“Leaders need to know when to leave”: Pelton departs Emerson presidency for Boston Foundation

President+M.+Lee+Pelton+responds+to+community+unrest+following+COVID-19+pandemic.

Photo: Beacon Staff

President M. Lee Pelton responds to community unrest following COVID-19 pandemic.

By Dana Gerber, News Editor

President M. Lee Pelton’s fondest memories from his decade at the helm of Emerson are those marked by beginnings. 

“The thing that even now moves me emotionally is seeing students on opening days,” he said in an interview with The Beacon. “That is so Emersonian. The joy and the exuberance. It’s so unfiltered and so beautiful and wonderful. And I’ll miss that.”

Tuesday, however, marks an end for Pelton, who is departing the college to take up a new post as the President and CEO of The Boston Foundation, a local philanthropic leader that provides grants to nonprofit organizations. 

William Gilligan, who spent 36 years at Emerson before retiring in December, is set to serve as interim president in Pelton’s stead. During his tenure, Gilligan rose from faculty member to vice president. 

Pelton’s time as president was marked by a series of significant changes at the college. Emerson added first-of-its-kind majors, expanded its physical presence in Boston, and arrived on six out of seven continents. Applicants, enrollment, and student diversity all rose under Pelton’s watch. 

Get This Week's News

All the big stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday morning 

A Kansas native and a “New Englander by temperament,” Pelton first became acquainted with the Boston area while earning his doctorate degree from Harvard University in 1984. Pelton departed greater Boston in 1986 to become Dean of Students at Colgate University in New York. He then migrated to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he served as dean, before traveling west to become President of Willamette University in Oregon in 1998. 

“During those 25 years, I missed the area, I missed New England, and my plan was to return,” he said. “There was an emotional tug that brought me back. Cambridge and Boston is my intellectual home.”

Pelton was recruited to serve as Emerson’s 12th president following the departure of Jacqueline Liebergott, who led the college for 19 years. Hired in September 2010, Pelton officially assumed the college’s top job in July 2011.  

“I decided that my next presidential job [after Willamette] would be something other than a traditional liberal arts college,” he said. “I did not want to repeat myself, and I wanted to do something different.”

In an unorthodox move, he would wait another year before giving his inaugural address, where he laid out his five main priorities for his tenure: academic excellence, innovation, globalization, civic engagement, and financial strength.

“I remember some people saying to me, ‘Oh, my God, that’s a lot. That’s very ambitious,’” Pelton said. “You don’t usually get that inaugural address. You get more sort of general, feel-good, platitudinous stuff, and I wasn’t going to do that.”

Pelton made strides in each of his five major goals during his tenure. 

The number of full-time faculty members increased from 187 in 2012 to 230 in 2020, surpassing his goal of adding 40 full-time faculty to Emerson’s ranks. The college also added six new majors—including business of creative enterprises and comedic arts—as well as six new graduate degrees and 12 new minors, according to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michaele Whelan. 

He also oversaw the development of Emerson Launch, which encourages and supports students in turning entrepreneurial ideas into full-fledged businesses. 

Pelton established the Office of Internationalization and Global Engagement, which massively expanded Emerson’s worldwide footprint. That office created the summer and intersession Global Pathways programs, allowing for international study in cities like Santiago and Berlin; as well as the Global Portals program, allowing international students to earn an Emerson degree at institutions like the Paris College of Art without needing a U.S. passport.

“The case was that Emerson could be everywhere, and that any student could enter Emerson at different points on the globe,” Pelton said. “We live in a global world, and my view was students ought to be educated as global citizens.”

The size of the downtown Boston campus also ballooned under his watch. He expanded the Dining Center after the Little Building closed for renovations, purchased the 172 Tremont campus center for more than $20 million, increased the number of student lounges in residence halls, and opened the 2 Boylston Place residence hall. He also oversaw the opening of the Emerson Los Angeles campus on Sunset Boulevard in 2014 and spearheaded the merger with Vermont’s Marlboro College in 2020. 

Vice President and Dean for Campus Life Jim Hoppe said one of Pelton’s top priorities was improving the student experience. When Hoppe arrived at the college in 2016, he raised several concerns with Pelton, including the need for additional staff members in Counseling and Psychological Services, the possibility of switching dining vendors, and students’ desire for more gathering space.

“And all those things happened,” Hoppe said. 

Emerson’s endowment—an important marker of the college’s financial strength—jumped from a reported $120 million in 2012 to more than $237 million as of 2021, surpassing the goal he set in his inaugural address of a 50 percent increase over the decade. When Emerson absorbed Marlboro, it also absorbed the former college’s endowment, assets that amounted to roughly $20 million.

In his inaugural address, Pelton also said he planned to establish an Office of Enterprise Development and Innovation. The new department, which would have sought out new sources of revenue, never came to fruition.

“I hope that the new person coming in will have a better track record than I did in terms of raising dollars for college,” Pelton said. 

Pelton also cultivated a social justice edge while at the college. He established the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement and Learning and created the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion position, later renamed to the Vice President for Equity and Social Justice.

Pelton’s personal focus on civic engagement has punctuated his time as president. Last summer, following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he penned a letter, “America is on Fire,” outlining the atrocities faced by Black Americans and urging for systemic change—a move that made national headlines

When Pelton became the first Black president of Emerson—a school whose student population is only five percent Black—he said he was one of only a handful of Black presidents at independent private colleges and universities.    

“I’ve been the first Black something wherever I’ve been,” he said. “Luckily, I’ve seen a lot of change.” 

Emerson witnessed myriad racial reckonings spearheaded by student groups during Pelton’s presidency. In 2015, 2017, and 2020, the student organization Protesting Oppression With Educational Reform led protests demanding institutional changes and calling on administrators to take steps to improve diversity and inclusion college-wide. 

