Lehigh University counts among its alumni engineers who helped build marvels of the 20th Century, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the locks of the Panama Canal. Now the private university in eastern Pennsylvania aims to go on a building spurt of its own.
Under university President John Simon, who took office in 2015, Lehigh has approved a plan to add 1,000 undergraduates — 20 percent more than the current total of 5,000-plus — as well as about 200 graduate students and 100 tenured and tenure-track faculty positions.
The expansion would occur during the next several years, through 2025, as Lehigh adds residence halls and academic buildings to accommodate its growth in Bethlehem. There would be a new life sciences laboratory on the Mountaintop campus and a new health-technology building on the Packer campus. Simon wants at least half of the new faculty to staff a new college focused on health.
“If you’re not in health, you’re not a player,” Simon said in a late December visit to The Washington Post newsroom.
Simon clarified that the new college, Lehigh’s fifth, would not be a school of medicine. Unlike many top-tier research universities, Lehigh does not have a medical school or teaching hospital. Its four colleges are devoted to arts and science; business and economics; education; and engineering and applied science. Simon said he wants the fifth college to be designed with guidance from the faculty. Buy-in is crucial, he said.
“My own experience is things that are owned at the top die when the top changes,” he said.
A chemist, Simon came to Lehigh after serving as executive vice president and provost at the University of Virginia from 2011 to 2015. During his time in Charlottesville, he was a key player in support of U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan in 2012, when she survived an attempted ouster orchestrated by leaders of the U-Va. governing board.
Simon previously held faculty and administrative positions at Duke University, and he has a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and a master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard University.
Founded in 1865, Lehigh ranks 50th on The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education college list and 44th on the U.S. News and World Report list of national universities. For generations it was closely tied to Bethlehem Steel, an industrial powerhouse that filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and dissolved soon afterward.
The influence of the steelmaker endures in the university’s culture, Simon said.
“The Lehigh student likes to do,” he said. Practical stuff with machines. Welding, 3-D printing and more. “It’s an important throwback,” Simon said. “You need people who can use their brains as well as use their hands.”
Simon acknowledged there are risks to growth. Can the university increase its applicant pool and maintain its selectivity? It accepted about 30 percent of applicants for the freshman class that started in fall 2015. Can the university’s endowment, valued at $1.2 billion, keep pace with enrollment? Can the university hire the faculty it wants to hire?
But Simon told the university community late last year, after trustees approved the plan, that the goal is worth it.
“We really do believe the university stands at a crossroads,” he said in a statement, “and we need to seize upon our many strengths to expand our capabilities in academics, in student life, in our engagement with Bethlehem and, truly, in everything else we do as well.”
Like many university leaders, Simon said during his visit to Washington he is intensely curious how President-elect Donald Trump and his incoming administration will affect higher education. He said he senses “a lack of clarity on where this administration sits — really sits — on various issues.”
Will Trump support new restrictions on university endowments and changes in federal civil rights enforcement? Will Trump support funding for the Pell grant for disadvantaged students and for federally sponsored research? Trump’s “overall research agenda is not clear to me,” he said.
Simon was one of hundreds of college and university leaders to sign a letter late last year aimed at Trump, urging the government to maintain and expand a program protecting certain undocumented students who arrived in the United States as children.
President Obama had launched that program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in 2012. But during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump pledged to undo Obama policies on immigration that he believes were an executive overreach.
Before he signed the letter, Simon checked with Lehigh trustees. “I have the backing of the board,” he said.