The College of Health’s newest top administrator, Beth Dolan, said she is “thrilled” and “really excited” to lead Lehigh’s newest college as its interim dean.
Provost Nathan Urban announced in an email to the campus community on Dec. 18 that Dolan would serve as the College of Health’s interim dean. In that same campus-wide email, Urban also announced Inaugural Dean Whitney Witt would step down after nearly two years leading the college.
A recent Brown and White investigation found Witt resigned after months of tension among some faculty members in the College of Health, who shared concerns over Witt’s vision and leadership style. In part, the investigation also found three of the six College of Health faculty members had looked into leaving the college and sought work elsewhere since they were brought on within the past year as a result of hostilities within the college.
Urban said Witt’s resignation was her own decision, and she is scheduled to return as a faculty member following a yearlong sabbatical.
Dolan spoke to The Brown and White for the first time since she was announced as interim dean. She did not provide comment in the College of Health-related Brown and White investigation published earlier this week.
Dolan said Urban got in touch with her about the role “a couple weeks ago” once he knew Witt was stepping down.
Despite being a “little surprised” Urban offered her the job, Dolan said she “said yes right away” and was “honored” to be asked to step into the interim dean position. Dolan cited her past work as the first director of Lehigh’s health, medicine and society program, her initial involvement in forming the College of Health after it was announced by President John Simon four years ago and her proposal to start a community health group as experiences in health-related fields at Lehigh.
Dolan steps into the role of interim dean after having served as the deputy provost for graduate education and a professor of English. She first started at Lehigh in 2001.
But she also credits her experiences in administrative roles as an ombudsperson, a sexual harassment investigator and an associate chair of the English department as keys to preparing her to climb up the ranks at Lehigh.
“I’ve gotten to know the university pretty well from lots of different angles,” Dolan said.
The future is what’s motivating Dolan’s latest jump to interim dean of the College of Health.
“I love to build things, and I love new projects,” she said. “Obviously with a new college — there’s so much work to be done, and it’s exciting.”
Dolan said she will be receiving a salary increase in her role as interim dean. Both Urban and Lori Friedman, Lehigh’s media relations director, declined to say whether Witt would begin receiving a faculty salary instead of her dean salary, even though Witt’s move from dean to professor took effect on Dec. 18.
Dolan also addressed some of the concerns that have come to light in the recent Brown and White investigation. Dolan reiterated she has no “firsthand knowledge” of the concerns regarding interpersonal relationships between faculty and Witt.
“I think that it’s good that the faculty felt they could speak about what was going on, and I was happy to see they felt supported by the university in general,” Dolan said. “I do know that the vision for (the college) and the faculty hired and the students recruited and the curriculum that’s been put up, I think we can give Inaugural Dean Witt a lot of credit for (her) … hugely valuable contributions.”
One specific concern some faculty members shared was the fact that Witt’s husband, Halcyon Skinner, serves as associate dean of the College of Health and served in that role while Witt was dean. Friedman said Lehigh arranged for Skinner to report to Jackie Krasas, the deputy provost for faculty affairs, instead of directly to Witt to avoid conflicts of interest and nepotism.
While some faculty in the college still felt uncomfortable by the leadership structure between Witt and Skinner, Dolan didn’t appear bothered by the arrangement.
“It would really only be a problem if (Skinner) was reporting to (Witt), but he wasn’t reporting to her,” Dolan said. “I understand the question is when you’re in a hierarchy like that, how does that work? The university is really careful about those relationships to make sure that you’re not reporting to a spouse.”
As to whether Skinner will remain in his role as associate dean after Witt’s resignation as dean, Dolan said “those decisions haven’t been made yet.” Both Witt and Skinner did not return three emails and one phone call each seeking comment for the Brown and White’s investigative package on the College of Health.
Dolan said she held her first faculty and staff meeting as interim dean recently and feels the faculty in the college are a “really cohesive group” that is “incredibly talented.” She said it’s time for the College of Health to start “bridging” with other programs at Lehigh and wants to develop a set of common opportunities at the university for pre health students.
“My big goal is to help the college integrate … with folks across the university and then to continue to build on the relationships that Dean Witt had started to build with local hospitals, granting organizations, and with other kinds of partners including industry partners,” Dolan said. “I’m excited for all those things.”
Dolan said the College of Health is in “hiring mode,” with eight faculty positions currently open. The College of Health currently employs six full-time faculty members and has 63 students enrolled. By 2024, Lehigh aims to support 60 faculty members and 750 students in the college working and learning in the $145-million Health, Science and Technology Building, set to open in August 2021.
Even with financial challenges, the College of Health is churning forward and hopes to double its class size next year. To Dolan, though, the pandemic has brought about an “amazing moment” to grow the college, citing the importance of data driven approaches to health actions and decisions and the broader public health implications of human behavior.
“I’m not concerned (about the growth plans), actually,” Dolan said. “If there had to be a crisis, this college and this crisis are well matched.”
Dolan’s transition into the College of Health’s interim dean marks an era of change at a third high-profile position within the university this year alone. Urban took over for former Provost Pat Farrell this past summer, and President John Simon is set to leave his post in June 2021.
But while some may see transition as a sign of uncertainty and instability, Dolan said she’s never seen it that way — and views this time instead as one of “incredible opportunity.”
As for Dolan herself, Urban said the search for a new permanent College of Health dean will not begin until a new president is selected.
Will Dolan throw her hat in the ring for the top job at the College of Health on a permanent basis?
“I have no idea,” Dolan said. “It’s Day 3, you know what I mean?”
This report was compiled by The Brown and White’s Investigative Team.