Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Inaugural remarks of Alice P. Gast

Listen to audio of the entire ceremony.

Chairman Tanenbaum, Mr. Hecht and other members of the Board of Trustees, and to our faculty, students, staff and many honored guests, I thank you for this unique and wonderful opportunity to lead Lehigh as its thirteenth president. I am humbled to stand here today, tall on the shoulders of many, buoyed by the enthusiasm of your reception, and warmed by the tremendous kindness you have shown me and my family over the last eight months. I especially want to thank the members of the Lehigh family and our guests who have just presented me with such meaningful gifts.

It is wonderful to have so many of my personal heroes here today. After hearing the eloquent words of Chuck Vest, a person I admire both as a friend and mentor, and as one of the truly great university presidents, I have reason to feel at least a little trepidation at making my own inaugural remarks. I am also humbled by the presence of the mayor and so many admired civic and university leaders. Thank you for coming.

Here we are gathered to celebrate a transition, marking but one moment in the 142 year history of Lehigh University. It is a fleeting moment for Lehigh, yet for me--and my family--it is truly a momentous occasion. They are here with me today, and I can think of no better way to begin than to express my deep gratitude to my husband, Brad Askins, my daughter Rebecca, my son David and my other family members for their love and support.

This afternoon I am especially indebted to twelve individuals who served as president before me. Each carried on Asa Packer’s founding vision, and each passed to his successor a richer and stronger university. Of all our traditions, this is the one I feel most obliged to sustain. And so I say to Peter Likins and Bill Hittinger, who have honored me with their presence here today, that all my efforts will be directed to sustain, enhance and extend the achievements that you and all the presidents brought to Lehigh.

I’ve been inspired by many great traditions on Old South Mountain, “Move-in” day being one of the most memorable. This is the day the entire Lehigh community comes together, rolls up their sleeves, and helps settle our new students into their residence halls. Last summer my family and I had our own move-in day just a few weeks prior to the arrival of the Class of 2010. Anyone who has ever moved a family with many boxes can tell you, there are two kinds of weather that occur on moving days: miserable, and worse.

We drew the latter. The heat was oppressive, and our boxes seemed to have multiplied en route.

Unfortunately our moving company didn’t help matters. They parked on a hill, which caused the boxes we had so carefully packed to shift with a crash. And the company had not sent enough movers to get the job done. And so, rather than move us into our home, they moved our belongings onto the simmering driveway. (Were it not for the valiant rescue by the Lehigh staff, we might still be living on our driveway.)

It was on our moving day that I made an interesting discovery: the President’s House is frequently mistaken for the Admissions Office. There I was, on the threshold of our stately home, directing the placement of furniture and belongings, when an eager applicant with two parents in tow, undaunted by the chaos, stepped over and around the boxes and furniture on the driveway and asked if this was the place for the tour.

I should have handed them each a box and directed them upstairs, explaining that at Lehigh, we have a long heritage of rolling up our sleeves, helping one another get the work done.

Instead, I pointed them to Admissions, and they were on their way.

I will always remember their puzzled looks, but even more, I remember the eager anticipation they were bringing to this campus. They were excited to be here.

And I share their excitement. I have felt it from that first day and have felt it everyday since. This is the place. This is where the adventure begins. This is Lehigh.

Lehigh is a place where hard work is respected, where people are expected to be independent and do things for themselves. But Lehigh is also a place where compassion is abundant. We respect each other’s independence, but we look out for one another and share in our successes and our struggles. One person said it to me this way, “At Lehigh we help people do things for themselves.” And our students carry that with them when they graduate and go off into the world.

Lehigh is also a place where creativity flourishes. An alum said to me, "Lehigh does not produce linear thinkers." And that is a special treasure for creativity is the essence of progress.

All of this reflects Asa Packer's founding vision. He was an industrial pioneer of modest origins who set out to create an institution that balanced classical education, with practical experiences, that would serve societal needs. Lehigh is a place where you can do important things for society. This was recognized more than a hundred years ago, when a writer in the Syracuse Post wrote that students come to Lehigh, “to learn to take a useful part in the economy of life.”

What is it that makes Lehigh so special in the 21st century?

