2009 Lehigh University Founder’s Day Address

Professor Robert H. Storer


When I was a young Assistant Professor, my Chairman, Marlin Thomas asked me to be the after dinner speaker at our annual department banquet.  I asked if perhaps a more senior faculty member might not be more appropriate, but he replied; “no, I can’t really force them to do anything”.  Catching on quickly I enthusiastically volunteered to speak at the banquet.  Unfortunately I was at a complete loss as to what to talk about.  After considerable thought I concluded that a brief 30 minute talk on the history of Industrial Engineering would be both enlightening and entertaining for our students, and after 3 solid days in the library, I was ready.  During the banquet, I happened to sit with Marlin and had the chance to ask him what one was supposed to talk about on such an occasion.  “Its easy” he said, “just make sure it’s funny and lasts no more than 10 minutes”.  As panic set in, I stuffed the speech in my pocket and spent the rest of dinner trying to remember as many jokes as I could.  Of course I went down in flames.  The relevance of this for today of course is that I still have this great speech on the history of Industrial Engineering…….


So my favorite joke about Professors comes from a book called “What is the name of this book?” by Raymond Smullyan, who as you can guess from the title was a logician.


It seems a group was designing a rocket and decided to consult the great mathematician John Von Neumann. "Where did you get the plans for this ship?" Von Neumann asked.  He was told, "We have our own staff of engineers."  “Ach Engineers!” he disdainfully replied: "Why, I have completely sewn up the whole mathematical theory of rocketry. See my paper of 1952."

The group started from scratch and completely redesigned the rocket exactly according to Von Neumann's plans, but the minute they launched it, the entire structure exploded. They angrily called Von Neumann.  "Ah, yes”; Von Neumann replied, “that is technically called the blow-up problem - I treated that in my paper of 1954."


On this day it seems appropriate to revisit the founding of our University.  In the Lehigh Register of 1866, Lehigh’s first year, the following quote is found:


“The purpose of the founder in making this munificent endowment was to provide the means for imparting to young men of the Valley, of the State, and of the Country, a complete professional education, which should not only supply their general wants, but also fit them to take an immediate and active part in the practical and professional duties of the time.”


The intent of the founder is simple and clear: to educate and prepare our students for a useful and productive life. It seems the founder truly and genuinely cared about students and their education.


I am very grateful to Christian and Mary Lindback for providing the means to each year reaffirm the importance of teaching here at Lehigh.  I am also quite proud to be the fifth recipient of the Lindback award from the Industrial Engineering Department in its 49 year history.  My IE colleagues George Kane, Wally Richardson, Mikell Groover and Greg Tonkay have all been previously honored.  George, Wally and Mike served as role models and mentors to Greg and me in the early stages of our career, and we learned a lot from their innovative teaching methods. 


Wally Richardson was particularly well known among the students for many reasons including his large smelly cigars, his plaid with stripes style, and the tie he reserved for exam days that had a big letter U with screw thru it, which Wally thought was hysterical. 


Wally was well known for his collection of quotations.  One favorite was “Never wrestle with pigs ‘cuz you both get dirty but the pig enjoys it”. 


Wally had his own favorite quote which he attributed to Lehigh President Deming Lewis and it went something like this: “Professor Richardson, at the next faculty meeting, I would appreciate it if you at least leave as open the question as to whether or not I am an idiot”.  Another valuable lesson for us all.


Wally’s true claim to fame was his annual plant layout project.  This was a big term project with a very detailed description and lots and lots of data.  Of course much of the data that the students actually needed was absent.  Further, much of the data provided by Wally was actually wrong, at least according to Wally, but of course the students had no way of knowing this.  Wally would write on the reports: “C-: your conclusions relied on faulty data”.  The students would protest vehemently that this was not fair, which is of course what he was waiting for …”Young man/lady” he would say, “life is not fair, and the sooner you learn it the better off you will be”.  Interestingly, if you ever talk to IE alums they will tell you in all sincerity that Richardson was the best Professor they ever had because “he was the only one that really prepared (them) for the real world”.


George Kane also had some interesting teaching techniques.  Each class he would pick one student to do a homework problem on the board at the beginning of class.  His rule was that the first student he saw that day had to do the problem, so of course students would avoid him at all cost.  One student managed to make it all the way to end of the semester without ever doing a problem on the board.  So, bright and early on the last day of class, George went to the student’s fraternity went into the shower room, threw open the shower curtain and said “you’re at the board today!”.


