Nathan Urban and Chris Cook

From left, Lehigh Provost Nathan Urban and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Initiatives Chris Cook

Who are ‘Future Makers’?

A conversation with Lehigh Provost Nathan Urban and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Initiatives Chris Cook on the strategic plan.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Lehigh’s strategic plan, “Inspiring the Future Makers,” outlines a bold vision for the university over the next decade. The yearlong effort was led by Provost Nathan Urban and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Initiatives Chris Cook. Here they delve into highlights of the plan.

Who—or what—are future makers?

Nathan Urban: The term “future makers” intentionally has a double meaning. On the one hand, they are the people who will make the future. What do we mean by that? People who will come up with new ideas, innovative ideas, people who will be in the world developing these innovative ideas potentially into brand new companies, brand new industries, who will take these ideas and change the world. I see universities as critical institutions for shaping the future; we do that through the people who we educate and the ideas that we generate.

“Future makers”are also the students and others who are here at Lehigh today, who are learning to be makers and creators—learning how to have the kind of impact that they want to have on the world. The notion of a “maker” is supposed to convey a sense of someone with a pragmatic or practical bent. …The typical Lehigh alum is somebody who is pragmatic and who seeks to learn to do things that have an impact on things that matter in the world.

Chris Cook: We want people across the Lehigh community to feel empowered to chart their path. Nathan mentioned faculty and the students and the things they're going to do in the world, but it's also about empowering staff to set their path forward and create novel ways to do the work that we're trying to do in support of the faculty and students.

What would you say differentiates our strategic plan from that of other institutions?

Urban: On the educational side, we're very focused on the outcomes of higher education for students. What is a Lehigh degree? What does the educational experience that you gain at Lehigh allow you to do? What is the impact it has on your life? Some people think of outcomes in terms of graduation rates and placement rates and starting salary. Yes, absolutely, those are important things. But we also want to look longer term …For Lehigh grads, what did they do with their life? What is the impact they have in the world? We want to really emphasize those long-term outcomes for a Lehigh education. That’s the “what” question.

There's the “how” question. How are we going to do this? How are we going to achieve that kind of goal? We're looking for a very significant change in the way we teach. In part this comes from a focus on “Universal Design for Inquiry,” which is a key component of the way we're going to modify the education we provide. UDI is a much more student-centric approach to educating students. It's making sure we are providing students the opportunities to learn the things that are going to have the greatest impact for them, assessing students in ways that are most relevant for them.

We're looking to be innovative. We're looking to change how we teach and what happens in the classroom, but also what programs we offer, what technology we use for education and to institutionalize innovation as it relates to education—so that innovation is not just something that happens because someone is inspired, but rather we have a process that gets innovation to happen regularly. … The world is changing, and if we're not changing, we're not meeting the needs of our students and society.

Cook: A lot of the plans we've seen, and even the plan as we were developing it, looked at high level strategy and how to achieve those things. We've also identified that we have to have some foundational change. We're introducing what we're calling foundational initiatives. [We’re] saying, our initiatives will not be successful if we don't dig a little deeper. In this way, our plan is more introspective than some of the other plans we've seen.

On the educational side, we're very focused on the outcomes of higher education for students. What is a Lehigh degree? What does the educational experience that you gain at Lehigh allow you to do? What is the impact it has on your life?

Provost Nathan Urban

Are there specific projects that emerge as “the big idea”?

Urban: One of the biggest, most visible, most obvious signature elements of this plan will be what we've been referring to as the activation of the Mountaintop Campus and the potential it has—both in terms of the academic uses but also as a hub for activity.

But I would say two other things are at a similar scale—one is the transition in the way we think about innovation and education, the way in which we're thinking about different approaches in the classroom, different approaches to the use of technology. If we look back in 20 years, 25 years, that will be a signature element of what we accomplished through this plan, in part because of what we're doing, and in part because of what's happening in the world, because of the need for higher education to change. If we can achieve that, that will be a watershed moment in the history of Lehigh.

There also will be areas of research investment that have a big impact. One of these is focused on issues related to health care, how it is that we can get people to think differently about promoting health. As we're growing the College of Health, making this a much larger portion of what it is that we do, that has the potential to be something that's a significant event in the history of Lehigh.

Cook: We plan to look closely at the Ph.D. …. What is it that you want to do after you [earn] your Ph.D.? Let’s set your path for that career, rather than make an assumption of what you want to do as a Ph.D. candidate. That has the potential to be really significant and differentiating for Lehigh and potentially for the nation as we think about Ph.D. education.

