What is the role of a university president? The president at every school may have a different set of responsibilities with a unique set of administrators beneath them. The role may differ between schools and ebb with the changing conditions of the community.
Above all, at all times, the role of a university president is to be a leader — of administrators, faculty, staff and students. Their job falls somewhere between a 24/7 gig and a 9 to 5, but there are points in time when they are needed more than ever, particularly moments of uncertainty and heavy emotion.
President Helble echoed this in a campus-wide email sent on Oct. 18 about the impact felt by the Israel-Hamas conflicts.
“‘Ensure a sense of belonging for all members of the Lehigh community.’ Words that I have often spoken,” is how he began the email. “Words that mean the most during the most challenging moments. Moments like the one that we and the world face today,” Helble continued.
For those that are struggling right now, having people to turn to for support is essential — or having people to extend that support if they are not yet ready to seek help themselves.
The Lehigh community includes so many people to go to in times of need, whether it be a professor, a friend or somebody else, thanks to a tight-knit community and relatively small student population.
But would any student turn to their university’s president in a time of difficulty? Likely not. But there’s a need for his voice (and many other highly positioned admin) more so now than ever.
Administrators, specifically those in high positions, should not just be figureheads of a campus community. These roles occupy the most elite and prestigious spaces in the country and their leadership must extend beyond their title. Helble’s message to the student body solidified he recognizes this.
Perhaps an in-person official statement or speech would have been more supportive for students, and the inclusion of the names of all those who contributed to the writing of the email would make the message more authentic.
It’s also possible that his acknowledgement of the suffering of Jewish students and Palestinian students as separate groups is contributing to a binary perspective on this conflict, as if they are always separate or as if they are always against each other.
“The pain and shock caused by the horrific terrorist attack in Israel are not some distant story. They are deeply and personally felt by members of our Jewish community. For Palestinians caught in the crossfire of conflict, the violence and the tragedy are profound,” he wrote.
It’s difficult not to create a binary out of a situation as complex as this, so acknowledgment of just one or the other would have been a cause of worry.
Time is passing quickly, and more suffering is ensuing every minute for those affected both directly and indirectly. And as Helble suggested in his email, these are uncertain times.
So, in the interest of time, releasing a statement, even a brief and uncertain one, was essential.
But we see Helble knows his limits. Nobody knows exactly what to do, how to feel, how to cope or how to help as tragic events unfold before us.
He ensured the administration’s focus has been on listening to, understanding and supporting students, as well as understanding that nobody has the answers right now.
Those in charge of our country don’t even have answers or solutions. So patience for administrators and leaders of our community is needed.
Helble ended his email by urging us all to extend empathy. While this may be a given and the bare minimum, it’s a good stance to take and one The Brown and White recently promoted as well.
While as much as we know, the students of Lehigh have been safe from targeted attacks, we can’t be sure that members of the community have not experienced or are not experiencing discrimination or microaggressions. We fear there has been or will be an increase in dangerous rhetoric and violence.
On other college campuses across the country and in many places across the world, people are being targeted and attacked based on their beliefs or background. So while it may seem simple and overstated to extend empathy, it’s not.
Helble’s message is a progressive, yet modest step in the right direction. But as the conflict continues to become more complex and students continue to need support in various ways, we want to see consistency and commitment from Lehigh administrators.