Letter to the editor: The challenge facing Lehigh as a research university

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The year was 1968 and I was a senior at Rutgers — a mere 50 years ago. Two of the greatest thrills that I experienced that year came in the form of an art history class that I took as an elective, and a research project that I chose as a chemistry major. Those art history lectures were amazing — from Egyptian art, through Impressionism and all the way up to modern art. Only a few years ago, when visiting the Orvieto Cathedral in the Umbria region of Italy, the beauty of that Cathedral came back to me in a flash, just like when I first viewed it through my Janson’s History of Art book 50 years ago.
In 1968 and the preceding summer, as part of a Rutgers undergraduate research program, I investigated the adsorption of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide on pyrophoric nickel — a form of nickel that ignites spontaneously in air. This study was carried out under the guidance of a graduate student in professor Sidney Toby’s laboratory. During that year I learned glass blowing and a variety of techniques that were needed for this research. At the end of the year I was very gratified when I was able to figure out, by myself, what my experimental results actually meant. This led to my senior thesis, a copy of which sits on my desk at Lehigh. Fast forward 50 years, graduate school, 275 research publications and 10 patents. I can honestly say that the pride that I felt with that undergraduate research experience back in 1968 burns brightly to this day. Undergraduate research, if taken seriously, can prove rewarding beyond belief.
This is my 33rd year as a faculty member at Lehigh. As near as I can tell, despite several changes in administrations over the years, not much else has changed. Lehigh continues to be a very expensive place for doing research, and the university’s support of research continues to be minimal. What has changed over this past decade has been a dramatic reduction in federal support of research. Today, administrators even at the best research institutions in the United States (e.g., Caltech, the Scripps Research Institute, etc.) are working, vigorously, to raise endowment money to support research. The seriousness of this problem is readily apparent at Lehigh where the total expenditure for research has dropped from $50,339,000 in 2007 to $38,903,000 in 2017 (data was provided by Research Accounting).
Unless our administration finds ways of providing major support for research on campus to make us competitive with the R1 universities, there is little doubt that Lehigh will become an all-undergraduate school within around 20 years. The consequences of such a transition would, in fact, be stark. Future generations of Lehigh undergraduates would not have the same opportunities for doing research as they currently have, and the intellectual and creative environment that currently exists would be lost. Also lost would be Lehigh’s ability to help the United States remain competitive with the rest of the world through the research of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
Although there has been much open discussion of Lehigh’s Path to Prominence plan in recent months, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no such discussion regarding its financial impact on research. If this plan doesn’t lead to a major increase in university support of research for its faculty, then it’s reasonable to expect that Lehigh will continue on its path to extinction as a research university.
Steven L. Regen

University Distinguished Professor of Chemistry

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5 Comments

  1. It seems like the Administrators these days are more interested in adding something flashy to their resume (like the creation of ‘research institutes’ ) than in solving chronic issues. In doing such, they expand the breadth of expectations from faculty without doing anything to address the depth of support that is needed to perform quality research.

  2. someone who cares on

    If Lehigh University would invest in providing the faculty’s department with their own research administrator, the proper technology (system to system) to manage and apply for the project, up to date AP, Payroll systems, provide actual research education to staff and faculty, and appoint people to specialize in preaward and postaward administration within the research office, there still it hope. However, none of this is possible without removing the people in charge and pushing lifetime employees who don’t want change out the door

  3. Lehigh PhD Graduate on

    I wonder if the percentage of our graduate students going into faculty and research positions has decreased with the drop in university spending on research. Is there a way we can get the numbers on that?

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