President Joseph J. Helble's Inauguration Remarks

Remarks delivered by President Helble on the occasion of his presidential inauguration on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.

Photography by

Christa Neu

Thank you, Kevin, for that very kind introduction. [President Helble was introduced by Lehigh Board of Trustees Chair Kevin Clayton ’84 ’13P.]

Thanks to all of you for joining us this afternoon to celebrate this Lehigh moment.

Those of you who know me well know that I often say “Family First” and in that spirit, I’d like to begin by recognizing and thanking my immediate family.

To those who are here today – my mother, my sisters and brother-in-law, my three children and my son-in-law, and my wife Becky – I cannot find the words to describe how special it feels to have you here.

Jennifer, Michaela, and Marcus, you have always impressed me with your intelligence, amused me with your humor, and humbled me with your sense of fairness. I have learned so much from each of you.

Becky, when we met that first year in graduate school, I never imagined the roads that would bring us here. Your intelligence and insight, your devotion to our family, your commitment to your work, and your partnership and support every step of the way – you are an inspiration.

Phil and Laurel, thank you for your kind words and for your mentorship and friendship through so many years. You are different in your personalities yet the same in how you lead with patience and respect, always listening first, and with trust and a belief in the best of human nature, you model effective leadership every day.

To the runners among you, including my daughter Jennifer, who encouraged me to try another marathon after a self-imposed thirty-year ban on the very idea, to my friends who have run with me through so many years and so many miles, and to the Lehigh students who have been meeting me for 5:30 a.m. training runs these past two months: All of you helped me fulfill a lifetime ambition, running the Boston Marathon just four days ago.

To our students who spoke today, thank you for being part of this Lehigh moment. It gives me great hope to think about where the world is headed with students like you in positions of thoughtful leadership.

To the search committee, the Lehigh Board of Trustees, and particularly to Vice-Chair Maria Chrin and Chair Kevin Clayton, thank you for the trust you have placed in me.

As an alumnus, to have this opportunity to help shape the university that shaped each of us, this is the privilege of a lifetime.

And to the Lehigh community, students, faculty, staff, alumni, who from day one have said to me not just “welcome” but “welcome HOME” – thank you.

Those words – that sincere expression of “home” – perfectly capture the bond shared across the generations by those who, in one way or another, have been part of this institution’s history. Part of the Lehigh story.

I have had the great good fortune these past two months to speak with all six living individuals who have held this office before me.

We all owe them a deep debt of gratitude for shaping the Lehigh of today.

Provost Nathan Urban and Board Chair Kevin Clayton, each of whom stepped in during interim periods and kept the university moving forward, on top of their already considerable day jobs.

Peter Likins, president for 15 years, who oversaw a near doubling of Lehigh’s footprint with the addition of the Mountaintop campus. Because of Peter’s efforts, on a per-student basis Lehigh has become one of the most land-rich urban research universities in the country. That juxtaposition truly intrigues me – fully urban yet at the same time, more space per capita than any of our peers.

Greg Farrington, here with us today, who along with his wife, Jean, oversaw the renovation of Linderman Library. Greg changed the face of our campus and our interactions with South Bethlehem through the establishment of Campus Square, now known as Farrington Square in his honor, and he led the development of Lehigh’s first truly interdisciplinary inter-college degrees.

Alice Gast, who launched the Mountaintop Experience … LehighSiliconValley … and began the process of “Getting to Global Lehigh.”

And John Simon, who led the launch of the new College of Health, the construction of several state-of-the-art residence halls, and who built a strong and collaborative partnership with the City of Bethlehem.

For all of us fortunate enough to call Lehigh our alma mater, the people, the programs, and this beautiful campus itself have shaped who we are.

A leafy green campus, beautiful collegiate Gothic architecture, stone buildings teeming with history, adjacent to a vibrant, diverse, accessible urban community.

A leafy green campus with hills that test our strength – hills that include more than 2,500 outdoor steps, hills that inspired Jesse Reno, Lehigh Class of 1883, to invent and build the first working model of what became the escalator.

A leafy green campus that in 1884 saw the beginning of our football rivalry with Lafayette in what is now the most-played rivalry in college football history. It is a tradition that is celebrated on both campuses to this day, a tradition that celebrates what it means to be part of an institution and an adventure spanning centuries and generations.

A leafy green campus that inspires challenging academics, and that gave rise to Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society, founded at Lehigh and now a fixture at more than 250 colleges and universities across this country.

Strong academics, strong traditions, strong bonds of community, all forged in an incredible setting we call home.

This has all taken place as part of a system of higher education in the United States that has long been considered among the finest in the world. The international composition of our faculties and of our student bodies are testaments to the draw of U.S. higher education. By design, by intention, and by a measure of good fortune, we have developed a system that values open-ended inquiry and independent thinking, supports faculty and student scholarship at research universities like ours, and asks our research faculty to be teachers as well, so that all students, from the PhD to the first-year undergraduate, can take part in discovery, creation, and invention.

But we have lately heard our share of criticism of higher education: concerns around access and affordability. Criticism alleging insufficient graduation rates. A general questioning of how university qualifications translate to job-readiness, the ability to think critically and independently, to function in teams, to communicate clearly, to be part of a community.