Most recently, the #ESOCWeekofAction initiative in November resulted in a public apology from administrators for incidents that caused harm to students of color, a promise to provide alternative resources to contacting the Emerson College Police Department, and a commitment to increase the number of non-white faculty and improve the hiring and retention of BIPOC faculty. 

“We accepted our responsibility to engage perennially with the community to transform Emerson’s culture, so that all students, faculty, and staff can thrive and bring the fullness of their identities and spirit to learning and working together,” a community-wide message, signed by Pelton and other members of senior college leadership, said regarding #ESOCWeekofAction and the college’s ensuing community action plan. “We also acknowledge that our previous efforts have not resulted in meaningful change in the daily experiences of students who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color.”

Pelton also serves as chair of the Boston Racial Equity Fund Steering Committee, is on the Board of Trustees for the radio station GBH, and is a chair of the Boston Arts Academy Foundation.

Now, as president of The Boston Foundation, this community work will turn full-time for Pelton. 

“I’ve used the presidency, both here and previous to here, as a platform to do a lot of the civic work that I want to do,” he said. “I get up in the morning and I ask myself, ‘How do I improve lives and strengthen communities today? What am I going to do to improve lives and strengthen communities?’ That is the best job description I can think of.”

Pelton, 70, will be the second Black president of The Boston Foundation. He said the prospect of taking on a new role is not daunting. 

“I have a lot of energy, I have a lot of capacity,” he said. “You never know what your limits are until you exceed them—and I haven’t exceeded them.” 

Having initially planned to leave the college after 12 years, Pelton said the timing of his departure feels right, even if it is earlier than anticipated. 

“Leaders need to know when to leave,” he said. “I think, every job I’ve been in, I’ve left at the apex of my work there. And I feel good about that.”

And yet, he said there is one unchecked box after his ten years as President: “Financial aid for students who need it,” he said. 

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about those students here who struggle, some of them working two jobs or even three jobs,” he said. “I know what it’s like to struggle. I know how hard it is, how difficult it is—and especially in a place where you see other students are not struggling. It’s something that haunts me.”

Financial aid investments were constrained, he said, by the significant financial burden wrought by the renovation of the Little Building, which occurred from 2017 to 2019 and cost the college an estimated $100 million. 

Students received nearly $56 million in financial aid in the 2020-21 academic year, according to the college’s website, with about 80 percent of students receiving some form of financial assistance. The average award is about $16,000, compared to a $70,000 annual price tag. 

Pelton, who said he worked full-time and depended on food stamps while in college, admitted that financial aid is his “unfinished business,” and needs to be a priority for his successor.

“Access and affordability, that’s the one thing I was not able to complete,” he said. “I don’t know if you ever complete it. But that would be at the top of my list for the incoming person.”

Among his other hopes for his heir is a focus on shared governance with faculty, an effort he said he was more successful with “for eight of my 10 years than for the last two.” 

Shared governance has been a point of contention among some professors in recent years, especially in regards to the COVID-19 reopening planning process, the Marlboro merger, and increased healthcare costs for faculty and staff

“My first year, which may be my most difficult year, I spent most of my time trying to change the culture,” he said. “This was a place for a variety of reasons that was very contentious, enormously so, and just mistrust, especially among the faculty.”

Pelton spoke highly of the choice of Gilligan, whose tenure as a vice president overlapped with Pelton’s presidential term, to lead the college following his departure.

“He’s a terrific choice,” Pelton said. “I don’t know where they are in the process, so this could be a three-month appointment or six-month appointment. I don’t know.” 

Pelton’s tenure was not immune to criticism—from students outraged over tuition increases that they decried as unfair financial burdens, to Title IX policies some students said silenced sexual assault survivors, and to the COVID-19 hybrid learning plan and its associated restrictions. He said he learned to grin and bear the flak. 

“That’s what I get paid to do,” he said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, while posing a set of unprecedented and controversial issues related to higher learning, didn’t change Pelton’s philosophy.

“The decisions you make ought to be people-based, not institution-based—you ought to lead with compassion and with a sympathetic imagination, and with sympathy for people,” he said. “That’s exactly what we try to do.” 

Known as relentlessly inquisitive by many of his colleagues, Pelton has built a legacy of profound thoughtfulness, both on personal and professional levels, Whelan said. 

“He’d always be in his rocking chair and usually be peeling a tangerine and asking questions and listening,” she said in an interview with The Beacon. “That’s how I see him, just being really thoughtful and reflective and very attentive.”

Hoppe remembered the more casual interactions he had with the outgoing President. 

“He gets to know you as a person,” Hoppe said. “I can’t remember a one-on-one I had with him where he didn’t ask me about my kids.” 

Sofiya Cabalquinto, associate vice president of communications and marketing, said Pelton wore many hats throughout their three years working together. 

“I’ve been having trouble putting into words how much I will miss working with Lee,” Cabalquinto said in a written statement to The Beacon. “For me, he has been a mentor, a champion, a recommender of great books and podcasts, a poet, a humorist, a friend. Fortunately, he’s not going far, and I know that whenever I’m near Park Plaza, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled in hopes of seeing his blue backpack, black sunglasses, and wide smile.” 

Show your support for essential student journalism

News and the truth are under constant attack in our current moment, just when they are needed the most. The Beacon’s quality, fact-based accounting of historic events has never mattered more, and our editorial independence is of paramount importance. We believe journalism is a public good that should be available to all regardless of one’s ability to pay for it. But we can not continue to do this without you. Every little bit, whether big or small, helps fund our vital work — now and in the future.