Editorial: What we want in a new president

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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?

Then there’s the bungled response to George Floyd’s death, a tuition discount policy that was not explained to the school, and who could forget the infamous housing crisis two years ago.

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.

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14 Comments

  1. I think If Biden beats Trump in November, that Lehigh should double down on Trump’s honorary degree by naming him our 15th President.

    He will implementbthe cost cutting need in administrative staff & create a fair & balanced Political science department by getting rid of all the left wing radicals.

    • So, you think “fair & balanced” means getting rid of everyone who doesn’t think as you do, “PATRIOT2?” It’s been a while since I was there but I remember very few “left-wing radicals” teaching my classes – and I don’t remember ANY of them trying to force their beliefs on me, regardless of what they might have been.

      • Amy Charles '89 on

        Paintbot up there thinks that anyone left of Orbán is a radical anarchist. He also thinks the meds he was prescribed are a sign of weakness. Tant pis.

        Children: if you’re sincere in what you say, then what you want is PSU, Rutgers, and SUNY, and an AOC tax code to support them properly. Because Lehigh’s president’s job is absolutely to spend a lot of time worrying about the buildings. That’s a major part of the sales pitch. You’re in South Bethlehem, which is so far down it cain’t see up, in large part because Lehigh is pretty. Really pretty. The campus charmed you and your parents. The lovely facilities helped seal the deal. The bond-rating people also come around to check out the “physical plant”, and shiny and new is what they like to see.

        Lehigh’s also trying not to vanish in an age in which it’s the wrong size for a university to be, and the wrong university for the time, made for a world that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s trying to grow its way to survival. From where I sit, that looks like a very tall order, but hey, maybe they succeed.

        I think you want all the right things, but to get them, you’re going to have to rip what’s holding you up out from under your feet. You’ll have to reconcile to inheriting less. Bringing less home from the kinds of jobs that Lehigh’s lining you up for, because your taxes will be much higher. Live in a house smaller than your parents’. Forget the wealth metastases of the last 30-40 years, and be normal upper-middle-class people, which used to mean a much smaller, much more public-amenities life than what you probably grew up with.

        In the end, of course, you won’t get them. Too late for that; university industries don’t turn around that fast. But your kids might get those things, and a lot more of the other kids their age. If you rip that ground out from under your feet.

        • Amy, thanks for the educational boost gained while searching for info on the references in your first sentence.

          “You’ll have to reconcile to inheriting less. Bringing less home from the kinds of jobs that Lehigh’s lining you up for, … you probably grew up with.” I’m wondering what the more liberal reality at Lehigh has to do with the truth of those statements? I see Lehigh’s College of Health as an proposed answer to your warnings to students.

          “Lehigh’s … , made for a world that doesn’t exist anymore.” This portion of the quoted sentence I don’t agree. Lehigh’s motto: Homo minister et interpres naturae, implies to me the primacy of science as the University’s purpose. The motto remains relevant in our times despite our nations president protestations as to the relevance of science. By extension, engineering is relevant both in the world and at Lehigh although some would say the change of mascot in 1995 had a deeper meaning.

        • Amy Charles ‘89 on

          Bob: Lehigh was built as a men’s engineering school to serve the industrial world of the late 19th and 20th centuries. That world is gone, and Lehigh’s been casting about ever since trying to find a niche that isn’t already solidly occupied by other schools in the region. It is extremely difficult to change a university’s core culture, to move away from the thing it actually does well to anything else. I’m sure the Health college was opened after much study and many, many, many bound and powerpoint presentations, but the reality is that this territory is well-covered in Philadelphia and NYC by better-funded institutions, and there are schools stuffed with money looking for targets to acquire. Health is not an inexpensive game to enter and from the outside it doesn’t look to me like that promising a venture. There’s no competition to the west in PA, but also not a hell of a lot of money there, either.

