M. Lee Pelton Named Emerson College’s First African-American President

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M. Lee Pelton, a Harvard-educated scholar of English and poetry, was named Emerson College’s next president yesterday, becoming the school’s first African-American president and one of a handful of black college leaders in the state.
Pelton, president of Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and a national authority on diversity within academia, will join the arts and communication college in downtown Boston at a time when it is working to overcome criticism about its dearth of black-tenured faculty.  “Diversity is not an add-on, but really is core to the academic mission of institutions that thrive on having diverse points of view, divergent backgrounds, and different ethnic heritages come together,’’ Pelton said in an interview yesterday. “We need to make some progress in that area.’’  Emerson drew criticism last year after denying promotions to two black professors who later filed discrimination complaints. The shortage of black and Hispanic faculty is a challenge facing all of the most prominent universities in the Boston area, according to a Globe survey of 10 colleges earlier this year.

Pelton, 59, will succeed Jacqueline Liebergott when she retires in July 2011, after leading the college for 18 years. Liebergott, Emerson’s first female president, was responsible for moving the college from its aging facilities in the Back Bay to the edge of Boston Common and revitalizing the city’s historic theater district, once riddled with adult book stores and other seedy businesses.  Peter Meade, chairman of Emerson’s board of trustees, said yesterday that Pelton was chosen for his experience, intellect, and passion. “Lee is the total package,’’ Meade said.  “In terms of diversity, we are about average in Boston, which is not where we want to be,’’ Meade said. “It was one of the things that was clearly a priority, and we asked every candidate about it.’’  At Emerson, minorities made up 20 percent of the tenure-line professors last year.

Pelton has managed to increase student and faculty diversity at Willamette during his 12-year tenure. The number of minority students at the 1,850-student university jumped from 10 percent of the student body when Pelton arrived in 1998 to 25 percent this year, he said; the school now has the largest percentage of minority students of any four-year college in the Pacific Northwest.  The number of minority professors also doubled under Pelton’s leadership, rising from 7 percent to 14 percent of the 296-member faculty in the last seven years, according to a Willamette spokesman.  If, during the course of a search for a specialist in a particular field, a department discovered a promising minority candidate in a different field, Pelton said, he would allow faculty to invite the candidate for an interview to fill a role the department had not originally been seeking.

Pelton also started a fellowship program for minority graduate students from across the nation to spend two years at Willamette to finish their dissertations, teach a couple of courses, and increase the employment pipeline for the college.  At Emerson, Pelton said he will consider similar initiatives, as well as forge alliances with local organizations involved in preparing minority and low-income students for college, and strengthen the school’s admissions outreach.  In addition to making diversity a priority, Pelton said he will take up the board’s goal of protecting and expanding Emerson’s identity.

“Emerson is an exciting, cutting-edge college of communication and arts,’’ Pelton said. “I am passionate about the arts. I am deeply engaged in what I call the techno-cultural revolution that we are in. And I believe that Emerson has the capacity to be an intellectual and academic leader in both of these areas.’’  Meade said he hopes Emerson will have a larger international presence under Pelton’s leadership. It has already begun to forge partnerships with institutions in China, South Korea, and Japan, he said.  “We need to be at the cutting edge of the communications revolution that is taking place every day, and I believe we’ve chosen a president who understands and embraces that,’’ Meade said.

In a speech to faculty and students yesterday in Emerson’s Cutler Majestic Theatre, Pelton said he was drawn to the university in part because of his daughter, who is a junior this year.  “Today, I stand here as an extreme representative example of that thing which college and university presidents most dread and loathe: the helicopter parent, one who not only hovers nosily above presidential offices, but actually, in my case, moves to college with his firstborn child,’’ Pelton said.  A native of Wichita, Kansas, Pelton graduated magna cum laude with degrees in English and psychology from Wichita State University in 1974, focusing on 19th century British prose and poetry. He holds a doctorate from Harvard University, where he taught English and once served on the board of overseers. He was also a college dean at Colgate University and Dartmouth College, prior to assuming the Willamette presidency.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com

article via boston.com

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