• Doctor Lee Pelton: Emerson College's first black president

    By: Crystal Haynes

    Updated:

    BOSTON - The first black president of Emerson College, Doctor Pelton took the reins of the school in 2011, changing a boutique communications school into a major player in the redesign of Boston's downtown.

    But Dr. Pelton says he's no stranger to being the first person of color in the president's chair. He's done it his entire career.

    “When you arrive at some point where you have influence or power, never ever, ever forget where you came from,” Pelton explained. “I tell my students that there’s no substitute for authenticity. People gravitate towards people who are authentic, who speak from their heart and speak with truth and power and as long as you do that you’ll be fine.”

    Dr. Pelton’s story starts in Wichita, Kansas. 

    “I bring to it particularly my own growing up as a working-class kid. I grew up in a house without indoor plumbing until I was 6 years old,” he said. “I was the first in my family to go to college and so what really motives me in this job.”

    Pelton was the only boy of four kids. His mother was a homemaker and his father was a laborer and later managed the Wichita Police Department. 

    He knew early on he wanted to be in academia and he set a goal while getting his doctorate at Harvard to be a college president by 40. 

    “I understood that as much as I loved the contemplative life, I really gravitated towards a life where I could make a big impact,” he said. 

    After deanships at Colgate University and Dartmouth College, Pelton became the first African-American college president of Willamette University in 1998. 

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    He became the first African-American president of Emerson College in 2011. 

    ”There are folks, I think, who see me in that role and think that I’m in that role because of some affirmative action, which is not the case,” he said. “Never been the case for me. And in doing so, they diminish -- that perception diminishes your value.”

    Pelton says he is proud of the value he brought to Emerson. He’s credited with helping to reshape Boston’s downtown. The school has broken ground on an $85 million Los Angeles satellite center and entered into a partnership with the ambassador theatre group at the Colonial Theatre.

    But the lack of diversity remains a problem, less than 3 percent of the student body is African-American. 

    “We increased by 100 percent in about a four-year period,” he explained. “Here we’re doing better, but not where I think we should be.”

    Pelton says creating access to higher education to those students is personal to him. 

    “For people of privilege and wealth, the networking is visible. It’s in the air they breathe. They touch it. They know what to do,” he said. “I want to make that world visible to students, to whom it has mostly been invisible.”

    Doctor Pelton quoted a Vietnamese proverb he keeps close at hand: “When eating fruit, remember who planted the tree; when drinking clear water, remember who dug the well.”

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