First, it is our students. Lehigh is deeply committed to our students and profoundly connected to our graduates. There are institutions that lose sight of their commitment to education. We never have and we never will. It is through our undergraduate and graduate students--with their creativity and their desire to do important things-- that we will continue to have our most enduring impact on the world.

Lehigh’s alumni have always had a significant role in the world. They have done important things. Two examples, in particular, inspire me.

The first example of Lehigh’s mark on the world is special to me because of my lifelong love of jazz instilled by my father and his New Orleans roots. Say the name ‘Louis Armstrong’ and we instantly have a mental image of the great Satchmo, his cheeks bulging, aiming his trumpet toward us. William Gottlieb, Lehigh class of 1938, took that picture. He also captured the iconic images we associate with many of the jazz greats, such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.

Gottlieb’s story is in so many ways the Lehigh story. He majored in economics, but it was his work with the Lehigh Review, his varsity tennis team’s tour (and a rained-out tennis match against Johns Hopkins) that led to a job at the Washington Post and an opportunity to write about jazz. Using his own camera and buying his own film, he began a career that left a lasting legacy and imprint on all of us.

The second example is the story of two leaders well known to us as M&M. Howard McClintic studied civil engineering and wrote an 1888 undergraduate thesis on "Masonry Bridges for Railroad Purposes.” This thesis revealed an early interest in bridge building that was a prelude to his career. He partnered with his classmate, Charles Marshall. And together they formed a company that would fabricate the steelwork for the longest spans of their time--the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River, the George Washington Bridge and finally, in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge.

That bridge-–perhaps the most famous bridge in the world--was made possible in part by the ability to ship steel through the Panama Canal–-the locks of which were also made by M & M!

Imagine that--from a senior thesis at Lehigh University to the creation of an icon of engineering accomplishment, the Golden Gate Bridge.

Lehigh’s is the story of students, like Gottlieb and McClintic and Marshall, students who dare to have dreams, and who are given the foundation to be able to follow them.

And, it is the story of our faculty who provide that foundation.

Our faculty make Lehigh special. It is our faculty who inspire our students and who continue to produce great leaders who will shape the world. This is an age of ever-greater specialization, but it is a time when challenges require broader, not narrower, perspectives and experiences. Our faculty provide an education that gives our students breadth, as well as depth. Lehigh’s faculty is good at bridging disciplines to the benefit of our students. Their continued commitment to this will prepare our students for the global scope of the challenges they face.

Our faculty also bring tremendous creativity to the research and scholarship on the forefront of their fields. They push the boundaries of knowledge and they pursue their work with passion. Lehigh’s faculty bring these cutting-edge ideas into their teaching to inspire and push themselves and their students into genuine creative thinking.

Finally, it is Lehigh’s collaborative spirit and culture that make us special. Our strengths in arts, humanities, education and social sciences in combination with our science, engineering and business expertise enable us to tackle some of the most pressing problems of our time. By bringing multiple points of view to a problem, one finds new avenues of solution. It is striking how analogies and ideas drawn from different fields have caused inspiring advances to occur. The contributions from a mathematical biologist, a diffraction experimentalist and a geneticist unlocked the structure of DNA, and it was Heisenberg’s breadth of education in physics, mathematics and philosophy that contributed to the development of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle. At Lehigh, our breadth and our strengths of collaboration foster the combination of ideas from disparate areas of scholarship.

These special qualities--our students, our faculty, our collaborative spirit--enable us to do great things. And these are times when great things are needed.

As we look around our region, our nation and our world, we see so many challenges. Human conflict, cultural misunderstanding, threatened natural resources, and the suffering brought on by disease and hunger. We face these and other challenges in a world with more problems than solutions and often more despair than hope.

America, and the world, are once again turning to universities for answers, and for hope.

As a great university we at Lehigh have a desire and a responsibility to play a part in meeting these challenges. This is a time for Lehigh to explore new worlds, it is a time to roll up our sleeves and grapple with some of the bigger problems in our world today.

There are many ways that Lehigh can contribute its excellence to respond to today’s challenges. There are many ways we can apply our creative thinking to a common purpose.

Today I want to focus on three areas where what we study, research and teach at Lehigh can help change our community, the nation and the world. These are areas where we already have that special blend of talents, creativity and collaborative spirit to work toward a common purpose. And they are all areas where we have the opportunity to “be a useful part of the economy of life.”

