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Gast: “Let us set our sights high”

In her inaugural remarks as Lehigh University’s 13th president, Alice P. Gast issued a bold call Friday for the university community “to roll up our sleeves and grapple with some of the bigger problems in our world today.”

Gast shared her vision for Lehigh to take “a more extroverted stance” just moments after her formal investiture at Stabler Arena and Convocation Center, during which she was presented by Board of Trustees Chairman James Tanenbaum ’70 with a walking stick in the tradition of founder Asa Packer; the academic scepter, or mace, a symbol of order and academic dignity; and the presidential medallion with the Lehigh seal.

When she talked about tackling “the bigger problems,” she clearly meant it. Gast called on Lehigh to:

• Bring the diverse perspectives of the interdisciplinary Environmental Initiative “under one roof” to better respond to “the great strains imposed on the world’s resources, climate and environment.”

• Create a Center for Global Islamic Studies to offer “an integrated and innovative undergraduate program” capable of producing “a more balanced, comparative view of the communities of Islam to our students and to society.

• Engage “all parts of the university” in a coordinated effort to meet “the challenge of the effective provision of health care.”

Gast also proposed increasing funding for undergraduate research, along with creating new opportunities for junior year papers and senior thesis awards; creating Presidential Graduate Fellowships for both research and teaching fellows; and providing “sabbaticals in residence” for faculty members, as well as seed money for important new ventures.

Listen to the ceremony or read the complete text of Alice P. Gast's inaugural remarks by clicking here.

After expressing her “deep gratitude” to her family—husband Bradley Askins, daughter Rebecca and son David were seated in the front row with other family members—Gast drew on Lehigh’s rich past for inspiration as she charted her course for the future. She cited a report in the Syracuse Post more than 100 years ago, in which the writer wrote that students come to Lehigh “to learn to take a useful part in the economy of life.”

Rising to the challenges of the environment, fostering a better understanding of Islam, and providing leadership in the effective provision of health care are all ways that Lehigh students can “learn to take a useful part in the economy of life” in the 21st century, Gast said.

While new ideas and innovations will be required to meet the challenges posed by threats to the environment, “the ultimate measure of success is whether the ideas are adopted,” Gast said.

That’s why Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative integrates “science, engineering, politics, policy, communication, history, anthropology, sociology, economics, education and ethics,” Gast said.

“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,” she said. “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 Center for Global Islamic Studies will address “the lack of understanding between the Islamic world and the rest of the world” that has been “painfully clear” since the 9-11 attacks, Gast said.

“Lehigh’s Center for Global Islamic Studies will go beyond the lenses of religion, politics and geography to include other important perspectives,” she said. “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.

“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.”

On the issue of health care, Gast vowed that “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 accomplish that goal, Lehigh will need to bring together “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.”

Gast acknowledged that, “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.”

A new chapter opens

On a blustery spring afternoon, the ceremony began with a colorful procession of Lehigh administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumni and visiting dignitaries from Rauch Fieldhouse to Stabler. Kashi Johnson ’93, associate professor of theatre, served as mistress of ceremonies, introducing some of the notable dignitaries processing into the arena as well as each of the featured speakers. Entering the arena last was Alice P. Gast.

Following the invocation by the Rev. Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain, and a rendition of the national anthem led by choral scholar Amanda Barnes ‘07G, William F. Hecht ’64—the university trustee who chaired the Presidential Search Committee that recommended Gast—greeted those attending.

“Today’s ceremony opens a new chapter in this university’s prestigious history,” Hecht said, a theme that was echoed by almost every speaker.

For more on the inauguration, read A superb bridge builder in her own right.

In honor of her inauguration, Gast received special gifts from speakers representing the Lehigh family, the higher education community and the city of Bethlehem. As Scott W. Wojciechowski ’09, representing the university’s undergraduate students, unveiled a personalized football jersey with “Gast 13” on the back, the crowd roared with laughter and applause. On a more serious note, Wojciechowski announced that students from the classes of 2007 through 2010 also would make a contribution to a scholarship fund for students who are the first in their family to go to college. The scholarship will honor Gast’s late parents, Joseph H. and Druselle O. Gast.

Gast also received a copy of the first dissertation submitted at Lehigh in 1896 from Hannah Daily, on behalf of graduate students; a framed commemorative Asa Packer stamp from Mary Jo McNulty, a senior human resources assistant representing staff; a copy of the first Lehigh University course catalogue from Michael G. Kolchin, professor of management and associate dean for graduate studies in the College of Business and Economics, representing faculty; a special framed presentation of the official inauguration invitation, from Gail Price-Brooks ’79, president of the Lehigh Uniersity Alumni Association Board; a copy of Why I Wake Early, a book of poems by Pulitizer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, from Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts University; and a signed proclamation from Bethlehem Mayor John B. Callahan proclaiming Friday, April 13, 2007 as “Dr. Alice Gast Day.”

“The consummate colleague”

For McNulty and Price-Brooks, the day took on an even greater meaning.

“It is a significant moment in the university’s history to induct our first woman president,” said McNulty, touching off a loud ovation.

And during her time at the podium, Price-Brooks looked over at Gast, who was seated on the stage, and remarked: “As one woman to another, as one member of the Lehigh community to another, welcome aboard.”

Following the presentations, the University Choir performed a piece written by Steven Sametz, professor and Ulrich Chair in Music, to commemorate Gast’s inauguration: “Hail, O Lehigh.”

Charles M. Vest, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who Gast warmly praised as “a person I admire both as a friend and mentor, and as one of the truly great university presidents,” told the crowd that Lehigh’s decision to hire Gast as president “was very good news for you, but decidedly not good news for MIT.”

He praised Gast as “a brilliant chemical engineer,” a “superb bridge-builder,” and “a renaissance person.”

“She is, as you’re learning, the consummate colleague, caring for the whole institution as well as for each person in it—students, faculty, administrators, staff, alumni and trustees,” Vest said. “It’s simply a joy to work with her. Alice Gast also has an ethical compass that is absolutely true.”

After her inaugural remarks, the crowd joined in the singing of “The Alma Mater.” The Right Rev. Frederick Borsch, professor of New Testament and Chair of Anglican Studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia—and the one who presided over the marriage ceremony of Gast and her husband, Bradley Askins—gave the benediction and the ceremony ended as it began, with a procession.

Only this time, Alice P. Gast, Lehigh’s 13th president, led the way.

--Jack Croft

Posted on Friday, April 13, 2007

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