Mohamed S. El-Aasser has enjoyed a long and distinguished career at Lehigh. Over the past four decades, he has served as a professor, scholar, researcher, institute director, dean, and provost. In 2009, President Alice P. Gast named El-Aasser to lead Lehigh’s new Office of International Affairs. The office reflects Lehigh’s commitment, outlined in the university’s Strategic Plan, to make globalization one of its three strategic areas of focus, which are designed to address the grand challenges now facing our country, and to ultimately enhance the university's international intellectual footprint.
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 2001. He served as provost and vice president for academic affairs from November 2004 to July 2009. Recently, El-Aasser sat down with Jack Croft, Lehigh’s director of editorial services, to discuss his hopes and plans for the Office of International Affairs, and the role that alumni—both overseas and in the United States—will play in achieving the university’s goals.
Why is the position of vice president for international affairs important to Lehigh? And what do you hope to bring to it?
It’s essential for three reasons: leadership, coordination and communication. I believe these are the functions of the office. International activities require lots of creative thinking about the kinds of programs that we need to engage the faculty, students and our alumni. So leadership is needed to be able to come up with the right areas that are good for Lehigh while also working with the Lehigh community—both internally and externally—to achieve our goals. So that’s one important component.
The second, coordination, is important because international activities are multifaceted. Many, many offices have to be involved, from student life to all of the colleges, as well as the provost’s office, the president’s office, the public affairs office, and various others. We need coordination between all of these offices so that we streamline the process and make everyone who should be involved aware of what’s going on. We need to provide a specific idea of what is needed and how they can contribute. The same goes for the outside constituencies, especially our alumni and all the other agencies that we have to work with.
Now, with respect to communication, there is a need to be able to provide the various constituencies with the appropriate information at the right time on what we’re doing. Let’s not underestimate the importance of communication within Lehigh, reaching out to get the faculty to work with us and learn more about what we have to offer. Because they are the key to making things happen around the campus. Faculty are really essential. So that’s what I think the office is about, and why the position is key at this point.
As far as what I bring to the office, first, I’m always interested in building teams. My 37 years of service at Lehigh in various functions, as a faculty member throughout but also in all the administrative jobs I’ve had, give me some good working relationships and ideas of how to get things done within Lehigh. In addition, the external relationships I’ve forged here give me an appreciation of how one can approach some of these funding agencies and other agencies that deal with international activities. So I believe that is the key, the collective experience that I’ve acquired over the past 37 years.
Can you talk a little about why it’s important for Lehigh to emphasize international opportunities?
One of the most important characteristics of the 21st Century is globalization. It’s a mindset of how one can interact with the world at large. So what we’re trying to do is make sure Lehigh is positioned in the proper way to be able to interact with the world at large. That means our faculty, our students, and the kinds of programs we create all have that global context. Lehigh has a long and distinguished history of international engagement, so what is new is that now we’re doing things in a deliberate way, building on what we’ve done in the past and trying to create our new pathway in the future.
We have two overarching goals: Number one is the internationalization of the campus. And number two is increasing Lehigh’s international footprint. These two are obviously connected.
So we need to attract more international students, both undergraduate and graduate students, to Lehigh. At the same time, we need to create more overseas opportunities for our students to gain international experiences to augment their classroom activities. We need to provide the opportunity for our students to learn about the world in which they’re going to work in the 21st Century by being there. It’s important also to create a culture of internationalization on campus. Essentially, we have to provide all sorts of opportunities to expand the dialog around the challenges the world is facing, whether it’s regarding poverty, the environment, energy, education, or health. We need to make sure that our faculty and students and the entire campus community are involved in helping to solve these global issues. And of course, in order to achieve that, we have to be proactive to provide our faculty and students with the opportunities that allow them to achieve that goal. So that’s really what the internationalization of the campus is about.
Expanding Lehigh’s international footprint requires sustainability in faculty exchange, namely having our faculty go out into the world to work with their counterparts overseas and bringing the world to Lehigh by having visiting scholars from different institutions come here. While students are important components of all of this, it’s not the only way we’re going to be able to achieve the overarching goals. Faculty are central. So our office is going to catalyze and broker some of these relationships and coordinate things, while providing leadership in which areas we should invest in first with people’s time and resources.
And of course, as we mature a bit more, we will have to have strategic partnerships with some key institutions overseas. Also, part of that internationalization is to expand the involvement of our alumni with us. Our alumni overseas are going to be an important partner for us as we expand our international footprint.
What role do you see alumni playing in the university’s international efforts?
Many different roles. In fact, our alumni—especially those who live overseas, as well as those who live in the United States—play a very important role in spreading the word to start with about Lehigh and what we are trying to do in terms of emphasizing globalization as one of our themes for the future. We expect our alumni to be able to—and some of them already do, at this point—open doors for us, whether in recruiting undergraduate and graduate students, or in sustaining these pipelines once we build them. Alumni who live in the cities where we make connections could, from time to time, visit the schools from which we recruit or even host alumni gatherings at which they could talk to potential students about Lehigh and respond to their questions about the university.
They are an essential component to expanding our international footprint as well as the internationalization of the campus. They are the ones who can suggest speakers. They are the ones who, when we have a gathering overseas, can invite the local individuals that Lehigh faculty should interact with. They are part of these things. We need to provide them with opportunities to help us do that.
What can Lehigh do to help international alumni get more involved?
The more they know about what we want to do, in a specific way, the better the chance that they will be able to help us. So if we want our students to have international experiences, we have to be very specific about what these experiences are because these differ from engineering students to business students to social science and humanities students. And if we are specific with what we’re trying to do, they will be able to help us, wherever they are. Our alumni have been tremendous. As we all know, Lehigh graduates are always eager and willing to help. So we have to inform them. And that’s a continuous process. You can’t inundate them with information. We have to be more careful about how we provide the right information to them. And it’s not a matter of putting information on the new Office of International Affairs Web site and expecting them to go and get it. We have to be more targeted in how we approach that.
Another way alumni can help is when a group of Lehigh faculty and staff need to visit certain countries for international activities we need to do. Part of doing the homework in advance of any of these travels requires that we have the right individuals to interact with. We need to have a better appreciation of the culture in these societies and what we need to learn before going there. Alumni in these areas will be very important in providing us with that information, helping us with setting the kinds of meetings needed to achieve whatever goal we have, especially when we look into creating partnerships with key institutions. These don’t happen overnight. They require cultivating a relationship. They require having our faculty and staff be involved, not only from here, but during visits where the alumni can help us open these doors.
So there are a number of things, but we have to be specific about what we ask them for.
Editor’s Note: Lehigh needs your participation to ensure the expansion of its international reach! To contribute to this newsletter and to provide programmatic suggestions, to Debra Nyby, Director for International Services, at invpia@Lehigh.EDU