President John Simon began his tenure as Lehigh’s 14th president July 1, 2015, taking over for Interim President Kevin Clayton. The Brown and White sat down with Simon, who comes from the University of Virginia, where he served as the executive vice president and provost.
How has the move to Bethlehem been for you and your family?
I think it’s going great. So we’re a split family this year. I have a son who is a high school senior, so he and my wife will be staying in Charlottesville, and my other son will be here and I’m here. It’s going great, we have a lot of boxes. If anyone wants to volunteer to help us unpack, we’re game. We’ve been exploring the area and stuff like that.
What has the transition between you and interim President Clayton been like? What initiatives and projects that were started last year are being continued?
So (Clayton) and I got to know each other really well over the last year and spent a lot of time together. I’d say we developed a pretty good friendship. It’s been a very, very smooth transition from my point of view. Kevin goes back to work next month in his new job, I have my new job. We’ve been meeting for dinner in the middle in New Jersey. So I think from both of our perspectives it’s been very smooth. I think (Clayton) did fantastic work in laying out the Lehigh 150 and the initiatives framing what the next steps are with Mountaintop, what next steps are around the DataX initiative and the renovation of the UC and related projects. I plan to continue those, there should be no disruption there.
I’d actually like to push it further and working with Pat Farrell and others and identify the next set of academic initiatives that should be done. Where DataX serves more as an example for the type of cross school type activities that we could do here. I’ve started meeting with a lot of people about Mountaintop to see what its next steps are. I’m hoping for a very smooth continued trajectory on the momentum (Clayton) gave the institution last year.
And yes, I’ll be continuing pizza with the prez. The only modification: I’m adding salad. (Clayton) told me he never wanted to have another piece of pizza in his life. So I’m going to try to balance it out with a healthy option.
What can students expect from you as a new president in terms of visibility, accessibility, working with student groups and more?
It’s certainly my intention to be visible and accessible. If you sit in an office like this and you never go out there, you don’t know what’s really going on, and I like to know what’s going on. I don’t see that as undermining anyone else in any other leadership role. So I plan to be out there.
The other side of the reality though is when you look at the schedule, I’m probably on the road about 50 percent of the time. So there needs to be some balance and understanding that there are responsibilities that come with the role that pull you off campus a lot. I’ve taken that to heart quite seriously, knowing that you need to be visible and accessible when you’re here. So I bought a meal plan.
I plan to be quite visible and I look at the first floor of the house as university space. I’ve been talking to Student Affairs about how they might want to use the space, which can be used whether I’m in town or not. It’s the style and tone I hope to set.
Coming from UVa – a school which received a lot of criticism for the article written in Rolling Stone – how do you view Greek life here and how do you see it fitting into Lehigh’s culture?
The UVa situation was quite unique, a quite unique set of circumstances. A lot was going on and I’d say a lot of people had limited information and then you have a story that comes out that ultimately doesn’t stand the test of credibility. Potentially the story itself set back any efforts we were trying to do that could advance conversations on the campus. You get entwined of having spent a lot of time thinking about something and then it turns out not to be true. It was one of many issues going on at UVa, (which has) a quite complicated political environment.
I don’t think there is any relationship between what I experienced at at UVa or saw at UVa and here. I’ve also navigated that campus culture initiative at Duke following Duke lacrosse. When you think about that, the issues that ultimately were raised were Greek life was involved in that as well (and) alcohol. There’s a set of issues that seem to be pervasive. And I think those issues exist here.
Greek life has a long, rich traditional history at Lehigh and I think it’ll continue to have a rich piece of the social structure here. There are many positives, there are a lot of benefits. I met a lot of people last year who were both in the Greek system and not in the Greek system. At the same time, I think all I ask is that with the effort that the CEC has put forth in trying to build a very inclusive, diverse community, is that everyone’s rowing on that team, trying to build the best inclusive community we can have at the university. That’s how I approach it.
What is the plan going forward with the university’s CORE report and Lehigh’s social policy? How do you respond to members of the student body who do not agree with the recommendations of the report?
You have a report, it has a set of recommendations, but this is really the time for discussion. I’m not willing to sit here and say that some of these recommendations aren’t going to happen. But I am willing to sit here and say that nothing is a done deal. As far as I’m concerned, we have a marvelous opportunity to have a really engaged, honest conversation about issues of life at residential universities and what we can do short, medium and long term to make this a healthy, safe, rewarding experience for students who come here. I’d like to have that real conversation and I plan to dedicate an awful lot of face time to students to do that and not face time necessarily in large groups which are highly unproductive. Or even in smaller groups where you paved the road where you can discuss this and can’t discuss that. I want to have a real, genuine conversation about it.
I think if you decided to research back, I ran those conversations back at Duke for about nine months, those were open, real, messy, difficult, a lot of issues were put on the table. But I think if you try and figure out a path forward and decisions you might need to make for the institution, you want to know all the unintended consequences of those decisions as best that you can. And that takes real openness to having real conversation about it.
I’ve been talking to Sharon Basso about coming up to the Pocono retreat that student leaders go on, and on that Friday night we would sit around and talk about the CORE report – unstructured. I’m looking for opportunities like that so people feel relaxed about speaking their mind, but aren’t speaking their mind in response to “I hate that recommendation.” Let’s parking lot the recommendations, the recommendations came out of very hard work, I respect the work people have done, but they’re recommendations that people believe present a solution to a set of underlying problems. I want to discuss the underlying problems and maybe there are much more interesting, better ways of actually thinking about addressing those that are more a partnership between university administration and students.
What are you looking forward to most about your future at Lehigh?
Not getting any sleep. I can check off that one. I’m having a lot of fun, this is a great place. It’s almost like you discover a treasure a day around here as I tour new buildings and meet with different groups. What I’m looking forward to the most is how to harness all of that and harness the energy and have the world understand what’s actually here. I do think that particular face of the institution, where you have access to the broader world to articulate what’s great about Lehigh and where it’s going. I’m really excited about that challenge.
Follow President Simon’s experience as president on Instagram @lehighpressimon.