President Joseph Helble speaks to some of the Lehigh community before the Hybrid Community Conversation began at the Health, Science and Technology building April 8. There was a Zoom option and students, faculty and staff were encouraged to submit their questions in advance or ask them live during the event. (Julia Swill/B&W Staff)

President Helble hosts Community Conversations to prioritize transparency


President Joseph Helble is fostering transparency by hosting a Community Conversation once a semester. This series has been hosted since Helble became Lehigh’s president in 2021. 

Helble welcomed community members to join him for a conversation April 8. Students, faculty and staff gathered in Room 101 of the Health, Science and Technology Building and joined virtually through Zoom to discuss the state of campus. 

Helble said he hosted virtual community conversations during the COVID pandemic while he was previously serving as Provost at Dartmouth College. After hearing how much value these conversations provided from the Dartmouth community, he wanted to replicate them at Lehigh. 

“I run with students every Tuesday morning,” Helble said. “I do that because I love to run, and I do that because of the social aspect. I also do it because it’s a chance for me to just talk to people in the community about what’s happening. The Community Conversation is just another way to do that.”

Helble began the conversation Monday by talking about the campus climate concerning the conflict in the Middle East and how it’s been affecting the community. 

He acknowledged recent antisemitic incidents on campus, including a swastika that was carved into the handrail of a residential dorm and three different incidents of students’ mezuzahs being removed from their doorways. 

“I really believe it’s incumbent upon all of us to create a community of belonging, to make sure that every person on this campus can be who they are (and) can be and bring their full selves to everything they do respectfully and be respected,” Helble said. “Differences should be celebrated. It’s an opportunity for all of us to engage with respectful curiosity, learning from the variety, the breadth of diversity, the incredible richness that is this community.”

Helble also mentioned that Lehigh has been added to a list of 128 institutions from which the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is requesting more information to assess whether there has been discrimination involving shared ancestry. 

Another topic Helble discussed was the implementation of the university’s strategic plan, called “Inspiring the Future Makers.” He said he has been traveling for the past six months to connect with alumni and family members to have them join Lehigh in implementing and providing support for the 10-year plan.

Helble then encouraged all attendees both in person and on Zoom to ask questions. 

“I want the campus community to know and trust that they can ask me anything,” he said. “There are no limits on the questions that get asked in that session, and I will do my best to answer. If I don’t know, I’ll simply say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I can’t answer that question.’”

Questions ranged from campus facility usage in the summer to security concerns in parking garages to diversity in future speakers brought to campus. 

Sasha Rabeno, ‘24, asked Helble about the growth of intercollegiate programs including the IDEAS program. She was curious about the program’s future development and trajectory, as well as how resources would be allocated for students. 

“I figured it’s a good thing to attend, especially since I’m on my way out, to see the state of things that are going to be going on when I’m gone,” Rabeno said.

Rabeno was specifically concerned with allocating funds and scaling resources appropriately to a student body that has grown significantly since she was a first-year student. 

Helble responded by emphasizing the importance of having adequate resources for all of the colleges and programs on campus to provide a quality education to students. 

He said he wants to focus on modest growth to provide more opportunities for students while maintaining the program’s scale and size. He also mentioned the university hopes to create an intercollegiate program between the College of Engineering and the College of Health in the future.

Another question was asked by Sarah Ellis Morgan, ‘27, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences who is looking to take classes focused on artificial intelligence. Morgan said she has been unable to find any courses without computer science prerequisites. 

Even though Morgan didn’t have a question prepared before arriving at the conversation, she said she realized the questioning spanned different areas, which made her decide to ask about her own experience. 

“I’ve had my mind on AI recently, wondering how I can incorporate it into my learning without significantly veering off the path of what I’m doing already,” Morgan said. 

Helble directed Morgan’s question to Provost Nathan Urban, who said there was a grant awarded through the Future Makers program that will help incorporate AI programming into existing courses for the upcoming semesters. 

Urban said journalism in particular will be influenced and changed by generative AI, but course names normally do not include the words “artificial intelligence.” He said there will be work done to pull together information about courses that focus on generative AI to be more transparent for students. 

Helble invited attendees to stay and watch the solar eclipse after the event ended, and the conversation continued there. 

“While I was waiting for the sun to appear from behind the clouds, I met several graduate students in material science, and it gave me a chance to talk with them about where they were from and what they were studying,” Helble said. “Now I will remember them when I run into them on campus, so it helps me make different kinds of connections with the student community.” 

Helble said he hopes those who attended the Community Conversations leave with three things: factual information about what’s happening on campus, access to campus leaders, and excitement about the direction the university is heading and trust that the leadership is interested and attentive to what is on students’ minds. 

Interacting face-to-face with the campus community enhances Helble’s ability to build and foster a sense of community and trust in the decisions that are being made. He said he prioritizes transparency to ensure open communication with the campus community. 

Helble said he wants to be more than a figurehead on campus. He wants students, faculty and staff to know there is a person in the presidential role who truly cares about the university and the community. 

“This university shaped me and changed my life,” Helble said. “I’m an alumnus, and I was the first in my family to go away to college and it was a transformative experience for me. I care deeply about Lehigh, and (these conversations) are a way for me to convey that to campus. I get many emails, but I would much rather hear from someone in person.” 

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1 Comment

  1. This truly shows President Helble’s dedication to building a more transparent and inclusive community. By hosting these conversations, he is actively seeking out and listening to the voices of those he serves. This is true leadership at its finest.

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