What is it going to mean to transform the Mountaintop Campus?

Urban: We need it to be a place where people want to be, and by “people” I mean students, faculty, staff and people who have no affiliation with Lehigh. That should include companies that want a physical location here in the Lehigh Valley to be close to the things that are happening. … It may be private enterprise, it may be another university that we're collaborating with, it could be not-for-profits. … It's very powerful to have a place that's so interesting, so attractive that it brings people here to campus because they want to be close to us, they want to engage with our students, they want to engage with our faculty.

How do we do that? Well, we need to have a more active and more vibrant place. So we need people. Certainly we're talking about housing, both housing for students and short-term housing for others. … Maybe it's visiting faculty. Finding ways to bring people there. The reason to do it might also be because you want to enjoy the natural beauty that’s up there. Maybe we want to have a concert venue there.

Cook: We have a student project happening this summer with Creative Inquiry. We have some students who we are tasking with thinking about Mountaintop Campus in its current state. How can we activate Mountaintop even now? What are we doing on the Asa Packer campus that maybe could move to the Mountaintop Campus? … The big transformation is going to take multiple years, but we don't want to wait for that to happen. We want to start activating even as it is now.

Student expo at Mountaintop

One of the signature elements of the strategic plan will be the activation of the Mountaintop Campus and its potential.

Lehigh has a long history of interdisciplinarity. The plan talks about redefining an interdisciplinary education. How would that take shape?

Urban: We have some existing intercollege programs that do a great job teaching students in an interdisciplinary way. We're looking to expand the existing programs and create new programs of the same sort. We're also exploring the idea that, if students are very interested in doing interdisciplinary work, why do we, from day one when they arrive at Lehigh, force them to identify as being in the business college or the engineering college or in arts and sciences and the College of Health? Why shouldn't we let them be interdisciplinary at the beginning? Why shouldn’t we let them explore the full spectrum of things that are offered and not assume that all 18-year-olds know what it is that they want to do and how it is that they want to do it? We want to be able to provide them with an opportunity to discover that or explore that while they're here in their early semesters at Lehigh.

On the research side, the challenges that we will identify as areas of focus for research and investment are challenges that cannot be solved by people from a single discipline—issues related to health, issues related to sustainability and infrastructure, issues related to the kind of conflicts that are emerging in society today. Those are all topics and areas of research and scholarly work that require people to come together from a variety of different disciplines if we're going to even understand the problem, much less solve it.

Cook: Another element where we may see interdisciplinary engagement is to have graduate students engage with business, technology or the humanities to make sure that they have those skills ready for the world too. Those are the sort of timely and timeless skills the Ph.D. students asked for, and we think we can provide that, and it has the potential to elevate their career trajectory.

Urban: Ph.D. students, by the nature of the work that they're doing … answer novel questions. In some cases, that will lead to an opportunity to do something entrepreneurial. We want to make sure they have access to that knowledge and understanding of what it would take to be an entrepreneur—what are the first steps, what are the first 10 steps? If the idea that a Ph.D. student is working on through their thesis work has the potential for commercialization, we want to help them realize this potential..

In January, we offered for the first time a one-day workshop on entrepreneurship for doctoral students and for postdocs. It was a pilot, but we've now committed to doing that multiple times a year in order to expand the opportunities for doctoral students, recognizing that the typical faculty member at Lehigh can't teach their Ph.D. students about how to start a company because they've never done that.

The strategic plan identifies three areas of research for the university. How did those areas emerge? And will Lehigh move away from anything it's been known for?

Urban: In order to have an impact, we can't be spread too thin. We have to identify areas that we believe are going to be more important in 10 years than they are today and where we have some kind of initial advantage. We have to pick those areas and make a disproportionate investment. If you look across higher education, when universities have been successful through a strategic planning process or otherwise, in elevating the impact of what they do, elevating their visibility, it's always been by focusing on an area and deciding to be outstanding, to be the best in the country, the best in the world. So that's the approach we're taking.

Does that mean that over time we will need to make choices and not do some things? Absolutely. Does it mean that we're going to tell people, Oh, no, you can't go and work in this area that has not been identified through the strategic plan. Absolutely not. We have faculty here who do all kinds of things. This is really about looking into the future and saying, future resources are going to be put toward those three areas.

You talked about high impact, high risk. What are examples of that?

Urban: If we're talking about failure and risk, that comes up in a couple of different places. One is certainly in the educational domain. We want to make sure that students come to Lehigh and see opportunities to do things that they've not done before, things that they don't know whether they're going to be successful doing. … To do that, we have to make some of those activities less risky than they are today, because right now students are not, in many cases, willing to do the things that they're not already good at because of the cost of failure. Largely that comes from grades.

