The Rt. Hon. Theresa May, MP, with Joseph Helble

Theresa May, MP, Prime Minister (2016-2019) Launches Lehigh's Compelling Perspectives Program

Mrs. May spoke on national security and reflected on her career in politics.

Photography by

Christa Neu

A capacity crowd filled Baker Hall in the Zoellner Arts Center on Oct. 24 for the inaugural Compelling Perspectives program featuring The Rt. Hon. Theresa May, MP, prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2016 to 2019.

Hosted by President Joseph J. Helble '82 and presented by Lehigh University, Compelling Perspectives is a new program that aims to create a forum for fostering respectful discourse among differing perspectives on issues of critical and societal importance. The topic for the 2023-2024 academic year is national security.

Mrs. May served as prime minister (the second female in history in the U.K. to hold the position) and leader of the Conservative Party, during an extraordinary time in global affairs. She is currently the Member of Parliament for Maidenhead, a position she's held for more than two decades.

May began her political career stuffing envelopes at her local Conservative Association and her extensive political tenure of more than two decades has included roles such as Home Secretary, where she achieved notable reductions in crime and introduced key legislation like the Modern Slavery Act. As prime minister, she led negotiations during the historic Brexit referendum, implemented substantial boosts to the National Health Service and spearheaded initiatives addressing mental health services and environmental sustainability.

Prior to the main program, Mrs. May met with a group of 34 students nominated by their advisors for a private question-and-answer session. Students in attendance were members of various campus groups, including the U.N. Partnership, College Republicans, College Democrats, Student Senate Executive Board, Douglass Dialogues, and journalism and communications, political science and international relations academic departments.

The Rt. Hon. Theresa May, MP meets with students during a question-and-answer session

The discussion, moderated by Provost Nathan Urban, focused on students’ thoughtful questions regarding energy security, climate change, the importance of youth participation in elections and other topics as she reflected on her time as prime minister.

Addressing a student’s question about polarization in politics, Mrs. May stressed compromise and balance, which she views as critical, and the importance of productive, meaningful conversations. She spoke of rampant misinformation on social media creating echo chambers that amplify one’s own views while disregarding differing opinions, and the dangers that poses to democracies.

The Rt. Hon. Theresa May, MP meets with students during a question-and-answer session

During the Compelling Perspectives program, Mrs. May engaged in an hour-long conversation moderated by President Helble. Students and audience members were invited to submit questions for consideration before the event; the majority of the discussion was informed by selected audience questions.

The conversation spanned topics including the greatest threat to national security for Western democracies; the path forward in the Israel-Hamas war; the implications of the Ukraine war; the role of artificial intelligence in national security and navigating the complexities of intelligence-sharing with other nations.

Responding to the greatest threat to national security, Mrs. May spoke of concerns regarding increased threats of terrorism originating from the current conflict in the Middle East, but encouraged the audience to consider the issue more broadly and examine how democracies operate. With the current societal trend of political polarization, she said an absolutist view of politics and increasing isolationism around the world pose the most significant threats to national security.

Reiterating her prior comments to students regarding compromise in politics, Mrs. May discussed Brexit and the resulting near-even split of those in favor of leaving the European Union and those expressing a desire to stay. She again cited compromise as the key to successfully navigating complex situations with constituents.

Compelling Perspectives ft. The Rt. Hon. Theresa May, MP

A portion of the conversation was dedicated to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Mrs. May noted that if the conflict spreads regionally, there is significant potential for increased threats of terrorism. She noted an uptick in the potential for Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups to plan attacks in the wake of unrest in the region.

Mrs. May also addressed the conflict in the Middle East as part of the live question-and-answer session, which closed the program. Students questioned her comments during the main program and pressed her on why she supports a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Mrs. May responded that the two-state system is the ultimate end goal toward which everyone should work, and that it would take quite a bit of time to achieve that.

Responding to a question submitted by a student asking what advice she would give to young people interested in a career in politics, she encouraged them to do it— for the right reason, which is public service.

Compelling Perspectives aims to provide a forum for various viewpoints. The exchange of diverse ideas about substantive topics and the consideration of alternative viewpoints helps to promote critical thinking, empathy and openness—all essential to helping individuals and communities address complex challenges. Such dialogue serves as a powerful tool to foster social cohesion, build trust and strengthen community bonds. At a time when echo chambers and surface-level sound bites threaten to replace healthy societal discourse, this forum is one way in which Lehigh University seeks to foster principled dialogue, build understanding, and bridge divides.

A second speaker offering a different perspective on national security will be announced soon. The event will take place in the spring semester.

Photography by

Christa Neu

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