Lehigh’s diversity has changed over the years

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Lehigh is known as a prestigious and selective institution, but since the university’s founding in 1865, it has never been as diverse as it is now

These changes to the student profile have been documented in The Brown and White headlines since the paper was formed in 1894. The university has come a long way from its initial founding by Asa Packer, who donated $500,000 to create a university in the Lehigh Valley.

The initial purchase of 57 acres of land on Bethlehem’s South Mountain was an investment in a vision of education. But shortly after the university opened its doors, changes and decisions were made about who to accept.

Ilhan Citak, Archives and Special Collections librarian, said although the university was less diverse in the past, Lehigh was one of the first schools in the U.S. to accept Chinese students in 1879.

Though the international portion of the student body has expanded, Chinese students were one of the first minority groups to appear on Lehigh’s campus.

Because The Brown and White was nonexistent when this change to the school occurred, little media documentation of this event is available.

Director of Admissions Bruce Bunnick said Lehigh continues to advance its efforts to reach out to a variety of geographic sectors outside of the Northeast. International students have been the target of many “grow the student body” initiatives over the years.

Another major change to the university, heavily documented by The Brown and White, was the decision to make Lehigh’s undergraduate student body coeducational in 1971.

M.J. Rathbone, the president of the Board of Trustees, submitted a letter to be printed in The Brown and White on March 13, 1970. The letter was addressed to Lehigh alumni to read in regards to the reactions of Lehigh becoming a coeducational university. (Courtesy of the B&W Archives)

On March 13, 1970, The Brown and White printed a letter from M.J. Rathbone, the president of the Board of Trustees, for Lehigh alumni to read in Vol. 81, No.39 issue.

Rathbone stated that alumni were concerned over the decision for the university to possibly become coeducational and wrote his letter to assure the stakeholders that this was the right decision.

“I wish to assure you that our policy and our decisions are firmly based on the proposition that Lehigh’s top-flight reputation in engineering and science must be preserved and enhanced,” he said in the issue.

Rathbone cited the addition of women as a vital way to uphold Lehigh’s reputation of being a premier university and didn’t think that this reputation could continue to be accomplished without women.  

Heather Rodale, ’74, ’76G, ’05P, was a part of one of the first classes at Lehigh to include women. She said the university provided significant counseling and opened an office for women during this transition. However, she said being a minority forced her to be strong in the presence of her male classmates.

“I think one of the reasons women became leaders at Lehigh were because we were so independent,” Rodale said.

Looking back on the decision to add women to the undergraduate body, Bunnick said this decision was a “necessary step” for Lehigh to take at the time.

Rodale said that she felt on her own in a class of about 50, but the current female undergraduate population enjoys a male to female ratio of 56 percent to 44 percent.

Rebecca Grady, ’21, is majoring in civil engineering and computer science. She said being a woman in the engineering school has given her the opportunity to explore a path predominantly followed by men.  

“Without the addition of women at Lehigh, people like me would be missing out on some of the best education in the country, especially as a woman in STEM,” Grady said.

The changes in diversity at Lehigh have to do with race and gender, but the shifts in the school’s academic landscape have been significant as well.

“The university’s transition over the last 40 years has been fairly dramatic,” Bunnick said. “We were an all-male, predominantly engineering-based institution and have broadened into a comprehensive research university that places an enormous focus on excellence of undergraduate education.”  

The Brown and White has reported the additions of undergraduate and graduate colleges to the university over the years.

Just recently, Lehigh decided to add a College of Health, and this change has been documented as part of The Brown and White’s coverage of the Path to Prominence plan. On Jan. 28, President John Simon announced in an email that Whitney Witt has been named the inaugural dean of the College of Health. 

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