Vincent Forlenza, ‘75, will be assuming the role of chairman for Lehigh’s board of trustees on July 1. The announcement came on March 8.
Forlenza has served on the board of trustees for two terms that spanned consecutively from 2011 to 2017. He left the board in 2017 and returned on July 1, 2020 as a corporate trustee.
This former CEO of BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company) has played a hand in many projects at Lehigh, including the creation of the College of Health.
Forlenza spoke with The Brown and White to share about the functioning of the board of trustees, decision making and the future of Lehigh.
Q: What are the primary functions of the chair for the board of trustees?
Vincent Forlenza: The role of the board is to ensure that the university is really fulfilling its purpose, which is to provide a great education. And, I can discuss how that happens, but it’s a governance role. It is not managing the university. It’s not running the university, of course, the president and his team do that. The board has a role of really advising and approving the strategy, the initiatives and of course, choosing the president, which we’ve just done successfully. I think we’ve made a fantastic choice. So that’s what the board is focused on …
The chairman of the board, number one, has to make sure that we have a board that has the skills to engage with the leadership team and the president to make sure that we’re all highly successful. Making sure the right capability, a diversity of voices is heard so we can continue to improve year after year. The chair does that through his Nominating and Governance Committee, he makes sure that the board is organized. I would say that you want someone who is focused on a highly efficient and effective board, that is a high performing board. So that’s my job, to work with the folks on the board to set it up. That will happen. We have the right committees, the right agenda (for) our meeting. So, I’m managing the board, (that) is what I’m doing, and part of my role, in terms of working as a high performing board is to — by the way, we have a high performing, an excellent board — to maintain that culture and drive that culture, because you want decision making processes that are very open to different opinions to challenge one another, that work in a very collaborative way with President Helble and his team. If we do that well, then we’re all successful.
Q: What does the process of choosing the chairman look like and who’s involved in that?
VF: Choosing the chair starts with the current chair and the Nominating and Governance Committee. And so they will sit down and review the members that are on the board and what they are looking for in a new board chair and basically say these are the qualities that we’re looking for, the experience that we’re we’re looking for and, a great passion for Lehigh, of course, those things, as you would expect. That Nominating and Governance Committee would then take that to the executive committee of the board to start the decision making process which is all ultimately ratified by the full board.
Q: You’ve been very involved in the board of trustees and the College of Health, but you’ve also had a very busy and accomplished career. It seems you must have a lot of options on the table, so why do you choose Lehigh to spend your time and (use your) influence here?
VF: I do have a lot of options on the table, but Lehigh, I believe, was fundamental to my success. It was a wonderful experience for me. I grew a lot, not just on the academic side, but as a person too. I enjoyed the experience a lot. I still have friends from Lehigh. And so that was foundational for joining the board the first time and then, it (was) just a tremendous experience with being on the board with people that I respect and who have the same passion for Lehigh. And then the third element of it was the ability to contribute something new to the university, which of course was working on the College of Health. And that was a wonderful experience for me combining what I’ve been doing in my work life with what I could do for Lehigh. So that, took me to another level of excitement about being part of this board and why when they came to me and asked me, ‘Would you be willing to be chair?’ I was excited to do that.
Q: Having been on the board for an eventful time through COVID, (choosing a) new president, Donald Trump’s honorary degree change and the Black Lives Matter movement, what have been some of the most defining and impactful moments of your time on the board of trustees so far, and why?
VF: One for me, of course, was doing the work on the College of Health. That certainly would be one of them. Two, being part of the team that selected the new president was obviously a big, impactful time. Now, I would add third, I came back on just as the pandemic was hitting and as I did that, I was working with Nathan Urban on the university response to the pandemic. My background is in infectious disease diagnostics, from the business side, from the R&D side. So I did a lot of work with Nathan on how are we going to put together a testing program, those sorts of things for the university, and that was a real challenge with things changing so rapidly there. As I came back on the board, the work that you described — I’ll describe it as diversity, inclusion and equity — the university was putting together its strategy at that time, led by Donald Outing, and involving the executive committee of the board and the full board on that. And for me, it was a fascinating opportunity to take what I was doing at a corporate fortune 200 company, and bring some of those learnings to the university and how we thought about the strategy. There’s a lot of people doing that, but participating in that I thought was a fascinating process.
Q: What is the image of Lehigh you want to project?
VF: The image of Lehigh I want to project is a leading private, residential, teaching and research university, best among its peers. A place that you absolutely want to go absolutely want to get your degree from and that you are super proud to be part of.
Q: What does Lehigh look like five years from now in your vision? — What does the campus look like? What does the cost look like? What does the population look like?
VF: I think a lot is changing and I believe President Helble started that. We have to build upon what’s been done over the last 10 years but expand upon it. One thing that he’s already speaking about is more integration across the colleges, and so he wants to see, I want to see, the board wants to see, the ability to create your learning experience in a more flexible way. To me personally, that’s really important. I think about the College of Health, which absolutely needs these kinds of integrated programs that we’ve run. But we need to scale them. So I think you will see more of those types of programs, more flexibility and more scale, over the next five years, so that’s one thing.
Second thing you’re going to see I think is an enhanced research program at the graduate level and as we do that work I’m sure we will be defining certain areas where we create centers of excellence and be the best.
I think from the student body standpoint, we will be expanding. (We) already started this work — let’s just say geographically, where we recruit, and I think we’ll continue to end up with a more diverse population. We have to. It is an important part of the education and important part of Lehigh being a great university. So, I think you will see all of that.
You’ll see us continue the building, that we have been doing over the last number of years. We still have to do the University Center. We’re just completing the Health, Science and Technology building, but we will continue to build that out over the next few years. So you’re going to continue to see the university modernize, is the way I would see it.
Q: Is the cost (of attendance) expected to go up?
VF: Well, cost is an issue for everyone. Both the leadership team and the board certainly want to make sure that the university is affordable for the student population, and how do we do that, part of that is how we raise money. Part of that is making sure that we are as efficient as possible. All of that will be a major focus for the university. They’re all thinking about anyone who goes to Lehigh has to get a great return on their investment. You want to be able to look back 10 years from now and say “Boy, that was a great choice that I made.” And we know that is for all universities a struggle, so would be part of what we’re working on. They’ve been working on it for years, but we’ll continue to.
Q: When making decisions on the board, who do you primarily have in mind? Current students? Students five years from now? Alumni? Faculty?
VF: That depends on what we’re talking about, right? So, if we’re talking about alumni affairs, we’re thinking about current alumni, but also future alumni. You have to take a strategic point of view around whatever you’re working on. You’re not trying to make decisions for one year, you’re looking for the long term impact. So, we’re looking at the impact of all of those things, all of those groups, as we do that.
Q: If there is one thing that you want the campus community to know about you, what is it?
VF: That I’m passionate about Lehigh. I’ll do my best as chair to work with the board, work with the administration to do the best that I can do for the university and for the experience for the students.