Lehigh President Joseph Helble

Joseph J. Helble '82 is the second alumnus in Lehigh’s history to be named president.

Welcome Home, Joseph J. Helble '82

The Lehigh chemical engineering grad returns to his alma mater to lead the university that changed the course of his life.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

On the second hour of his first day as Lehigh’s 15th president, Joseph J. Helble ’82 gathered with the university’s newest faculty in a classroom in the belly of the Rauch Business Center and encouraged them to be a “motivating presence” for their students across the colleges, both graduate and undergraduate students alike.

“What you do has such impact—yes, when you’re in a classroom like this, yes, when you’re working with your students on a research project, but even a five-minute conversation after class about a paper or project they’re struggling with,” he says. “Believe me when I say those five minutes can be incredibly impactful.”

As a chemical engineering graduate in Lehigh’s Class of 1982, Helble speaks from experience.

“All these years later, I remember conversations I had with faculty on this campus that changed my view of the world and changed my professional trajectory,” he tells them. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that those conversations with Lehigh faculty changed the course of my life.”

In Helble's junior year at Lehigh, chemical engineering professor Fred P. Stein, now emeritus, had taken him aside after class one day and had quietly suggested he consider graduate school and a Ph.D. “I had no idea what a Ph.D. was,” says Helble, the first in his family to attend a residential college. “I had no idea that graduate school was something one could do. I didn’t think I could afford it. I didn’t know that financial resources were available.”

Now, nearly 40 years after graduating from Lehigh with highest honors in chemical engineering, the accomplished scholar, researcher and administrator is back on campus, where he’ll lead Lehigh as its 15th president and help the university in shaping the next generation of students. Previously provost of Dartmouth College, Helble is only the second alumnus in Lehigh’s history to be named president—and the first in 100 years. Henry Sturgis Drinker, who graduated from Lehigh in 1871, served as Lehigh’s fifth president from 1905 to 1920.

In a heartfelt video message to the Lehigh community at the time of the announcement, Helble says, “To have the opportunity to return to my alma mater, to the university that changed my view of what’s possible in life, and to return as the president, I truly can’t tell you how special of a moment this is and how special of an opportunity for me.”

All these years later, I remember conversations I had with faculty on this campus that changed my view of the world and changed my professional trajectory.

Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble '82

Since arriving on campus in mid-August, Helble has met with faculty, students, alumni and parents—quietly joining campus tours, sitting in on classes, and casually engaging in conversations with those he meets on walks along Memorial Drive and near Packer Memorial Church. He has talked with, and listened to, students who volunteer with Emergency Medical Services and students who are part of the Lehigh Women Engineers group. He’s welcomed international students and dropped in on Gryphon training. He’s picnicked with the Marching 97, joined in Family Weekend, and, as part of his training for the Boston Marathon, run with ROTC cadets and members of the men’s and women’s cross-country teams.

“I’m far from finished,” Helble says, in an interview in the President’s Office a month after starting the job. “There’s always something to learn from talking with members of the community. … What drew you to Lehigh, what was it that stood out, why did each of us make the choice that we made? These individual conversations are really helpful in giving me a sense of how the community feels about the institution.”

What’s been interesting, he says, is the consistency of the answers. Most mention the beauty of the campus. All mention the academics in different ways, either a specific major that drew them to Lehigh, or the rigor and quality of Lehigh’s academic offerings. Almost everyone, he says, mentions a sense of community—the friends they’ve met, the relationships they’ve had with professors, the camaraderie on athletic teams and in organizations and clubs.

Invariably, students ask Helble the same question in response: What drew him to Lehigh as an undergraduate? The oldest of three children, Helble grew up in northern New Jersey. His maternal grandparents had immigrated from Sicily, part of the great wave of European migration in the early 20th century. He is unsure whether his paternal grandparents had come to the U.S. as infants or were born here, but his paternal grandmother’s family was from northern Italy and his paternal grandfather’s from a small town in southwestern Germany.

Helble’s mother, a high school graduate, took care of the family and the home. His father worked by day as a draftsman and attended college at night for 8 to 10 years to earn a general engineering degree. His father was a man of few words, Helble says, but he remembers being told to find a job that he loved because he would spend so much of his life at work.

Joseph J. Helble '82 at The Rally

Joseph J. Helble '82 proudly displays the Class of 1982 flag with fellow classmate Mark Yoder. (John Kish IV)

At home, education was paramount. “There was never any question that I and my two younger sisters would go to college,” Helble says. “It was just assumed.” Helble worked summer jobs and set aside money for his future. His family stopped going on vacations and eating at restaurants in an effort to save money for the children’s college education. 

