As a college president for 23 years, including 10 years at Emerson College, Lee Pelton led with a core belief that higher education must serve to deepen students’ appreciation of humanity. To Pelton, nurturing the humanistic spirit also goes hand in hand with confronting and trying to solve the urgent moral and social problems of the moment.
One crucial moment came in June 2020 with the murder of George Floyd. In his address the next day to the Emerson community titled America is on Fire, Pelton bluntly relayed his own experience as a Black man who had been called the “n” word in every place he had lived and who had been stopped multiple times by police for “driving while Black.” He wrote: “As President, I didn’t want to write in anger. But I also didn’t want to write the kind of platitudinous letters that ordinarily appear after these kinds of killings.”
Pelton’s ultimate message to the college: “This is not a black problem, but a structural issue built on white supremacy and centuries of racism. It’s your problem. … What changes will you make in your own life? Begin with answering that question and maybe, just maybe we will get somewhere.” Pelton’s address quickly spread widely and ultimately was read by more than 6 million people.
Pelton has combined authentic leadership, civic engagement, and a deep commitment to social justice with his skill and vision for growing institutional capacity and effectiveness. The result has been a legacy of stronger, more diverse institutions that have expanded opportunities for students. Along the way, Pelton often has been recognized as a civic and education leader, both regionally and nationally.
Now the president of The Boston Foundation since 2021, one of the nation's first and most influential community foundations, Pelton has begun to position the Foundation as an agent for social change, including initiating a concerted focus on closing the racial wealth gap.
Background and education:
The grandson of sharecroppers, Pelton grew up in Wichita, Kansas. He lived in a house that had no plumbing until he was 6 years old and was the first person in his family to go to college. His father was a laborer until obtaining a management position with the Wichita Police Department. Pelton earned a degree in English Literature from Wichita State University, graduating magna cum laude with a focus on 19th century British literature.
Continuing his devotion to literature, he earned a doctorate in English and American Literature in 1983 at Harvard University, and he subsequently became a tutor at one of Harvard’s undergraduate colleges. He was appointed a Dean of Students at Colgate University in 1986, and then Dean of the College, leaving in 1991 to become Dean of the College at Dartmouth College. There Pelton oversaw Dartmouth's largest administrative unit, with a budget exceeding $40 million and 250 staff. He also was an adjunct professor in English Literature.
Leading as a college president:
In 1998 Pelton was appointed President of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Pelton led the university to recognition as a top-tier liberal arts college in various rankings and inclusion in President Barack Obama’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. Among his many accomplishments there, he grew the College of Liberal Arts faculty by 25% to improve the student-faculty ratio; and he established Willamette Academy, an extremely successful college access and preparatory program for youth in grades 7-12 who are historically underrepresented at colleges and universities.
In 2011 Pelton was appointed President of Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, and he immediately began to increase institutional effectiveness and capacity. He added 40 new faculty in his first five years, and significantly increased undergraduate diversity and international students.
Among Pelton’s many strategic initiatives at Emerson:
Over the course of his tenure, he increased the number of applications to Emerson and the selectivity of college from 48% to 35%. Emerson rose in the college ranking from No. 16 to No. 6 in its category.
Civic leadership and The Boston Foundation:
While a college president, Pelton emerged as a powerful national voice on social issues and the value of liberal arts education. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook mass shooting, he gathered over 250 college and university presidents to sign a letter asking President Obama to assist in establishing common-sense gun legislation. He has been active nationally and written widely in support of affirmative action, beginning with the 2003 Michigan University and Law School Supreme Court cases. Pelton has advocated for college in prison initiatives, seeing firsthand at Emerson College’s prisoner education programs that policy inadequacies hamper their effectiveness.
Pelton left Emerson to join the Boston Foundation as its President and CEO in June 2021, providing him an opportunity to amplify the urgent need for social justice and equal opportunity. Pelton created a new strategic plan at the Foundation centered on equity. Among his top initiatives has been the nation’s one-of- kind Partnership to Close the Racial Wealth Gap.
Pelton’s goal is to build a multi-sector partnership designed to take an honest appraisal of the barriers, practices, and policies that contribute to the racial wealth gap and then move forward in a coordinated and focused effort, supported by data and research, to identify a set of remedies and strategies to begin the process of chipping away at the racial wealth gap.
List of Awards and Recognition:
Pelton has been honored with many awards and has been recognized as influential leader for educational excellence and social justice. His awards and recognition include: