Q&A with outgoing College Provost Joseph Helble

Provost Joseph Helble reflects on his time at Dartmouth as he prepares to become Lehigh University’s president in August.

by Andrew Sasser | 4/30/21 2:10am

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Courtesy of Robert Gill
Source: Courtesy of Robert Gill

Provost Joseph Helble has been at Dartmouth for 16 years, first as the Dean of the Thayer School of Engineering and more recently as the College’s Provost. During the pandemic, Helble has led the College’s COVID-19 response and hosted the regularly scheduled “Community Conversations,” in which he has shared updates about the College’s pandemic response and led discussions and live Q&A sessions with a wide range of experts and College administrators. Most recently, Helble was appointed as the newest president of his alma mater, Lehigh University — a role for which he will depart Dartmouth in August. The Dartmouth sat down with Helble on Thursday to discuss his time as Dean of Thayer, his work as Provost and his new role at Lehigh.

Your alma mater was Lehigh University. How does it feel to become the next university president there? 

JH: It’s really hard to describe how it feels and how meaningful this is to me. I’m the oldest of three children and my grandparents were immigrants. Neither of my parents had gone away to college. For me to go away to a residential university, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Being in that environment and having faculty who cared about me as an individual student, classmates who have become lifelong friends, staff who supported my education and getting involved in different kinds of extracurricular activities was something I didn’t appreciate at the time; it is only as I became older that I appreciated it. 

As I got to Dartmouth 16 years ago and started to hear the stories of our alumni and how Dartmouth had affected them, I really began to think about the incredible transformative impact that the education and being at Lehigh had on me. When I was approached and asked to think about considering this opportunity, I can’t tell you how special this is, reflecting at this stage in my career back on all that I have been provided to have a chance to lead and help shape the institution for the next generation of students. 

During your time as Dean of the Thayer School of Engineering, the school saw its enrollment double and became the first engineering program in the nation to award more bachelor’s degrees to women than men. What steps did you take in your role as Dean of Thayer to fuel this growth of interest in engineering?

JH: Part of it was the moment and part of it was recognizing the moment and taking advantage of the moment with intentionality. When I started as dean in 2005, it was a moment when engineering enrollments were flat and had not been growing in more than a decade. It was a moment when it became clear that technology was playing an increasingly important role. And yet interest in engineering was not growing. 

So it was a moment, but also an opportunity, because working with the faculty, even as the new dean, I recognized that what we did here at Dartmouth was special. The different ways of approaching engineering through the liberal arts provided opportunity. So we very intentionally began speaking about that much more directly. 

With the leadership of Thayer, I began to speak very directly about the opportunity for us to be a leading player in educating a diverse community of engineering students. I did that when I saw that our numbers of women studying engineering were slightly above the national average. At faculty and staff meetings I started to say, “What if we could be the first ones in the country to achieve this goal [of graduating an  equal number of women and men in engineering]?” I honestly didn’t know if we’d be able to achieve it. There was certainly a lot of luck involved. But it was hard work in the commitment of the faculty, not specifically to try and educate female engineering students, but really to make sure that engineering was seen as open and accessible to the broadest cross section of the community. 

During the pandemic, you’ve been one of the most important administration figures, relaying updates through the “Community Conversations” that you’ve led. How would you describe your experience in helping to develop and communicate the college’s response to the pandemic?

JH: This is without a doubt the most challenging thing I have worked on professionally in my entire career. The word unprecedented is overused. But it’s unprecedented. As a community last March, we had to pivot essentially overnight, to send our students home, to store student belongings and to work with the faculty to say, “Okay, everything you’ve ever done in your entire career to deliver education and engage students is changing, effective two weeks from now when spring term starts.” That was extraordinarily challenging, but the faculty and staff jumped in with both feet and said, “Let’s do this to support the students.” 

We had to do all of that in the face of the uncertainty of a global pandemic. But from the beginning, we made a commitment to be data-driven, to look at federal guidance — principally from the CDC — to listen to our own epidemiologists and health experts and to be honest and open with the community about what we knew and what we didn’t know. And it was in that spirit that the “Community Conversations” started. We’ve really tried, and I’ve really tried, to be open about the challenge in front of us, the decisions we’re making and why we’re making them. 

What are some of the other important, if lesser known, accomplishments or roles you’ve taken on as Provost?

JH: There are two things I would mention. First, while many think of the Provost as the chief academic officer, the Provost is also the chief budget officer. Right about the time that President Hanlon asked me if I would take on the role of Provost, it was becoming increasingly evident that we were facing long term projected operating budget deficits. There is a lot of deferred maintenance that’s needed on this campus. The steam tunnels need to be replaced, we need to upgrade our heating system. We also knew that we needed to upgrade our IT infrastructure. But all of this led to a situation where we were projecting $30 to $50 million in annual operating deficits starting five years from now. Working with the community, the Board of Trustees and the faculty and staff as chief budget officer the past two years to address these deficits has been hugely challenging. Now we are at a point where our projections for the next five years are balanced budgets. We’re addressing deferred maintenance because of the work that the board has done to help create an infrastructure renewal funding drawing on the endowment. 

The other thing I’d say that’s not well known was being part of the leadership team that created the Campus Climate and Culture Initiative. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine had issued a report in summer of 2019 talking about tremendous challenges of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in the workplace. We are the first university in the country to say we’re going to tackle this head on and set up a program that adopts every single one of the National Academies’ recommendations. We still have a long way to go with implementation of this initiative, but we’ve made great progress. 

If you could give your successor as Provost any advice, what would you say?

JH: Listen carefully. Go to every meeting that you can in that first year — [meet with] students, faculty, staff alike. Be an open and transparent communicator, even when you don’t have the answers. I have found that the Dartmouth community is a smart, engaged and trusting community. Students, employees, faculty and staff, and certainly the alumni community, all appreciate the value of honesty and transparency, even if the answer you’re giving is not the answer they hope to receive. Communicate openly, honestly, transparently. Do a lot of listening and make sure you’re attentive to the budget. 

You’ve been at Dartmouth for almost 16 years now. What will you miss most about Dartmouth as you transition to your new role at Lehigh?

JH: Without question, the people — the alumni, the students, the staff and faculty colleagues. I’ve been an undergraduate advisor for most of my time at Dartmouth and I have loved every minute of those individual conversations with students. I have loved getting to know the Dartmouth alumni community. The faculty and staff are incredible, so I will miss the people above all, absolutely no question. I’m also going to miss the Upper Valley and running around the Upper Valley daily. It really is a special place. You may have heard me say once or twice that we embrace winter at Dartmouth. We don’t just tolerate it. We embrace it. The idea of embracing winter, being outdoors on the coldest days is a spirit and an ethos that I will miss.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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