On the research side, we want to be able to provide opportunity for faculty to engage in questions and problems that are bigger than they can address alone. To do that, we need to help faculty identify team approaches to addressing these most important questions and problems in the world. Some of those teams will be largely Lehigh people, but we also see opportunities for partnership. Just because we don't have somebody here who's the world's expert on something doesn't mean that that's a problem we can’t contribute to trying to solve. …

Where I think it's important to talk about risk is actually in terms of our internal operations. Like all institutions, we do things a certain way because that's the way they've always been done. We need to look at empowering people—faculty, but I would say even more so staff across the university—to do things differently, to be willing to take a bit of a risk in terms of a different approach to how it is that we operate, a different approach to recruiting graduate students, a different approach to giving people in certain roles or offices a bit more authority so that they can make decisions more efficiently and effectively. …If we're going to ask you to take those risks, we can't have the consequences of “failure” be too severe. We have to be willing to support people when they're taking risks trying to do what's best for the university.

Cook: An organization of the future really means finding ways to be nimble as an organization, to empower people to take initiative to do things in new ways. Maybe leapfrog over some system that is available and push the envelope to achieve operational excellence, to be forward-thinking as an institution at all levels.

How specifically will Lehigh aim to foster belonging, cultivate partnerships and strengthen community?

Urban: I've used this statistic a number of times, but roughly half of the country thinks that higher education is a net negative for the country. That is a shocking statistic to me and if you ask why, it's about cost, it's about relevance of what we're doing, it's about, in some sense, what we teach and the political views that are expressed. If we're going to have the kind of impact that we want, we need to be trusted. If we want to be trusted, we need to earn people's trust. … That means a degree of transparency that we're not necessarily used to. That means we're doing what we say we're going to do. That means we have to provide value to people—students certainly but others who engage with us. …

We need to be communicating with all of our communities, all of our constituents about what's happening. We need to be soliciting input and feedback more frequently, perhaps, than we've done in the past. We need to make sure that we're talking about what we do, telling our story to as many audiences as we can.

Cook: We want to make partnering with us easy. Every interaction with every group, every person, should be positive and agile. That's internally as well as externally because we often forget that we are each other's constituents too. There needs to be an emphasis on making sure everyone feels empowered to take agency in that moment, to create a positive experience.

Urban: It's also important that we show some humility. We don't know what the most important problems or questions are out in the world. And we certainly don't know what the best solutions are all the time. … We need to make sure that we are genuinely engaging, genuinely interested in others' viewpoints, genuinely curious about the perspectives that other people bring through that process. …I think that will help to build that trust and help us to do a better job of making things together with different communities and different constituents.

How will you ensure that the plan isn't going to sit on the shelf? In holding itself accountable, how will Lehigh know if it’s successful?

Cook: We will have a public dashboard that measures our progress toward our goals, not the initiatives. …We plan to engage the campus with some regularity, but I would imagine it's probably quarterly conversations, where we touch base and say, This is what's happening, what does the community want to hear about? We will have an open dialogue. We want to make sure the campus continues to be apprised of what we're doing, but also we need to pay attention to external pressures that may require us to shift our goal a little bit, move the needle, move the goalposts.

It needs to be flexible or it's not adaptive. We hope that there's a level of continuous feedback that will allow us to make some adjustments along the way, but we will be monitoring our progress from day one. For instance, we're going to be measuring the return on investment. Are we really leading in those student outcomes? We will be measuring staff and faculty retention. The DI&E (Diversity, Inclusion & Equity) plan is fully embedded in this plan as well and the expectation is that we will measure all of those things, really fully implementing the DI&E plan.

Urban: By the fall, we will have a pretty good idea of some specific measurable outcomes that we're tracking over time. It'll be public, which I think will help us hold each other accountable. It also will make it clear what kind of progress we're making. There are things like student outcomes, graduation rates, but also gaps in student outcomes. Right now lower income students have a lower four- and six-year graduation rate than our non-low income students. That's a gap we want to close. Black students have a lower four- and six-year graduation rate than white students. That's a gap we want to close.

There are things we've already been tracking for years that will become integrated into this dashboard that will reflect this strategic plan. We'll be tracking research funding, and we'll also be tracking research outputs in terms of publications, books, journal articles. Some things are harder to measure. Activation of Mountaintop, how are we going to measure that? … What do we consider successful? … There's a lot of work to do to refine our thinking.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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