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Inauguration initiatives move forward

In her inauguration remarks last month, Lehigh President Alice P. Gast highlighted three initiatives where Lehigh’s special blend of talents, creativity and collaborative spirit can come together toward common goals. The three initiatives are Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative, a new Center for Global Islamic Studies and a more concerted effort in the provision of healthcare in the U.S. Gast emphasized that these three new initiatives are in addition to, not at the expense of, existing ones.

The Environmental Initiative was formed in 2003 and has undergraduate and graduate degree programs. It bridges the technical and human sides of environmental issues and fosters new approaches that balance technical advances with society’s ability to understand and adopt them. The initiative—which engages a broad spectrum of faculty—integrates anthropology, communication, economics, education, engineering, ethics, history, journalism, policy, politics, science, and sociology. To bring these diverse disciplines under one roof, Lehigh is building a state-of-the-art facility as part of a program currently called Science, Technology, Environment, Policy & Society, or STEPS.

In addition to the building, the single most important factor for the success of this project is the faculty who will collaborate on all facets of the initiative, Gast says. The STEPS program also calls for support for undergraduate research and graduate fellowships. The university will continue to pursue opportunities to fund endowed chairs for faculty involved in this multidisciplinary effort as part of the overall Shine Forever campaign.

The new building, located at the corner of Packer Avenue and Vine Street, will also house state-of-the-art teaching laboratories. Pending approval of the expenditures by the board of trustees and successful funding, the university could break ground in 2008. The earliest estimate for completion is June 2010.

The Global Islamic Studies Center will bring disparate groups together to provide a multidimensional, comparative study of Islamic culture and people. The center will draw together anthropology, architecture, arts, history, international relations, languages, literature, philosophy, political science, religion and sociology. This comparative study approach has a long history at the university. Lehigh Professor A. Roy Eckardt was a leader in Jewish-Christian studies and, in the 1950s, founded one of the early religion studies programs at a secular school. The Berman Center for Jewish Studies, founded 25 years ago, has been innovative in advancing the multidisciplinary examination of Judaism.

“The center will provide an integrated and innovative undergraduate program to better prepare students for the global marketplace they will enter, contribute to and compete in. The programming will support and enrich Lehigh’s existing global efforts, with a goal to enable a broad understanding; not to advocate for any one viewpoint,” Gast says.

Several of Lehigh’s faculty members from modern languages and literature, religion studies, and management have reviewed Islamic Studies programs at other top U.S. universities and have produced a white paper suggesting how Lehigh’s program could be structured.

Three signatures for Lehigh’s Center for Global Islamic Studies emerge: 1) its comparative, interdisciplinary approach to global Islamic studies; 2) its integrated and innovative undergraduate program to provide students with multiple outlets to explore the diversity and dynamism of the global Muslim world; and 3) its combination of the very best scholarship with an understanding of its relevance to human life, problems and practices, taking Islamic studies beyond the classroom to offer students, faculty, and the broader community a variety of forums for dialogue, debate and experiential learning.

Provision of healthcare: In each of Lehigh’s four colleges, there are talented and experienced faculty members who share an interest in the topic of healthcare in the United States. Their research interests are as broad as they are deep, and cover such areas as psychology, systems engineering, aging, economics and biomolecular science, among many others. After speaking with a number of Lehigh faculty members, Gast realized that many of the very areas that the university already excels in apply—or could apply—to the provision of American healthcare. Gast believes that Lehigh has an opportunity to take existing strengths, focus our attention, integrate our activities and work collaboratively on this effort. She believes that this is an area where the total will be greater than the sum of its parts.

As part of this effort, Lehigh will need to bring together experts to help determine what it takes to have a successful healthcare system, how new discoveries are adopted and then widely used, and how to begin to address the often crippling question of affordability. Gast expects that those experts and new partnerships will come from other institutions, as well as from the healthcare, business and public sectors.

“I believe we can contribute to new solutions and more effective provision of healthcare through our ability to define technology needs, patient demographics and our search for new therapies, which will always be at the core of a university’s engagement in health sciences. But there is more that we can do,” Gast says. “There will be far greater impact if we get the psychologists talking to the bioengineers and the systems engineers, and if our economists, biologists and social scientists work together and think about costs of technology and insurance and other affordability and societal issues.”

In the coming months, next steps will include Gast asking each college to audit the existing areas of study/research that could impact this initiative and appointing a faculty working group in the fall whose charge will be to generate broad dialogue about the many areas of scholarship and teaching where Lehigh can contribute to this process. She looks forward to involving the campus community in these efforts as they move ahead.

--Bill Doherty

Posted on Friday, May 18, 2007

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