On Friday I attended the inauguration of Lehigh University's 13th President, Dr. Alice Gast. (I am a faculty member at Lehigh.) Dr. Gast actually became President on August 1, 2006 but the enthusiasm for her appointment has not abated - faculty members attended her inauguration in droves with many showing up without even RSVPing, to the professed dismay but inner satisfaction of the person in charge of logistics. (The issue with logistics was that the faculty sit in front of the stage in a specially designated area, and because quite a few professors did not RSVP there was some concern that we would not have enough seats. But in the end it all worked out.) Everybody on campus speaks very highly of Dr. Gast. Before coming to Lehigh she served as Vice-President of Research at MIT for 5 years and was a Professor of Chemical Engineering at Stanford University until 2001. (Another disclosure: her time at MIT and mine overlapped, but we never met then.)
Of course Lehigh recruited her to help bring the institution to the next level. Outsiders do not always realize the level of commitment and dedication of Lehigh alumni to their alma mater - no love-hate relationship here upon graduation! The well-roundedness of the undergraduate students, at least the ones I teach, has not ceased to astonish me since I arrived on campus. (They are a bit spoilt, but very good, and better than they think.) Lehigh also benefits from some superb strategic planning: I do not know who had the idea of developing global studies in the undergraduate curriculum, for instance through the Global Citizenship Program, but that person struck gold. This is absolutely a time where US graduates need a deeper understanding of the world and I expect global studies to play a big part in increasing Lehigh's visibility outside the Northeast.
The main question mark is on graduate research. Many institutions want to raise their profile by increasing the amount of research they do (grants, number of doctoral students in each department) but the quality of grad students becomes very unequal outside the very top institutions such as MIT, Stanford and Berkeley. We do get some excellent graduate students, in particular from Turkey (thank you Bilkent University) and some diamonds in the rough but the truth is, there is too little supply (worthy grad applicants) and too much demand (slots in US programs). Ultimately institutions which strive for excellence will have to rethink their assumptions on how to reach the top. Top student research at the graduate level might come to be viewed as icing on the cake rather than the cake itself. Parents send their kids to college to give them a great foundation and Lehigh is very well positioned to do just that. Dr. Gast emphasized in her inaugural remarks Lehigh's commitment to education through the university's flagship programs in engineering but also business and the arts and humanities. She has already struck me as a very poised and thoughtful person who is skilled at personal relationships (the fact that she stood by herself in the hall minutes before her own inauguration as the faculty marched by to shake every professor's hand and thank us for coming - our attendance wasn't mandatory - certainly endeared her further to the faculty.) While much has been made of her being a woman, and of MIT and Harvard both picking women presidents, I am looking forward to her presidency not because she advances the cause of women, although that does not hurt, but because she has the skills and ability to do a fantastic job, and I am glad she is going to do it at Lehigh.