"I want students to leave Emerson with the sure knowledge that they were educated not to extract value from but rather to add value to human society."
The parents of Dr. M. Lee Pelton were laborers who never attended college. Perhaps because of their lack of higher education, they grasped its importance, a lesson that was not lost their son, who last month, became the 12th President of Emerson College.
The first in his family to go to college, Pelton has graced numerous institutions, earning degrees from Wichita State and Harvard University, serving as dean of Colgate University and Dartmouth College, and, most recently, president of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. In his final year at Willamette, the school was one of only six to receive the Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll Presidential Award from President Obama.
As he begins his career at Emerson, Pelton brings a commitment to civic engagement, diversity and a passion for 19th century British poetry, to the city he loves "more than any other place on earth."
Color Magazine: Why did your parents emphasize education?
Lee Pelton: My parents believed that education was a life raft in an unsettled and stormy sea that had special consequences for a young african american boy growing up in a world divided by race. They taught me at a very early age, that nothing on earth, save family and church, was more precious than a good education, and I've made education my life's work.
It derives from the simple but profound notion that education is the key to ascending the social and economic ladder in America, and that was certainly the case for me. I suspect that my experiences growing up, in many respects, would be similar to the kids of immigrant families who have come to the new world for a brighter and better future.
CM: Did you have any mentors along the way, and what did they teach you?
LP: There's probably only one person whom I would describe as a mentor and he was also a great friend. That is Jim Freedman who was president of Dartmouth College, and, as you may know, is no longer living. He taught me a great many things, and when I say he taught me, these are things that I observed in his own leadership. Like the prophet Isiah, he taught me that without vision people perish. He taught me through his own life and work, that those who walk in goodness, who walk in beauty and truth will have happiness as their faithful companion. He taught me to know the difference between leadership and management and, whenever possible, to exercise the first of these. The former leads by principle and the latter manages by pragmatism.
The most important lesson I learned from Jim was to have the courage to see something as it is and to speak to that truth, to speak with authenticity and speak from the values that are important to me. He knew, and I have since learned, that when one speaks with an authentic, truthful voice, one is respected even by those who might disagree.
That is not an easy position for college and university presidents to take these days, especially when they are preoccupied with nurturing relationships with alumni and other external constituencies whose resources have the capacity to advance the college or university. I think we've seen in the last sixty years a regrettable silencing of college and university presidents on issues and topics that really matter to this country.
CM: Do you feel college presidents should have a certain shelf life?
LP: Undoubtedly, the decision to leave an institution after several years of service is complex and it involves a great many things not readily apparent to anyone except the president and perhaps the board. However, if the answer to the question, 'Have I done all that I can do or all that I set out to do?' is 'Yes,' then it's time for him or her to take their leave. Regrettably, some presidents do great harm to their legacy and, by extension, their university by staying too long.
The answer to those questions for me were, 'Yes.' The process of answering truthfully those questions was complex and time consuming. It took me a year and a half, maybe longer, to feel I could answer those questions resolutely. Once I did, then I realized that I should be open to other opportunities, and Emerson was an opportunity that found its way into my life.
CM: Why did you choose Emerson?
LP: I'm inspired and motivated by change. I arrived at Emerson at a particular moment in its long history, having finalized the rather bold move from Boston's Back Bay to the Theater District, and revitalizing a long-neglected neighborhood, and at the same time signaling its own emergence as an institution of high aspirations. I have come here to shine an even brighter light on its capacity to educate the people who will solve the problems and change the world through engaged leadership, arts and communication.
CM: What challenges do universities and colleges face in terms of promoting diversity as opposed to other organizations?
LP: There are differences. The military, by the way, has been extraordinarily successful incorporating diversity into its organization, and it's been able to do that because the culture of a strong chain of command allows for these kinds of changes to take place very rapidly. As you know colleges and universities are highly democratized and professors have the opportunity for lifetime employment, and they represent the core of the institution. Administrators, presidents, come and go, so it's a very different culture here. Having said that, progress in this important area is often impeded by what I call the tyranny of good intentions. Places sometimes mistake good intentions for acting affirmatively to make sure - through diligence, commitment, resource allocation, innovation, new ways of seeing the world, - that diversity is advanced as a core component of what it truly means to be educated.
Success is a three-legged stool. The three legs include strategy, resources, and leadership. If any one of these three legs are missing the stool will not stand. And it is rare, in my experience with institutions of higher learning, to have all three of these legs operating at the same time on behalf of diversity.
CM: How is it different being in downtown Boston versus Hanover, NH (Dartmouth College) in terms of your diversity strategy?
LP: First of all there's more of it here. There's more cultural, racial, ethnic and social orientation diversity. Second, Boston offers a larger platform on which one might say important things about diversity that might influence and shape the contemporary thinking of a broad audience.
CM: At Willamette you emphasized community service. Will you do the same at Emerson and why?
LP: Yes, because one of the aims of great colleges and universities, no matter their niche or specialized mission, is to educate students as leaders in a participatory democracy. And we know that education does not stop at the classroom door or when they leave Emerson's glorious creative laboratories, but rather it extends profoundly into their co-curricular life. We need to make sure, at Emerson, that the curriculum and the architecture of their social life helps to contribute in meaningful ways to their growth and development so they can put into play their full potential as leaders and shapers of society.
CM: Are there days when you are sick of being a president and you wish you could go back to being a professor?
LP: I love what I do. I can not imagine a better job than the one that I now have. Having said that, I was educated to teach, and I miss it. After Harvard, I taught at Colgate, Dartmouth, Willamette, and I've even threatened to teach at Emerson and I hope I can carve out the time to do so. Probably not an entire course but maybe as a guest lecturer on 19th century British poetry or prose.
CM: How did you become interested in that?
LP: I get asked that question all the time. I grew up in the highly romanticized late 60s and early 70s. The values of liberation, freedom, standing in opposition, to the old way of seeing the world, in opposition to power structures that in our view had become deracinated even corrupt - that was part of my growing up. When I discovered literature, I was immediately drawn to the romantic poet. There was a great connection for me to the great romantic poets of the 19th century, so it became a love and passion for me.
CM: What were you looking forward to the most in coming back to Boston?
LP: Two things: The first was reconnecting with old friends. And then, returning to a city that I love more than any other place on earth. I sort of feel like Ulysses having returned to home from a long, weary, epic journey. So far, my life here has exceeded all of my expectations.
CM: Is there a anecdote you look back on and say 'I really made a difference here' that sticks out in your mind for whatever reason?
LP: I'll give you one story which connects to Emerson. Several years ago when I was at Willamette, I gave a commencement address at a High School in Salem (Oregon). This was a high school that had students from working class and poor backgrounds, the vast majority of these students, did not and would not attend college. Just two weeks before I was leaving Willamette, a student from that high school told me a remarkable story: He was a sophomore attending the graduation ceremony of the seniors, and he heard my talk. He told me that it so inspired him that this young man, who was struggling to get through high school who had never considered going to college, began to devote himself and commit himself to doing well so he could attend the institution where I was president. Which he did, and he graduated in May of 2011. He came to my office to tell me that he now wants to come to Emerson College as a graduate student and asked would I serve as a reference for him, mind you he had gone four years without speaking to me. It is my hope that he will one day attend Emerson as a graduate student.