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Alice Gast: “I greatly admire Lehigh’s dedication to the whole student”

Alice P. Gast

I am tremendously honored to be asked to serve Lehigh University as its 13th president. From my first discussions with the search committee, I have felt a strong bond of shared values and vision with this great university.

I would like to thank the search committee members for sharing their passion for Lehigh with me. All my interactions have confirmed this sense of common mission; and I greatly look forward to learning about each and every facet of this tremendous place.

I resonate with Lehigh’s founding principles set forward more than 140 years ago:

• to combine classical and scientific education

• to keep the size of the student body proportionate to the abilities of the faculty to teach them well

• to be nondenominational and have an admission policy based on merit

I see these principles at work today as Lehigh balances broad classical education with specializations that are important for society. I see the legacy in the commitment to small class size and the focus on merit-based and need-blind admissions.

We are blessed to live in a nation whose system of higher education is the envy of the world. This system provides a multitude of educational environments and cultures and Lehigh’s founding principles set a standard.

In our system:

• We integrate research and classroom education.

• We compete for funding on a relatively level playing field.

• We enjoy the freedom to pursue scholarship and research motivated by our desires to understand and improve the world around us.

• We generate more new ideas and innovations than any other nation.

• We attract the best from around the world as students, postdocs, and collaborators.

Asa Packer’s vision for Lehigh in 1865 is strikingly relevant today.
In describing Packer’s goals for Lehigh, the Web site says:

Packer knew, as did many others, that a strong national economy depended on more than technical skills. It needed above all people broadly educated in the liberal arts and sciences—people who could combine practical skills with informed judgments and strong moral self-discipline. He kept this in mind when founding and endowing Lehigh University.

Today, however, our nation’s confidence in its greatness is wavering. Our economic vitality, our quality of life and our national security have been threatened. Increasingly, we have come to realize that our system of higher education is central to meeting these challenges.

This realization has been articulated in the recent National Academies report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.”
That report underscores the importance of scientific and technical innovation to the vitality of our economy, our national security, and the quality of life for this generation and the ones to come.

Clearly the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” committee would have benefited from Asa Packer’s wisdom if he were alive today.

I would like to point out that Packer’s foresight and principles carry a fundamental message that is lacking in the current trend toward specialization. He stressed the need to be able to combine a practical, technical education with liberal arts and sciences, stressing the core values and fundamentals arising from a broad education.

I think that Lehigh has the right recipe and provides important leadership for the nation by projecting and celebrating these values.

Why do I believe that this is the right recipe? I am certain that the complex and global world our graduates are dealing with requires them to be able to think and work on many different planes and from many different perspectives.

Only by drawing from a breadth of disciplines to foster intellectual curiosity and hone problem-solving skills can we truly prepare our graduates for these challenges. We need writers who understand science and lawyers who grasp engineering. And we need engineers who understand the societal and cultural context within which they work.

Lehigh has demonstrated this important commitment to a balanced education for its students and to an intellectual agenda that integrates research and education.

It is heartening to see Lehigh’s careful attention to balancing:

• fundamentals and applications

• experiential learning with classroom learning

• basic and applied research

• core curriculum with specialization

• student life and study

• attention toward the community and the global village

• learning opportunities that challenge the left and right sides of the brain

• athletic activities for athletes and for fans, athletics for learning as well as for fitness

I greatly admire Lehigh’s dedication to the whole student, its drive to diversify the student body, and its commitment to excellence in its faculty and I pledge to uphold these values.

I am energized by the trajectory and momentum Lehigh has today. The foundation for the transformation of Lehigh that was laid by W. Deming Lewis and Peter Likins has been propelled by Gregory Farrington’s leadership.

These gentlemen have set Lehigh onto a special and rapidly accelerating path. I am honored and excited by the opportunity to take the baton at this moment in Lehigh’s great ascendancy and I look forward and upward toward the future.

I would like to make this the first of many opportunities to thank Greg Farrington and his wife, Jean, for their tremendous service to this university. Their vision and dedication have brought us to this moment and have provided the platform from which we can continue to rise.

Lehigh’s special place in higher education is made clear by its devoted students and alumni. Their enthusiasm for Lehigh and the transformational role it played in their lives is a testament to the greatness of the university. Their affection for this place is contagious and we have caught the bug. I’d like to thank Jim Tanenbaum for ensuring that we saw this affection and spirit.

On a more personal note, my husband, Bradley Askins, and my children, Rebecca and David, are here with me today to celebrate our joining the Lehigh family. We look forward to sharing some of our favorite hobbies with the Lehigh community, hobbies like running, reading, robotics, opera, cooking, and riding roller coasters. (We will also bring a small enclave of the Red Sox Nation to the Lehigh Valley).

I must say that we are awed by the beautiful campus and the wonderful Bethlehem community. My daughter and I like to run hills, a joy we have sharpened in our relatively flat suburb of Boston. These hills will be a real test.

We are getting used to the Mountain Hawk, Old South Mountain and the colors, Brown and White. I thought it was a wonderful omen to go shopping recently for clothes and find the new spring line at several stores laden with brown and white garments.

I usually wear a lot of black. I am told that “brown is the new black,” so here I am, ready to convert.

In closing, let me say simply that Lehigh’s culture of leadership and scholarship will continue to propel it to higher levels.

It will be a privilege to work with such a talented and dedicated group of faculty, students, staff and alumni as we face the opportunities and the challenges in the years ahead.

Posted on Tuesday, May 16, 2006

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