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Ten minutes with Mohamed El-Aasser

Mohamed El-Aasser

In his more than 30 years at Lehigh, Mohamed El-Aasser has served as a professor, scholar, researcher, institute director, and dean. Since he was appointed to the position of provost in November 2004, he has had principal responsibility for Lehigh's academic and intellectual life. His goal, El-Aasser says, is "to build a community of scholars and collegiality."

El-Aasser joined Lehigh as an assistant professor in the department of chemical engineering in 1974, and has been the principal and co-principal investigator on many research grants and contracts. In 1996, he was named chairman of the department of chemical engineering, and was appointed dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science in July 2001.

He recently sat with Lehigh Alumni Bulletin Editor Jack Croft to talk about some of the issues the university faces.

Some have questioned why Lehigh allows Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry, to take a public stance on a controversial topic such as intelligent design (see The evolution of intelligent design). Would you explain your views on academic freedom and the role it plays at a university?

I believe that diversity of thought fuels a robust exchange of ideas, discussion, and debate, contributing to a vibrant intellectual environment on campus in which our students can grow and learn -- exactly what great universities are intended to do. Intellectual diversity is where we have to start, allowing forums and venues for students and faculty to exchange ideas and debate issues from different sides. That goes hand in hand with the concept of building a community of scholars and collegiality.

I lived in Montreal while attending McGill University in the 1960s, and I think I probably spent half my time debating issues, whether it was the Black Panthers, or whether Quebec should be liberated, or the war in Vietnam -- all of these. We had forums day and night, and each one was extremely helpful, at least to me personally. It's one thing to have lectures or invited speakers. But to have a forum where debate can take place and issues can be discussed from all sides, that's what intellectual diversity is all about. We need to have more debates, teach-ins, and forums at Lehigh. They allow students to value and respect other opinions, and also allow them to assess the opinions of others and arrive at a value judgment of their own.

When faculty members speak in public on an issue, are they expressing their personal views or representing the university?

I certainly subscribe to the notion that every faculty member is entitled to -- and should, in fact, contribute -- his or her own opinion about issues in his or her area of expertise. We hire faculty because of their expertise, whether it's in biology or history or the social sciences or the humanities. We might as well take advantage of the fact that we have people with a high level of intellect and respect their opinions. When faculty speak, on the other hand, it is very clear that they do not represent the institution; they do not represent Lehigh. They are sharing their personal views. We have to make sure that when faculty members share their views on a topic in public, there is an understanding that they do not represent Lehigh's position or imply university endorsement.

Within the past two years alone, the university has added the Global Citizenship program and forged a partnership with the United Nations. What advantages do these and other international opportunities offered at Lehigh provide our students?

Truly, we live today in the age of globalization. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. We must prepare our students to work, compete, and lead in an increasingly interconnected international community. Students have to be provided with the opportunity to understand the world in which they are going to live. That's no longer a luxury. Maybe 50 years ago it was, but it's not today. Our students must have an opportunity to understand other countries, gain knowledge of cross-cultural skills, and learn a few languages other than English. It makes a difference if you have one or two other languages.

Global Citizenship is a flagship program, but it's only one of our many international programs. It's a good template. In the summer of 2005, I convened a task force comprised of faculty and staff to examine the array of existing international programs and activities, make recommendations for integrating these programs, and provide me with a set of goals for enhancing our international efforts to benefit our students and faculty. The university's leadership team is currently exploring the next steps for moving the international initiative forward. Stay tuned for some announcements during the spring.

Another area of emphasis in recent years has been diversity. Why is diversity important to Lehigh?

Achieving diversity at Lehigh requires working toward building a community that is more reflective of our society. Fostering a campus culture that embraces diversity will advance the intellectual and social vitality of the Lehigh community, and confirm the symbiotic relationship between diversity and academic excellence.

We are taking several steps at this point. We've created the University Diversity Leadership Committee, which will have three subcommittees to examine faculty, staff, and student diversity issues at Lehigh. Jennifer Swann, an associate professor of biological sciences, is chairing the subcommittee looking at student diversity issues. I gave them three goals. The first two deal specifically with the African-American and Latino/Latina undergraduate students on campus. One of the goals is to improve retention and graduation rates, which goes hand in hand with the campus environment for students of color. The second, which is highly connected, is the whole issue of admissions. How do we significantly increase the numbers of African-American and Latino/Latina undergraduate students?

The third area has to do with education. We'll hold teach-ins and different kinds of forums to engage students in honest discussion and debate. Changing the campus culture will take time and effort, but it is important and is one of my top priorities.

For more of the interview with Provost Mohamed El-Aasser, read “Building a community of scholars and collegiality”.

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Winter 2006

Posted on Wednesday, January 25, 2006

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