The entire Lehigh community recognizes Asa Packer as an influential figure who did way more than simply donate $500,000 to found Lehigh. He is certainly a prominent leader in our school’s history, and our Lehigh legacy will always be intertwined with the core principles he established. However, with Lehigh’s 14th president announced on the 136th Founder’s Day, it is important to look forward, as well.
This Founder’s Day was a unique collection of past, present and future leaders. Throughout the day, buzz about the new president fluttered all over campus. During the ceremony, we returned to Lehigh’s origins when Interim President Clayton spoke of Asa Packer’s generous character. These three Lehigh leaders shared the spotlight and made us realize that Lehigh may have started with Asa Packer, but it has grown in many ways due to each president’s contributions. As we welcome John D. Simon to campus, we should consider the important role of Lehigh presidents as well as our founder.
Aside from the new name and face, what does it mean that starting July 1, 2015, John D. Simon will be Lehigh’s new president?
Before looking to the future, here’s a hint of the past. Henry Coppee became Lehigh’s first president in 1866, and Lehigh has cherished 12 presidents since. Each president joined the Lehigh community with a distinct set of skills, experiences, and aspirations that allowed them to improve different aspects of Lehigh. Throughout the years, buildings, classes, departments, degrees, and admittance of undergraduate women emerged due to presidents’ efforts. They each used their particular skills and experience to significantly improve Lehigh.
For instance, Alice P. Gast, who resigned last semester, seemed to hold a very reserved presence on campus. Yet, she facilitated the creation of the Council for Equity and Community in 2008, the STEPS Building in 2008, the adoption of the Principles of Our Equitable Community in 2009, the Lee Iacocca International Internships for Global Leadership in 2011, and endless research opportunities, among many other innovative programs that put Lehigh at the top of the charts. Her resourceful fundraising efforts and aptitude to put the donations to good use benefited Lehigh tremendously.
Fundraising abilities are necessary to the president’s role, because promoting research and keeping Lehigh tuition affordable are important. However, it is necessary to balance this with other equally important components.
In an editorial last February, The Brown and White’s editorial board identified a few additional characteristics that we, as undergraduate students, value in a president. We said that we want a president who helps dissolve conflicts within the Greek community as well as between the Greek and non-Greek community; has a strong campus presence; respects tradition but provides new perspective; has a background in education; is the first Lehigh president with a liberal arts degree; and represents a minority group.
With his past position of Vice Provost of Academic Affairs at Duke University and his experience handling the Duke Lacrosse scandal, Simon seems to already excel in some of the categories we named. His approach to the Duke Lacrosse scandal dealt with the immediate problems but also sought lasting solutions. In an interview with The Brown and White, Simon said of the Duke Lacrosse issue, “So the question is: Did you really learn from it that you changed things on your campus so that it’s safer for the generations to come?”
His excitement to be present on campus before his presidency actually even begins doesn’t hurt, either.
Simon does not represent a minority group or have a degree in the liberal arts, but we believe that this will not restrict him from being a great 14th president of Lehigh.
As long as he is receptive and engages in conversations with students, faculty, and alumni to holistically understand campus issues and gain different perspectives on how to address them, then these are the true qualities that are important in a president.
We look to our president for guidance. He will be a role model, setting the tone on campus when times are good and also when times are bad. While he should be personable and seek out diverse opinions to make sure everyone in the Lehigh community feels included, we also should speak up when there is something that we want to change. Sending an email or stopping in his office are ways to make your voice heard. He is fresh to campus, and although he has done his research and already knows some of the existing problems, no report beats speaking with Lehigh community members themselves.
Like all our past presidents, Simon’s leadership will change Lehigh. Let’s be part of that change.