President Pelton: Why Emerson

Lee Pelton took office July 1, 2011, as the 12th president of Emerson College. Prior to Emerson, he spent 13 years as president of Willamette University in Oregon and served as a dean at both Colgate University and Dartmouth College.

We asked President Pelton to share his initial thoughts as he joined the Emerson community.

Lee Pelton

Lee Pelton is the 12th president of Emerson College.

What attracted you to the presidency of Emerson College?
As I see it, Emerson’s mission is to educate the people who will solve problems and change the world through engaged leadership in communication and the arts. It is a mission informed by liberal learning, recognizing that the world is still in want of clear-headed citizens, tempered by historical perspective, disciplined by rational thinking and moral compass, who speak well and write plainly. I was impressed by Emerson’s fulfillment of this mission and the very special and distinguished place that it occupies in higher education. Jackie [Liebergott]’s inspired leadership equally impressed me, especially the way in which it has transformed Emerson and, most recently, substantively revitalized Boston arts and culture through the creation of a new campus. She has left a remarkable legacy and wonderful platform from which the College can move forward.

Of your many past accomplishments, which gives you the most satisfaction?
It is important to acknowledge that whatever contributions I was able to make during my 13 years at Willamette reflect the considerable efforts and goodwill of a great many people—faculty, staff, students, trustees, alumni, and others—working toward a common purpose.

Willamette has irrevocably claimed its standing as one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. We were able to do this by making strategic investments in Willamette’s academic mission, especially in the faculty, enhancing their capacity to teach well, to support student learning, and develop scholarship that both advances human knowledge and strengthens classroom instruction.

I am pleased that Willamette is a more diverse community in several dimensions—racial, ethnic, economic, and global. More than one in four of its undergraduates comes from multicultural and international backgrounds, a two-fold increase over the course of a decade. There has been an increase in economic diversity and first-generation students. More than half of Willamette undergraduates study abroad. More than 40 percent of the College of Liberal Arts faculty teaching today were hired in the last six years, of which almost of a third are from underrepresented groups.

What are the three most important lessons about being a university president that you learned while at Willamette?
I learned the value of listening to gain a sympathetic understanding of different perspectives. I learned to trust in the intellectual resources represented in our faculty, students, and staff, recognizing that doing so has always produced better outcomes than if I tried to solve a problem, address an issue, or develop a new idea in isolation. I learned that there is no substitute for investing in the core mission or activities of a college or university. If I may, I would like to add a fourth: I learned patience and humility.

Pelton addressed his vision for Emerson in his acceptance speech.

Pelton addressed his vision for Emerson in his acceptance speech.

In your acceptance speech, you said: “Emerson is a student-centered place of learning, and rightly so, but the faculty represent the heart of this academic enterprise.” Could you elaborate on the importance of faculty?
Students and administrators are transient—we come and go—whereas the life of the faculty, taken as a whole, span several generations. Faculty shape what we teach and how we teach it. They create the academic and intellectual activities that give shape and life to our educational purposes. As such, among the many investments that we make in a college and university, it is vitally important that we invest in faculty so that they might teach well, develop research that advances knowledge, engage in meaningful scholarship that fortifies student learning, and attend to the high-impact practices that contribute to students’ academic and intellectual engagement. In doing so, I believe that we will have the best chance of transforming a college or university in ways that strengthen the educational experience of our students.

In that same speech, you said: “Emerson occupies a prominent position in the middle of the techno-cultural revolution taking place around us.” How do you see that techno-cultural revolution influencing how and what we teach the next generation of leaders?
What I propose is that Emerson become the thought leader in helping the nation, and indeed the world, to comprehend and put to good use the technological revolution that is transforming human society. I believe that we can do this not only in our curriculum, but with an abundance of public intellectual and academic activity that makes it impossible for any knowledgeable person to consider these issues without reference to Emerson College.

How do you plan to spend your time between now and your inauguration?
Learn as much as I possibly can about the hopes and aspirations of Emerson faculty, students, staff, and alumni. Most presidents fail not because they lack ability but because they misunderstand or misread critical aspects of their environment, they don’t use or understand the significant informal networks of communication available to them, they fail to develop trust among important parts of the community. In other words, they fail to adapt successfully to their new environment.

Pelton talks with Emerson students.

Pelton talks with Emerson students.

What are you currently reading?
Like many academics, I am almost always reading several books at once. I am reading with great pleasure back issues of Ploughshares. I am currently obsessed with anything written by Kazuo Ishiguro and am making my way through all of his novels. I also have what I call “comfort books” that I read again and again for pleasure and perspective, most recently Eliot’s Middlemarch and Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, the latter of which I am afraid I have picked up and put down a half a dozen times during the last six months. Finally, I am re-reading the stories of Eudora Welty, the great but underappreciated American writer.

Is there anything you would like to say directly to Emerson’s alumni and parents of current students?
I am eager to be your president. I can’t wait to get to work so that—building on Jackie’s enormous legacy—we might, together, begin to see reflected in Emerson College the endless possibilities of what it might truly be at its very best, the endless possibilities of excellence and greatness. This is work that I cannot do alone, but only with your help, wise counsel, and generosity of spirit and resources.