The University Center on Monday, Dec. 8, 2014. Under the university's expansion plan, the University Center could be closed for up to two years for renovations. (Gabrielle Pomerantz/B&W Staff)

Administrators behind ‘Path to Prominence’ expansion plan see size as road to visibility

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Lehigh revealed its 10-year plan, the “Path to Prominence,” to the Lehigh community at the end of October.

Patrick Farrell, the provost and vice president for academic affairs, said Lehigh’s 10-year expansion plan will serve as an opportunity to increase the university’s visibility, both nationally and internationally, and play a key role in significant areas of education.

Farrell said in some cases, there are holes in areas of study and potential majors at Lehigh.

“There are big areas (of study) that students are interested in, and we do a little, but we don’t do as much as we might,” Farrell said. “If we want to go into those, it’s a mistake to go small. We want to go in in a fairly big way.”

These big steps include bringing in more students, more facilities and more options when it comes to majors and minors.

President John Simon said the seeds for a plan like this were planted about eight years ago when Lehigh put forward a strategic plan focused on health, interdisciplinary programs and globalization.

“I don’t think we’ve invented something out of the blue,” Simon said.

For both Simon and Farrell, configuring the Path to Prominence plan was naturally the next step for Lehigh. Simon said a 10-year plan of action should always be in the making and universities are always thinking about how to position themselves to be leaders in a focused set of areas.

One area of study which Lehigh has yet to fully approach is health.

Within the last year, students, faculty and staff members have met in five town hall meetings to discuss Lehigh’s future and make suggestions about what the university’s next steps could be.

“We heard many ideas — from ‘go buy a racetrack’ to all kinds of things — but one that came up a lot was that we should be more active in health,” Farrell said. “There is the notion that we have a growing interest in health from students and faculty who are already here. We don’t yet have a focal point for this area, but what if we did?”

Farrell has appointed a committee of mostly faculty and some administrators to address the broad topic and discern what the implementation of a health institution would look like. The committee has been asked to pinpoint two to three focus areas and will likely reach conclusions by late spring 2017.

Farrell said if Lehigh were to implement a college of health, the campus community would have to think about the university as a bigger place in terms of faculty, who may have dual appointments across colleges, and students.

The administrators and committees behind the Path to Prominence want to increase the undergraduate population by 1,000 and the graduate population by 500, with student growth planned to begin in the fall of 2019.

With an increase in size, it is important to know how a larger student population will affect potential applicants who may be drawn to Lehigh for its relatively small community.

Throughout his countrywide “Imagine Lehigh” tour, Simon has asked alumni whether or not they believe student growth will change the overall culture at Lehigh. He said alumni response has been supportive of the expansion thus far.

“If we were talking about expanding to 10,000 or 15,000 students, we would be having a very different discussion,” Simon said. “If you look at institutions that are between 4,000 and 6,000 (students), there is a lot of commonality in the experience they offer. A growth of 1,000 over seven years can be paced and integrated.”

However, mass construction and renovations must be completed before more students can be brought to campus.

“I can really see residential structures being built where Trembley is, along with some areas around Brodhead,” Simon said. “If you put that together, it’s a student body that can really activate the University Center, it’s a (completion) if you want a residential circle around the whole university and its academic core.”

He said a renovation of the University Center is also a part of the expansion plan, which might require the building to be shut down for up to two years.

During the renovation, a temporary dining space would be established. Farrell said nearby parking lots and other areas of open, flat land are being considered for the standalone structure, as well as companies that specialize in temporary dining locations.

Farrell said some other institutions such as Harvard have done this and that others are considering it. The resources necessary for expansion are largely expected to come from fundraising efforts and the hope that donors will be excited about the plan.

“To a certain extent, we will be limited in what we can do if donors don’t step up and help us,” Farrell said. “We’re relying on donors, and we will certainly rely on support from current faculty and students as we are increasing the number of students.”

Though Lehigh’s cost of attendance has increased throughout the last several years, Simon said the impending growth and facility renewal is not a driving factor behind it. He sees a high personnel environment, technology and financial aid as being large factors contributing to the increase.

Simon said he does not envision any change in financial aid policy, and with such a campaign the administration actually needs to be more aggressive with financial aid.

“Last year we eliminated the gap payment in financial aid so that we can start meeting all calculated need,” Simon said. “I’m very committed to that and that’s why a large part of the campaign will be raising endowment for financial aid.”

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