George Kane was also the Department Chair who hired me at Lehigh.  Back then, negotiations were a little different, and I probably didn’t handle it as well as I could have.  By the time Lehigh got around to making me an offer, I had already decided Lehigh was my first choice.  George called me up and said “Bob we would like to make you an offer”.  “I accept” I said.  George chuckled for a bit, actually he chuckled for quite a while, then said “geez Bob, you’re supposed to negotiate for a better deal”.  OK, I said, how about 20% more than you offered and 1 course per semester for 3 years. He replied “and how about 100K start up package and a company car too”.  “You’re kidding” I said.  “Yes of course I am but you started it”.


What made Wally Richardson and George Kane special was that they truly and genuinely cared about their students.  They got to know them personally, spent time with them and gave them good advice about courses, careers, and life in general.  Their doors were always open.  George Kane remembered by name and face, every IE student he had ever taught over his whole career.  They tell me that when George decided it was time the IE department had its own building, he simply got on the phone to IE alums and in short order arranged for all the necessary funding for Mohler Lab.


Wally and George were also members of the group originally called "The Brethren" in the 1800’s, and known in modern times as "The Busters".  As a select few of you know, this is the secret faculty organization that actually runs Lehigh.  Our motto, which is often incorrectly attributed to Yogi Berra is: "If you don't know where you're going, you'll wind up somewhere else!"


I have recently gained new perspectives on the whole “Lehigh experience” as both my daughter Annie and my nephew Alex entered Lehigh as freshmen last year.  As a Lehigh parent I am privy to lots of inside information that I didn’t used to get.  For example, I have discovered that I am personally responsible for several students failing to make the Dean’s list and for ruining enumerable weekend plans.  It turns out I am a pretty mean guy.


My first experience as a Lehigh parent was moving Annie into her dorm room.  Her room was a single converted to a double due to the large freshman class.  Indeed it was the smallest room on campus occupied by two people.  There was only one computer network plug in the room, so I had to buy an extra long network cable and run it around the top of the room, over the sprinkler above the door, and down to her desk.  I know that the students here today can guess what was my second experience as a Lehigh parent….that’s right, paying a hefty fine for running an extra long network cable over the sprinkler.  So I took the cable off the sprinkler and taped it to the top of the door.  My third experience as a Lehigh parent was paying another hefty fine for running the cable near the sprinkler.


My fourth experience as a Lehigh parent was on the very first day of class freshman year.  Annie went to see one of her Professor’s during his stated office hours.  Though she waited an hour, the Professor never showed up.  As I mentioned, being a Lehigh parent gives you a whole new perspective


Annie has done quite well at Lehigh so far, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.  I also know that she has worked very very hard along the way.  This semester Annie has been working at least 25 hours a week on one class alone because it does not come easy to her, but she is determined to master it none-the-less.  Her work ethic is far from unique.  Her good friend August lost his family home to hurricane Katrina, and bounced between Houston and New Orleans before coming to Lehigh.  He works as a Gryphon and as an LTS consultant in addition to being a full time engineering student.  Despite the occasional unmotivated student, I am of the opinion that the Annie and August are typical of the vast majority of Lehigh students that are dedicated, hard working and devoted to the institution.  In the 1924 work “A brief history of Lehigh”: Katherine Drinker Bowen wrote:


"Ask any college professor which brand of boy he would prefer to teach, the cigarette brand or the flannel shirt variety. Right here we offer ten to one the flannel shirts. . .


For the last 10 years I have had the privilege of working with Steve Buell and Pat Costa on the IBE Honors Program.  Our IBE students belong to the hard working “flannel shirt variety”.  It is a tough 4 years for them, and there are times they love us, and times they hate us, (especially me since for some reason I always get to be the “bad cop”).  The IBE students will however rise to literally any challenge we put in front of them.  We have the opportunity to work with them over all four years, and witnessing their growth is as rewarding an experience as I have had a Lehigh.  Equally rewarding has been working with Steve and Pat who also truly and genuinely care for their students.


If I didn’t find at least one thing to gripe about, I would risk losing my status as a card-carrying faculty member.  I am going to pick on one seemingly minor thing the importance of which is that it is perhaps indicative of something deeper.  It seems that in many institutions student academic advising is being taken out of the hands of faculty and placed in the hands of professional staff.  Two questions come to mind that are definitely worth thinking about; “Why is this happening?”, and “What does this say about institutional values?” 


In summary, what should we as trustees, administration, faculty and staff take from our Founder’s stated purpose?  We owe the hard-working sons and daughters of Lehigh more than clear lectures, fair exams, and four office hours a week.  It is our simple and moral obligation as members of this great institution to truly and genuinely care for our students and their education; and from this I believe all else flows naturally.  Thank you very much.