While some of this may be unfair, we ignore these criticisms at our peril.

Higher education is rightly criticized for being siloed. We ask students to choose a major, we tell them to select from curricula that encourage them to stay narrowly within their field; we are slow to adapt when the world is changing right before our very eyes.

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.

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.

I will state, unapologetically, that the 21st century is a century shaped and driven by technology. Technology is the dominant factor in each of our lives. It is a dominant factor in each of our workplaces. It is responsible for economic disruption. It is the major force in shaping even how we interact with one another.

Lehigh was founded as an engineering school. But not one focused myopically on engineering alone. It was founded specifically and emphatically to teach engineering AND the classics.

Our foundational strength is this “AND.” It is in developing and teaching technology, combined with a broad education in the social sciences and humanities that helps students understand history, context, culture, communities, and how to communicate.

These are the essential elements in the education of ANY student in this technology-driven age.

Lehigh also offers something more: a business school that offers students the opportunity to learn how organizations function, make decisions, and are run. To learn how to manage flows of people and capital, how to accomplish organizational goals as part of a community.

While the existence of these distinct elements – technology, arts and sciences, and business – is itself unusual in a small private institution, it is the ability to move seamlessly among them that is truly Lehigh’s strength. For decades, Lehigh has been quietly experimenting, creating programs that integrate engineering and business … that integrate computer science and business … that integrate engineering and the arts and sciences.

Each of these programs marries disparate disciplines in creative ways.

Each of them enables students to draw from the best of different programs and prepare themselves to meet the challenges of the world.

And each of them, for a variety of reasons, has been capped at a relatively low number of students since the time of their founding.

Over my first few months on campus, I have been asking a simple question: What if we made these signature interdisciplinary programs like IDEAS, CSB, and IBE accessible to greater numbers of our students?

What if we created new interdisciplinary programs that included the College of Health, allowing students to bring an engineering or computational or business or humanities perspective to problems that are confronting us nationally and globally in health care?

What if we made the key elements of Bus+Eng+A&S available to every one of our undergraduate students, and encouraged them to explore?

I have therefore asked the provost, the deans, and our Office of Admissions to increase the size of these signature interdisciplinary programs by 50% over the next several years. I have asked that we explore the creation of new programs, including with the College of Health, to expand this interdisciplinary opportunity to students in ALL of our undergraduate colleges. And finally, I have asked the deans to work with their faculties and explore what would be needed to provide ALL Lehigh students the opportunity to draw from the fundamental elements of each of these three colleges – engineering, business, and arts and sciences – so that ALL have the opportunity to graduate with basic foundational knowledge, regardless of their major, of technology, of business, and of the many ways to ask open-ended questions and understand context, community, and culture.

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.

Everything I have said about interdisciplinary education also applies to graduate programs, and particularly PhD programs. I firmly believe that PhD education is ripe for innovation; it needs to change. It is rooted in practices of a century ago, when most PhDs sought careers as academics. That is no longer the case. And it is certainly not the case for an institution that even at the PhD level, produces graduates who are pragmatic, practical, and prepared to contribute from day one. Graduates from our College of Education are a prime example of our approach. While some, of course, go on to academic careers, many others hold leadership roles in school systems, business and industry, health care, and community-based organizations.

I do not think the expectation of original publishable scholarly research in any of our PhD programs should change. But I do believe that the moment is right to look at all other aspects of our PhD programs and ask if there is opportunity to innovate, and through that, opportunity for Lehigh to lead.

Over this next year I will begin a series of conversations to begin asking these questions. What if we were to design programs that better supported the outcomes our students are seeking today? What if we were to design programs that better supported the needs of the world today? What if, in addition to training the next generation of academics, our PhD programs also helped inspire innovators, entrepreneurs, public servants? What if they helped PhD students build the same kind of cross-disciplinary competencies that are so essential for undergraduate student success?

Mike Caruso, one of Lehigh’s most storied alumni, a three-time individual NCAA champion wrestler, said to me recently, in a very matter-of-fact way, that education is the great equalizer.

Education transforms lives.

Last week, I met with a small group of students who asked how my education here had affected me personally; essentially, how had it transformed me.

My answer: Lehigh not only opened doors for me. It showed me doors that I didn’t even know existed.

Faculty and staff who challenged me and inspired me. A community of friends who encouraged me, each of them helping me and helping every one of us to find the best in ourselves, to learn as we go, and to be committed to leaving here devoted to making a difference.

A Lehigh education transforms lives. My Lehigh education certainly transformed mine.

To quote Bill Luyben, one of my chemical engineering professors who literally “wrote the book” – the McGraw-Hill engineering series textbook – on chemical engineering process control, the first law of process control is “understand the process.”

Our process is to take the world’s talented youth, and to teach them, to challenge them, to give them the opportunity, to inspire them to use their skills and their knowledge, and to leave here committed to making a difference.

To my Lehigh colleagues who are here today: That is the impact that we have on every student who crosses this campus.

Let’s never forget this. And I ask you to work with me, and work together, to make this great institution even greater – for the students who are with us today and the students who will join us in the years to come.

Thank you for joining me on this incredible journey.

Photography by

Christa Neu