          As for the liberal agenda above, that’s nothing to do with the campus climate, and all to do with how universities pay their bills. When people pay substantial taxes for public education through university, as we used to do, college at a state school is a reasonable expense for a young person, and there is no way for a private university to charge $70K. When the taxpayers decide the kids can go to hell, though, the state universities have to look elsewhere: to the kids. They raise tuition in-state, and then invent a tuition tier called “out of state”, and then do their best to lure kids across state lines to pay $200K they don’t have for a nearly-meaningless bachelor’s degree. Which the kids will do whenever their own state schools have been defunded to the point of being a complete waste of time and money. The state Us lure the kids by building shiny fancy facilities, and they borrow billions of dollars to do that, because they don’t have that kind of money, but people will lend it on the strength of the promise of mad-public-tuition revenue. You probably own some slice of their bonds in your retirement portfolio.

          All this gives the private schools license to charge much, much more than they used to. The usual bands now are in-state public, around $25-30K/yr; out-of-state public, $40-55K/yr; private, $70-80K/yr. The private schools go after much wealthier families, but to do that you have to spruce the joint up, you have to take care of that tuckpointing and make the place into a five-star resort with beautiful landscaping and magnificent studios and all the rest. You can’t have the place looking like State College. You need luxury dorms and it doesn’t end. So if you’re the college president, your job isn’t just about money — it’s always been about money — it’s about chasing massive, massive quantities of money, and making the place brochure-perfect in every way.

          If you want the madness to stop, you have to pay. your. taxes like your parents did back in the day, and fund the public universities properly again. That cuts off the tuition-revenue race at the knees. If the new bands are in-state public, $0-15K and out-of-state public, $10-15K, and the schools are in good shape, perfectly okay universities, then no private university can charge $70-80K. Nobody will pay, just as you wouldn’t have. The whole souffle deflates. The campus still has to look nice for the premium, sure, but it doesn’t have to look like a five-star resort with better facilities than NASA and the World Bank and a performing arts center that’s miles better than the talent usually playing it. And at that point the university presidents can pay attention to at least a few things that aren’t buildings and billion-dollar endowment chases.

          If you’re too greedy to pay your taxes, though, and your bosses are too, and you’re expecting to take home many many times what the secretaries at work are paid, it cannot happen.

          The students at Lehigh today have never lived under such a tax regime. So it’d be all new to them: you have to give up the 5000-sqft house and maybe the second home and the obscene bonus and all the rest of this. You’ll return to a world in which professional people and ordinary business owners lived well, but not like minor royalty. In other words, inequality is radically reduced. And for a lot of Lehigh kids, that will be an intentional self-sacrifice.

          If they are genuine about what they say they want.

  2. Maybe what is needed are two individuals to deal with the technicalities of running a major university and the pitfalls of dealing with an involved student body; it may be too much to ask for to have one person with the requisite talents. It may also be to much to ask for to have two individuals to work effectively together as leaders.

  3. A reason why I came to lehigh was because of the presidential scholars program. It was really upsetting that they took away this program starting with my year, and I really think it is something that made lehigh special. How is it justified that someone who earned a 3.75 in the class of 2022 get a free masters degree and education when someone in the class of 2023 doesn’t even get any kind of reward alike to that? I hope they reinstate it when the new president comes, and either provide a super convincing reason why we need more students or halt the growth of the student body. The new president should send out surveys and see what the student body actually wants. We chose lehigh for its academic programs, lovely size, and traditions, to whoever is the next president – please keep this and us in mind as you lead us.

  4. Chris Ksig Chef on

    When I was the Chef up at Kappa Sig, president simon didn’t once come to speak to the boys during Friday Lunch, despite repeated requests by the academic chair to get some facetime with the pres.

  5. As Lehigh has changed over the years in becoming less conservative it seems as though complaints have increased along with embarrassment and threats of cutting off support. The revolution never seems to go fast or far enough.

    I have the feeling that the administration makes it’s decisions based upon financial realities and are not comfortable with discussing some of the reasoning behind the decisions. I don’t see this as deviousness but more like an avoidance of additional carping from those to whom the successful operation of a university is no more than a secondary consideration but probably of much less importance.

    Can it be justified that one person gets a Lehigh education but a qualified sibling doesn’t because of financial considerations; possibly not, but unfortunately it probably happens.

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