President John Simon is stepping down.
That was the news of the day on Sept. 4 for those engaged with the Lehigh community. Call it what you want, but above all it was shocking and it blindsided most everybody.
There was very little explanation given for why Simon is leaving his post at the end of the academic year, however, Lehigh said Simon plans to return to Lehigh in 2022 as a faculty member, referring to his year off as a sabbatical year. Simon was on contract to remain president until 2025.
Throughout Simon’s tenure, many ambitious projects have begun, including the Path to Prominence initiative as well as Go: The Campaign for Lehigh, both of which centered around bettering the university for future generations and maintaining its position as a top 50 school nationwide.
Although there is nothing wrong in theory with these types of measures, in fact they are essential to maintaining the status and upkeep of university, it’s the way that Simon’s leadership went about these initiatives that ultimately detracted from the morale of the campus and left many with more questions than answers.
A defining characteristic of Simon’s tenure — which, granted, is not fully complete yet — is the university’s classic and at this point predictable communication blunders.
There are both specific, granular examples and wholesale, broad instances. Has the university actually made a case to the campus community as to why we need 1,000 more undergraduate students? Has the university explained why growth in student body size and buildings on campus necessitates taking away key programs like the President’s Scholars Program and the sustainable development minor program? Is it really growth if we can’t maintain what we already were offering?
And what good is a $1 billion campaign if various offices and departments across campus are feeling more pinched than ever while the strain on their services is increasing, as several Lehigh staff members shared with The Brown and White in a report published last year?
Leadership starts at the top. That’s the bottom line. The buck stops with Simon.
The current and recent cohorts of Lehigh students have had their undergraduate experiences greatly impacted by these initiatives’ focus on the future of the university and disregard for those who are actually on campus throughout this time.
Additionally, Lehigh students and faculty have had to deal with an insurmountable amount of change throughout the last six months. As students have returned to Bethlehem and began the new academic year they have been trying to make the best out of their uncertain situations. Simon’s resignation only adds more confusion to an already unfamiliar slew of cards the Lehigh community has been dealt.
But what is also important to note is that there does not seem to be much discontent about the announcement. If anything, student opinion appears to be apathetic at best. This goes to show that when a student body is disregarded by its leadership, eventually the feeling becomes mutual.
At the same time, we in the Lehigh community do have an opportunity — an opportunity to look forward to what the future of Lehigh could look like under different leadership.
Any new Lehigh president must start with completely revamping the administration’s entire approach to communication. The pendulum must swing from secrecy and darkness to light. A new president must advocate for the entire campus community, not the wealthy and privileged few who leave their Wall Street jobs to come to campus four times a year for unannounced board of trustees meetings.
These meetings should be open, at least in part, and allow for some form of a public comment or feedback section. This really isn’t too much to ask.
Any new Lehigh president must put people first, not buildings.
We say that because while the university has engaged in immense development these past few years — the renovations at Mountaintop, Chandler-Ullmann and the University Center, a new cafe at the Fairchild Martindale Library and the emergence of a new residence hall and the College of Health — the question must be asked: are we happier?
Is Lehigh better?
Are staffs better equipped to meet increased student needs?
Why are we doing things?
We welcome any new president who wants to lead this great university forward. Whomever he or she will be will quickly become immersed in the impressive intellect, passion and hardworking nature of Lehigh community members.
We just hope it’s someone who looks out for all of us and takes the hard but necessary time to communicate in an open and honest way.