President John Simon spoke with The Brown and White for the first time since his Sept. 4 announcement that he would step down at the end of June 2021.
Simon described the past few months of managing Lehigh during the COVID-19 pandemic as “24/7.”
“Largely living and experiencing Lehigh during the pandemic and what I think Lehigh needs in leadership (is why I made the decision to step down),” Simon said. “Lehigh needs someone willing to make a long-term commitment.”
Despite signing a contract extension through 2025 last year, Simon said he has “always viewed the job” as year-to-year and said he made that mentality known.
As for next steps, Simon said it’s still too early to tell — but knows one thing for sure.
“I am in no way thinking of the same position at another university,” Simon said. “The whole process (these past few months) was first thing in the morning until late at night seven days per week.”
Simon said one of the hardest decisions Lehigh had to make when developing its reopening plan was to arrange for first-years to live in single rooms and not have sophomores live on-campus.
But, with no on-campus cases of COVID-19 so far this semester, Simon said he’s “very cautiously optimistic” the university is responding well to the new health guidelines in place. He also said he’s pleased to see Northampton County with low numbers of cases.
Simon responded to concerns regarding Lehigh’s testing strategy that “fully remote” students aren’t required to get tested through the Health Center, though some are still living off-campus in Bethlehem, and that the routine testing of students the first two weeks of classes has stopped. Simon said Lehigh is continuing to evaluate “what kind of surveillance testing is appropriate.”
All students — fully remote or not — have access to the Health Center should they experience COVID-related symptoms.
Simon acknowledged the financial hit the pandemic has brought on Lehigh. He announced on June 1 that Lehigh was facing a $40 million budget shortfall and had been forced to freeze hirings, suspend raises and contributions to faculty and staff retirement plans, and temporarily furlough some staff members.
While Simon said Lehigh has been “well managed over the years,” he acknowledged there is work to do.
“We have not addressed the long-term aspects and restructuring as to what will take place,” he said. “It’s critical, the steps we’ve taken to mitigate this year, but who knows what spring semester will look like?”
Lehigh’s presidency isn’t the only top-level position experiencing recent change. In March, Lehigh picked Nathan Urban as the university’s provost following Pat Farrell’s decision to leave the post. Urban began his role over the summer.
Calling Urban “the perfect fit,” Simon said he hopes his transition with his successor goes as well as it has gone at the provost position.
“I think Lehigh is at one of those pivot points,” Simon said. “It’s the right time to pass the baton.”