“It was just clear through every decision my parents made that education was a way to secure a place in the middle class and be a contributing member of your community,” he says. 

Helble looked for a college that was not too far from home. He was interested in the sciences and engineering, and Lehigh had a strong reputation in those fields. That was the analytical part that figured into his decision. But he felt an emotional pull too, given the beauty of the campus, and he says, breaking into a grin, the palpable enthusiasm of a campus tour guide.

Now back on the Lehigh campus, the memories have come flooding back—walking out of the (now) Clayton University Center after learning, to his delight, that he had been selected as a Gryphon, walking across campus with friends on his way to classes, running the “miserably hard” course up and over South Mountain as part of cross-country practices, attending challenging labs and sharing the experiences with classmates.

Helble gets a bit choked up as he remembers his conversations with the Lehigh faculty who encouraged him and pushed him to aim high. “It opened up a world of possibilities for me that I didn’t even know existed,” he says. He figured he’d attend his classes, graduate, get a job in an industry in New Jersey—“all of which would have been fine,” he says. “But they sat down with me and said, ‘You can do that, if that’s what you want. Here are all these other possibilities that we see for you. Have you thought about this?’ And I hadn’t.”

In his first week as Lehigh president, Helble attended the orientation for new graduate students in Neville Hall. He looked around the auditorium and said to the students, “I’ve not set foot in this room since I was here for organic chemistry.” (Which, by the way, he loved.)

“So it feels very familiar,” he says, “and it feels like home.”

A Purposeful Career 

Helble was very intentional in choosing chemical engineering as his major at Lehigh at the end of his first year as an undergraduate. For one, he loved chemistry. But what was important to him, he says, was its application in addressing looming energy problems in the environment.  

The 1979 OPEC oil crisis, caused by a drop in oil production in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, had led to a spike in oil prices, fuel shortages and long lines at gas stations. The disruption in people’s lives had drawn attention to the country’s energy supply.

Also, the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Middletown, Pennsylvania, just 96 miles from the Lehigh campus, fueled fears about the safety of nuclear energy. “That had me thinking about energy in a much more immediate and visceral way,” he says.  

A runner since high school, Helble always appreciated the outdoors too. He was aware of air quality issues that then still stemmed from the operations of the nearby Bethlehem Steel Corp., as well as from the unfiltered exhausts of diesel buses that passed along the city streets.

“And so talking to faculty and just doing a little reading, it was clear to me that if I wanted to dedicate my career toward working on problems that I cared about in this area, chemical engineering was the path to pursue,” Helble says. 

At the time, climate change was not in the forefront of the public consciousness. Helble says he thought much more about the visible problems of air pollution, such as sulfur, nitrogen oxides, soot and particulate matter, and devoted a large part of his research career to those areas.

“But over time,” Helble says, “I started working on questions of CO2 capture, because it was becoming clear by the ’90s, the modeling was more and more consistent, that this was a looming crisis that we were facing. And I’m a realist. I didn’t think the world would be able to turn a switch at any point in time and stop utilizing fossil fuels. I still don’t think that’s possible today … My view then and now was, in addition to pursuing alternatives, we have to think about developing materials and technologies to take CO2 out of the air.”

Helble’s research interests have led him to author more than 100 publications. He also has three patents related to the production of nanoscale powders.

At MIT, Helble minored in Spanish as he worked toward his Ph.D. in chemical engineering. While Ph.D. students were required to have a minor, his advisor had wanted him to consider another branch of engineering or materials science instead. Helble persevered, assuring his advisor that he would still take additional classes in those areas.

By minoring in Spanish, Helble says, he was able to gain insight into a different culture, as well as engage a different part of his mind. “It’s just a different way of thinking in the humanities, compared to the analytical approach that you would take in math or science,” he says, “and I enjoyed that.”

Joe has a really good cadence and a keen sense of pace when it comes to delivering information and advice.

Tech entrepreneur Ashifi Gogo

Helble often talks about the importance of a broad education as a way for students to better understand the complexity of the world and to better prepare for life after college. While students might find it more challenging to take courses outside their core area of study, he says, that’s okay. “I think that kind of challenge is a real growth and learning experience,” he says.

It was at MIT, while they were both graduate students, that Helble met his future wife, Rebecca Dabora, a bioengineer. His wife is the chief technology and manufacturing officer at Adagio Therapeutics, a biotechnology firm developing best-in-class monoclonal antibodies that broadly neutralize SARS-CoV-2, SARSCoV and additional pre-emergent coronaviruses. They have two adult daughters and an adult son.

