Khanjan Mehta always knew his calling was to become an engineer.
All of the members of his family were professionals — doctors, scientists or engineers. However, he did not expect to fall into academia until after he received his master’s in electrical engineering from Penn State. He now comes to Lehigh with expertise after serving as the founding director of the humanitarian engineering and social entrepreneurship program at Penn State.
Mehta will assume his role as Lehigh’s vice provost of creative inquiry and the director for Lehigh’s Mountaintop initiative on Dec. 30.
His role at Lehigh is to integrate creative inquiry into every college. He will meet with deans, department heads and students to achieve this goal.
Mehta said he believes the first step in achieving creative inquiry throughout the campus is to understand what is already happening.
“(Our purpose is) figuring out what our strengths are and what we can do to become a more prominent school in preparing students for a rapidly moving and ever-changing world,” Mehta said. “We have to start there.”
Mehta said a way to integrate creative inquiry is to push for the integration of learning, research and engagement throughout the university.
He said his position is a way to rethink about how we educate students.
“We want this to be the signature of the Lehigh experience,” Mehta said. “We want all our students to not only graduate with degrees, but we want them to be comfortable in working with cross disciplines.”
Todd Watkins, a professor of economics and the chair of the search committee, said several candidates went through an extensive interview process for Mehta’s position.
Watkins said the search committee members had experience in creative inquiry, ran Mountaintop projects before, or ran curricula or research programs on campus.
The committee consisted of a staff member, an administrator, several faculty members and a few alumni.
Watkins said the candidates were diverse in their backgrounds. He said the entire application and selection process took more than six months.
“Broadly, we were looking for someone who had an interdisciplinary outlook on the Mountaintop project,” Watkins said. “Someone who had a lot experience working across a campus with a diverse set of fields and disciplines and faculty and students.”
Watkins said most colleges don’t have a position like the creative inquiry position.
“I am juiced about (Mehta) and his background, and the potential there is enormous,” Watkins said. “I am really looking forward to seeing where this goes.”
In graduate school, Mehta felt an affinity toward academia and took a job designing large systems. He designed software for the third largest telescope in the world. Mehta also designed a low cost windmill system for western Kenya in collaboration with his engineering team.
Mehta said he loved being in academia and exploring the frontiers of knowledge, engagement and the potentials of human nature.
“I want to see more active pedagogies,” Mehta said. “I want to see learning centers where (students) aren’t passive recipients of knowledge, but they are actively understanding and striving to create new meaning for themselves and the world simultaneously.”
His philosophy derives from serving as the founding director of the humanitarian engineering and social entrepreneurship program at Penn State, where students are encouraged to take intellectual risks and learn from their failures. He wants to carry this philosophy throughout Lehigh’s programs.
“My job is to get students involved in real world situations,” Mehta said. “It’s to get students out into South Bethlehem, getting them out to conferences and places around the world where they can interact, learn and share from others. I look at (attending) university as a time where you find your place in the universe.”
Mark Orrs, the director of sustainable development and an active professor in the Mountaintop Initiative, knew Mehta and his work. Orrs said Mehta has a lot of experience in the field and has created his own program that used creative inquiry as the vessel of learning.
Orrs defined creative inquiry as “following passion and curiosity as a catalyst of your own learning.”
“Mountaintop is a beautiful place, excellent ethos for creative inquiry, but (it’s) not the only vehicle for creative inquiry and advancing creative inquiry on campus,” Mehta said. He said he believes there are many directions students can take to develop creative inquiry.
Mehta wants students to rethink their careers and ask themselves what is meaningful to them.
“I am excited to see his vision, and see how (creative inquiry) is embedded into the entire campus and embedded into the departments,” Orrs said. “It is great to find a way to take this experiment we have been running (throughout the Mountaintop Initiative) and run it into the fabric of Lehigh’s academic life.”