First, we can respond to the great strains imposed on the world’s resources, climate and environment. These tensions can have disastrous consequences, and drive international conflict.

It will take many new ideas and many new innovations to meet these challenges. And the ultimate measure of success is whether the ideas are adopted. And that is why in our Environmental Initiative we have integrated science, engineering, politics, policy, communication, history, anthropology, sociology, economics, education and ethics. And that is why we will be building a place to bring these diverse perspectives under one roof. Bridging the technical and human sides of these issues will foster new approaches that balance technical advances with society’s capacity to embrace and understand them. Imagine clean water for urban and rural settings provided by simple devices that everyone can use and afford. Imagine new policies that combine the environmental, political and economic realities to bring society to better standards of living with a lower impact on our planet.

The creation of a Center for Global Islamic studies fills a second critical need. Since 9-11, the lack of understanding between the Islamic world and the rest of the world has become painfully clear. Yet we all know how crucially intertwined our worlds are. Presently, academic programs tend to take a narrow focus on Islamic societies. Lehigh’s Center for Global Islamic Studies will go beyond the lenses of religion, politics and geography to include other important perspectives. We will call upon those in the arts, architecture, history, philosophy, language, literature, sociology, business, economics and technology to produce a more balanced, comparative view of the communities of Islam to our students and to society. The center will have an integrated and innovative undergraduate program. We will provide an environment for vigorous debate and deep thought while pushing ourselves and our students to experience and understand the cultural landscape we are studying. The center will be a place where we can use our creativity to increase understanding.

Finally, I believe that Lehigh can play an important role in meeting another challenge: this is the challenge of the effective provision of health care. Lehigh is ideally suited to forge partnerships with hospitals and industry. In this region and across the country there are patients with great needs, especially in chronic disease. Meanwhile, the specter of emerging global infectious diseases raises new concerns. Lehigh will continue its excellence in the understanding of disease pathways and in the search for new therapies. But we can contribute more if we also bring together those who will help us understand what it takes to have a successful health care system; what it takes to have new discoveries adopted and widely used; what it takes to make advances most affordable to those in need.

To do this, we will need to engage all parts of the university. To do this, we will need to call upon those who can help us understand the complexities of insurance, pensions, taxes, and marketing as well as those working on a fundamental understanding of disease, treatments and a systems approach to health care; we will need new insights into people and their ability to accept risk, to understand and seek treatments, and to comply with prescribed medical regimens and we will need to determine how to educate and counsel aging adults as well as children to help them gain responsibility for their own health. I believe that this leadership in the provision of health care, founded in our own community, will provide a model for the nation.

What do I propose to do to help us realize this vision of Lehigh making great contributions to today’s world?

First and foremost, I pledge to you that I will endeavor at all times to be open and responsive to your suggestions and concerns.

I pledge also to stay focused on our most important asset: our people. I see three main areas to target this focus.

I propose to enhance our undergraduate educational opportunities through the creation of additional dedicated funds for undergraduate research, as well as new opportunities for junior year papers and senior thesis awards.

I propose to elevate the experience of our graduate students, by creating Presidential Graduate Fellowships for both research and teaching fellows.

And I propose to create new means for our faculty to think creatively by providing sabbaticals in residence, and seed funding for important new ventures.

It is clear to me that time constraints and our overly busy world hampers our creativity. I pledge to make opportunities for collegial relationships that foster thinking, learning and idea generation.

But I can’t do all this alone. Today, I ask for your help.

I hope that today we can all reaffirm our commitment to academic rigor, serious thought, passionate beliefs, and occasionally earth-shaking arguments--always grounded on the bedrock of mutual respect.

I hope today we will all commit to reach across boundaries--the boundaries our campus, in our community as well as across the world--and keep a steady gaze outward--for there is a wide world calling for our help. By accepting these challenges, Lehigh will be taking a more extroverted stance. We will need to find opportunities for cooperation and collaboration with other institutions and other countries. Let us set our sights high.

I hope that today and always we recall our common purpose: to be the best university we can be. A place of creativity, discovery, excitement and excellence.

I am deeply honored by your trust and confidence in me, and indescribably excited by the opportunities that lie ahead.

This is the place. This is where the adventure begins. This is Lehigh.

Thank you.

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Posted on Friday, April 13, 2007

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