes schools at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels.

“Inclusion on this list means only that OCR has initiated an investigation. It doesn’t mean that OCR has made a determination about the merits of that complaint, but it is something we take very seriously,” Helble said. “We’ll be cooperating fully, not only as we must, but as we should. If there are things that we can learn to help us become that community of belonging that I spoke of sooner, or better for our Jewish community, for all of our communities, for our entire Lehigh community, we will embrace them.”

He reminded the audience that Lehigh has been a member of Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative and began work in fall of 2022 to conduct a campus climate review focused on Jewish students. To further that work, Lehigh is now engaged with the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to complete a comprehensive assessment of Lehigh’s policies and procedures.

The center is an independent, nonprofit corporation established to advance the civil and human rights of Jewish people and promote justice for all.

Helble also encouraged faculty, staff and students to take the annual campus climate survey, which measures whether respondents feel included and comfortable at Lehigh. The survey is open until April 18.

Read more stories on the Lehigh News Center.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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