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Knowing what matters

On one of his first days on campus as president, Greg Farrington and I had an hour-long talk in my office, a meeting that we joke about to this day. Basically, he sat down and immediately said, "I don't know anything about what you do. But I know that it's important to this university and if we're going to do it, we should do it as well as we can because of its importance to this place."

After that, he began to reveal to me basic elements of his character and personality--and I quickly grew to admire Greg. One thing that rapidly became apparent was that for someone who had never participated in sports, Greg is an incredibly competitive person.

In that first meeting, Farrington said: "So, they tell me I have teams here. How many teams do I have?" (His way of asking the scope of the program at Lehigh.) "Are my teams good, do they win?" (His way of affirming the importance of results.) "Do they cheat or compromise anything in order to win?" (His subtle way of affirming that principles and values would guide all that we do.)

None of the answers surprised him, but it was his way of framing the conversation so that I knew it was important to him that we benchmark ourselves--that we keep score.

The fear of many alumni when a new president arrives is that the things that really matter might be changed and a new president might choose to transform the university in a way that disrespects the history, tradition, and values of the place. One real important challenge for any leader is finding a way to manage the changes that are necessary to make improvements. It's a competitive world and everything in the world changes.

The key is to make the changes that will improve the university and do it without disrespecting the history and tradition of the place. And I think Greg has had an extraordinary ability to balance the need for innovation, creativity, and a fresh, new approach in certain areas with being solidly supportive of things that are woven into the fabric of this place--including Greek life and athletics.

A lot of other institutions are letting their Greek houses fail. But Greg looked at the landscape, irrespective of his own experience or questions about Greek life, and said, "This is important to Lehigh, so if we're going to do it, then let's do it right." It was the same exact thing he said about athletics.

He understood that we had to figure out what needed to be done to improve Greek life here, and appointed a small group of people, including me, to work on the Greek Life Task Force. We came back to Greg with a report that said: "We're going to have to spend some money to fix up these places and to demonstrate that we are serious about having Greek residences of a quality that matches other residences." And Greg, without hesitation, said, "We should do it."

Greg has an extraordinary simplicity about what matters most. I think that's terrific because often leaders of broad, diversified organizations try to get into the middle of the mechanics of all the different areas and that's difficult, if not impossible, to do and it usually creates confusion.

He has a very implicit respect for the people who work for him. He is clear on what matters to him and makes sure that we are clear about those principles, those core values. Even in some challenging decision-making times, his consistency about those core principles was unwavering--do what is best for the students, treat people fairly and be honest with them, and don't hide from your results.

He's been a great asset to this university. As someone who has spent 34 years of my life here and who has had two children that have graduated from Lehigh and two more attending now, I've seen the impact that a Lehigh education can have on a young person's life. And I can tell you that Greg has made this a much better place than when he arrived--in terms of the quality of professors teaching here, the overall quality of education being delivered here, and the quality of the campus life.

On his first day, Greg asked me, "Do my teams win?" And I can happily tell him on his last day here, "Yes, your (athletics) teams win. In fact, Lehigh teams have won more during your tenure than under any Lehigh president. And we have done it the right way."

I also can honestly say that Lehigh--and I certainly include my family in this--has also won just because of the time that Greg and Jean Farrington have spent here.

Joe Sterrett '76, a former quarterback at Lehigh who has served as the school's athletic director since 1989, is the first Murray H. Goodman Dean of Athletics.

Next: It's a global life

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Spring 2006

Posted on Monday, July 03, 2006

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