In July, Lehigh will welcome its 14th university president, John Simon. For the last year, Kevin Clayton has served as interim president, after his history as a Lehigh student and board of trustees member. The Brown and White sat down with President Clayton for a Q&A session.
Q: How did your experience as an alumnus and board of trustees member affect or mold your year as interim president?
Well, as you can probably appreciate, it added another lens, or so I like to say. You know, I’ve been a student, son of an alum, parent, trustee, now your interim president this past year and I think having an understanding of how the university operates and runs its responsibilities at a board level was extremely helpful — knowing, on a day-to-day basis, what we have to do to uphold the responsibilities of the organization. So I think that what has probably been the most helpful was being an active board member and a long-time individual who is familiar with the institution. I guess the other thing is that I’m lucky and fortunate and humbled enough to know a lot of people around here. So when I arrived on the first day, I knew a lot of folks. And, I knew where a lot of things were so that was very helpful also. And a lot of that experience came from being an alum for a long period of time, for having a long-time family involvement at Lehigh to being active on the board.
Q: What is the challenge of having this position only for a year?
It’s only a year. You know, it is a challenge. I came in with the mindset of two overriding principles: number one, I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. And that usually keeps you out of trouble. Number two is the fact that you have to realize it’s an interim president, but that doesn’t mean it has to be an interim year. I wanted to make sure that one of the requirements that I had when I accepted the position was that all the senior leadership stayed in their respective areas, and they run the university. I try to stay out of their way. If they need something, they’ll come and ask for guidance or leadership. Most importantly, I didn’t want us to be sitting here and nine months go by and not have this institution continue to advance. I knew that (Simon) was coming in — we knew that (Simon) was going to transition in on July 1 — but at the same point in time, I didn’t want John to show up on July 1 and say “What have you guys done for the last nine months?” And so, that’s the challenge because it’s a fine balance because it’s not your show. I’ll leave here and I’ll go back to the board — my responsibility was to make sure we had a smooth transition to our 14th president John Simon.
Q: What changes or projects are you proud of?
Well, as each day passes I’m more and more proud. I’m more bullish on the future of Lehigh knowing that John Simon is going to be at the helm. As (Simon) and I have worked closely for the six, seven, eight months since he’s been appointed, along with (Erik Walker, chief of staff,) and the rest of the staff here, the more and more I realize what an asset he is going to be to this institution. So I’m very, very proud of that. I’m proud to work with (Simon) — I’ve learned a lot.
I think (something else) I’m proud of is the fact that we’ve made some progress in what we call “Lehigh 150” – 150 plus. And that’s a new initiative, in the computer science fields, and some allocation of resources to upgrade some of our jewels of buildings on campus — led by the University Center. And, again I think we have prepared (Simon) so that he can hit the ground running. And that’s no simple task when you’re running an institution as complex as Lehigh.
Q: What do you think is your happiest memory as president?
Well, I have a lot of happy memories. Probably the first memory that comes to mind was August 1. It was a bright, brilliant sunny day. That was a happy day because of the long ties that Claytons have had with Lehigh. And you know a lot of these individuals that I grew up with — senior mentors from the board level — I think were looking down with a smile. So it was a happy memory.
When the students came in on the first day, that was a happy memory, but a tiring day. Moving them in was just a hoot. It was a wonderful experience, it was a lot of fun. The smiles on the kids faces — they were nervous — but (with the help of) moms and dads we got them settled in very quickly. It was quite enjoyable. You don’t do that on Wall Street.
I guess the last, most important or equally important happiest time was the Rivalry 150 weekend. I couldn’t have been more proud of the manner in which Lehigh conducted its affairs that weekend. Everywhere we went, it was a real treat to be known — even as the interim president — of such a fine institution.
Q: How will your experience as interim president impact your role as you return to the board of trustees?
Well now I know how the work really gets done on a day-to-day basis, how complex it is, how many different situations you have to be responsible for. I think having a further understanding of the hard work that our faculty, students and our staff put in on a day-to-day basis and how they view some of the complex issues — not only at Lehigh, but in higher education — and having that knowledge, I like to say that I wish every trustee could sit in my seat for two weeks. It’s a tremendously rewarding learning experience. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot about myself, but I’ve learned a lot about this institution from the other side on a day-to-day basis that I didn’t have that perspective before.
Q: What do you plan on doing after you are no longer interim president?
I’m going to take a little time off to recharge. I retired on a Friday and started August 1 on a Monday at Lehigh. I’m going to take a couple of months in the summer, recharge and then we’ll figure out what to do. What I can tell you that I will do, even though I’m no longer interim president, is stay devoted and actively involved in any way I can to the university.
Q: What do you hope Lehigh accomplishes in the next few years?
Well, and I think this goes back to your earlier question on what I’m proud of, I should have also mentioned that I think we’ve made some strides in improving campus climate and I want to see that continue. It can’t just be a one year phenomenon. To make this an institution with a climate that’s truly inclusive and diverse, it has to be institutionalized. So, I’d like to see that accomplished, or continued, and I’d love to play a role in that.
Certainly, our global reputation and our recognition. You know, I want Lehigh to be recognized as an even better school than it is today, and for it to be known as a school of selectivity and high academic standards and the ability to produce outstanding graduates around the world.
And I guess the last thing is the ability, or the last two things, is our ability to retract and retain top-rate faculty. They’re the lifeblood of this institution, and we’ve done a pretty good job in say the last eight to 10 years, tracking some outstanding talent coupled with the great talent that we had here.
And last but not least: students. We need the finest and brightest students to come to Lehigh.
Q: What advice would you give to incoming President John Simon?
Enjoy the job. You’re coming to an institution that has a tremendous number of positive attributes and opportunities in front of it. I tend to say, at the end, when we’re critiquing a project or initiative, or looking at an opportunity that a lot of schools would like to have Lehigh’s problems. These aren’t problems, these are tremendous opportunities. And I think that what (Simon), what advice I’d give to him is get out, listen, build consensus, lead, which I know he will be capable of doing. You’re going to have to make some hard decisions, but in the end if it’s done right, which he will do, it’ll take Lehigh to the next level. And I also want him to have fun.