After earning his Ph.D., Helble worked in the private sector for eight years, as a research scientist at Physical Sciences, Inc., in Andover, Massachusetts. He also spent several months on leave as a science policy fellow with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The opportunity to work with students brought him back to academia, and he drew on his experiences as a Lehigh undergraduate in approaching his role as an advisor and mentor.

“To this day, I’m still advising students,” Helble says.

He finds that some students have been afforded wide experiences by their families, and they have a good sense of what they want to do. He has one set of conversations with them. Others are the first in their families to go to college. “I can say to them, ‘I bet I know exactly what you’re thinking right now. … Let’s think about the next four years a step at a time.’ To just watch them grow in self-confidence, and in an education as they go through it, is one of the best parts of being an academic.”

Helble first joined the engineering faculty at the University of Connecticut, where he served as chair of the graduate program and then head of the chemical engineering department. He later spent a year in Washington, D.C., researching environmental and technology policy issues in the office of U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, as the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Roger Revelle Fellow in Global Stewardship.

In 2005, Helble became dean of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, where he helped create the first engineering Ph.D. innovation program and introduced new majors and other programs. During his 13-year tenure, enrollment in the school nearly doubled, and Thayer became the first research school in the country to award more bachelor’s degrees in engineering to women than to men—an important step, he says, in dispelling any suggestions that women don’t have the aptitude or desire to pursue engineering.

Here are 15 fun facts about Lehigh's 15th president.

“Engineering is about applied problem-solving,” Helble says. “It’s about creating something new that provides new opportunities, helps address important problems, maybe even changes the world. It’s about serving society through the application of science. And I think it’s important that the people who are practicing that profession reflect the society that they’re drawn from. You’re going to have a better understanding of the problems that community is facing.”

Among the students that Helble mentored at Thayer was Laura Kier, who is now head of product at a medical AI (artificial intelligence) company. Kier earned a bachelor of arts, then a bachelor of engineering as part of a five-year modified major that Helble helped create that allowed her to study engineering at the intersection of public policy. She also sought his counsel as she later mulled her decision to pursue a master’s in business administration.

“He was very accessible,” says Kier, who, as an undergraduate, was trying to sort through her passions for both science and history. “He was so easy to talk to. College is a really hard time. You can feel really lost, and you don’t really know what you want to be doing, what you want to be focusing on. He was always so open-minded and encouraging [in having me] explore a variety of options. He helped me think about, what are the channels for me to pursue both these passions? … He was so seminal in helping me carve my path, and it’s been great to keep in touch with him as I kind of move through it.”

Tech entrepreneur Ashifi Gogo also met regularly with Helble while pursuing his Ph.D. in Thayer’s engineering innovation program. He says Helble helped him navigate the work that was required to complete the academic program, as well as the work required to get an entrepreneurial venture off the ground. Gogo is founder and chief executive officer of Sproxil, a global technology company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that helps consumers avoid purchasing counterfeit products.

“Joe was basically my on-campus dad, so to speak. My parents in Ghana would check in on me and make sure I’m doing okay, but Joe’s the one who would see if I’m actually showing up on campus and getting things done,” Gogo says with a laugh. With his parents, his advisor and Helble, he says, “I was able to get to the finish line, and here we are today.”

A few years after receiving his doctorate, Gogo was asked to chair the school’s inaugural dean’s council, which Helble established at Thayer, and Gogo was able to, in turn, offer advice about work streams and programs. He says Helble’s skills as a mentor stand out.

“Joe has a really good cadence and a keen sense of pace when it comes to delivering information and advice,” he says. “I find that he’s able to give the right advice at the right time, at the right pace. And it makes it easy to listen to him, because he delivers it very efficiently. … He can tell where you are, where you’re going, and how much you need, just enough to get to the next stage, to use only the amount of information that you need to make progress, and maybe come back for more, as you make your milestones.”

Joseph J. Helble '82 with students

Joseph J. Helble '82 talks with students who volunteer with Lehigh's Emergency Medical Services.

In 2018, Helble was named Dartmouth’s provost, overseeing all its professional and graduate schools, including Geisel School of Medicine, Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, Thayer School of Engineering and Tuck School of Business. He set Dartmouth’s budget priorities, oversaw the annual budget process, developed financial plans and coordinated support for its research infrastructure. He also set the budget for Arts & Sciences.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Helble hosted virtual “Community Conversations” at Dartmouth as a way to share regular updates about decisions and to allow for question-and-answer segments with experts and college administrators.

“One of Joe’s great attributes is he really digs in,” says Laura Hercod, chief of staff and secretary to the board of trustees at Dartmouth, who described Helble as analytical and empathetic, with a good sense of humor. She says Helble not only understood the scientific aspects of the pandemic, but also brought “a real human side to it” with the “Community Conversations” programming. “It’s unusual to find someone who can do both those things,” she says.

Hercod says she regularly grabbed coffee with Helble and sought his advice and wisdom on matters of higher education. “He’s deeply intellectual,” she says. “He’s incredibly personable. He cares greatly. He’s hard-working. He’s someone who really cares about the future of higher education, and we’re lucky to have people like that in leadership positions. We need them.”

Also among the people who worked closely with Helble at Dartmouth was Justin Anderson, vice president of communications. At the time of Helble’s appointment as president of Lehigh, Anderson noted that a defining characteristic of his leadership as dean, then provost, was his strength as a communicator.

He wrote: “His ability to articulate an academic vision, reassure a community, or explain complicated issues in a concise, accessible way is extraordinary. Joe’s communications skills as a leader are matched only by his kindness and generosity as a person.”

Leading Lehigh

In the President’s Office on this September afternoon, Helble reflected on how his experience as an undergraduate at Lehigh might inform his presidency.

“Being here, being president here at my alma mater, there’s no question that my Lehigh experience played a role in how I think about this,” he says. “It’s a very different university today than it was 40 years ago. It’s more diverse. There is a higher level of research activity. The graduate programs are much larger. The Mountaintop Campus is now part of the campus, and students are engaged in their learning in ways that are very different.

“But what I do remember is that core sense of community and the attention that I felt every individual professor was paying to me and all my classmates as individuals,” Helble says. “That’s something I’ve carried with me. That’s something that every conversation I’ve had with students suggests to me has gotten only stronger. And so thinking about Lehigh in that way, knowing how special that connection between the faculty and the student is, and the difference it can make, that’s certainly something that’s affecting my interactions and conversations with students, my interactions and conversations with faculty and staff.”

Helble has long believed that interdisciplinary research, particularly for smaller and mid-sized research universities, is the best path forward for institutions, given the many problems and challenges to be solved that draw from different disciplines.

“The problems I’ve worked on have always been interdisciplinary,” he says. “They’ve drawn from physics. They’ve drawn from mechanical engineering. They’ve drawn from chemical engineering. They’ve drawn from environmental engineering, and oh by the way, there are public policy questions associated with every question I ask and everything I work on. And so I have, from the beginning, believed that moving forward in a certain direction is best accomplished when we’re drawing from different disciplines.”

Joseph Helble at Dartmouth

While at Dartmouth, Joseph J. Helble '82 tries out a project prototype by students in Introduction to Engineering. (Douglas Fraser/Dartmouth Engineering)

He raised the question: What is a discipline? In applied fields such as engineering, he points out, curricula were established after it was determined that groups of students had to be exposed to fundamental elements in a particular area to be able to solve problems.

He says, however, “The problems that the world is working on, the problems that students are working on, have shifted so dramatically from the time these fields were created. What constitutes mechanical engineering today in terms of application and practice is not remotely what constituted mechanical engineering 75 or 100 years ago. So the curriculum has to evolve and the easiest way to do that is to [draw] from different disciplines.”

Helble has started to have conversations with the deans of Lehigh’s five colleges about examining the university’s processes and structures to make sure that no barriers prevent anyone from pursuing their areas of interest.

“It’s about examining absolutely every process, absolutely every structure we have in place, and asking, is it inclusive of everyone? Are there things we can do to make sure that not only is it genuinely inclusive but the representation of that program to the outside world is that it’s fully inclusive, because that perception helps drive decisions.”

In late August, on the first day of classes of the fall semester, Helble had to confront an incident on campus of ethnic intimidation, when a non-Lehigh person made comments to a student and a staff member to the effect that Asians “don’t belong here.” In a strongly worded message to the Lehigh community, Helble condemned the hatred and prejudice and assured the university’s Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander students, faculty and staff that Lehigh is “enriched by your presence.”

“One of the greatest strengths of Lehigh is the strength of the community,” he says. “Each and every individual is valued and brings something unique to contribute. They are here because they have something to offer and because they can learn from being part of this community. And that means every single individual. Not the majority. Everyone.

“We want everyone to have the opportunity to fully engage and be fully valued, to bring their whole selves to the classroom to work. It’s important that the community knows that’s what the administration stands for. It’s who we are as a community.”

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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