President Lee Pelton spoke about what it means to be a college president in an event for students and faculty in the Bright Family Screening Room Monday night. Pelton became president of Emerson in July 2011 after 13 years as president of Willamette University in Oregon.
During his talk, Pelton argued that college presidents should use their status to promote justice, not only at universities, but also throughout America. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Despite the complexity of presiding over colleges, presidents ought to use the pulpit they are given to draw attention to the nation’s problems and needs.”
Last fall, when Occupy protests spread across the nation and world, Pelton said college presidents had a chance to show leadership. While some spoke out, Pelton admitted that he did not. “Others, including me, were eerily quiet and should’ve spoken out about the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots.”
Speaking out publicly on social justice issues is something Pelton said he plans to do frequently. For example, Pelton said he feels strongly that a coalition of college presidents should pressure Congress to pass the Dream Act, a bill that would provide residency to illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, so they can attend college or train in the military. Pelton said he plans to host a conference at Emerson this spring to discuss the Dream Act.
Pelton also talked about the choices made by other college presidents and administrations that he believed could serve as learning experiences for presidents in higher education. He spoke of Notre Dame’s 35-year president Father Ted Hesburgh and called him a “true leader.” Pelton juxtaposed Hesburgh to the Pennsylvania State administration, some of who were charged with perjury and failure to report the alleged abuses of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. “There are no leaders there,” Pelton said of Penn State’s former administration.
Pelton’s lecture was part of the First Lecture Series, a collaboration between the Office of Housing and Residence Life and Emerson faculty. Seth Grue, associate director of residence life, told the audience at Pelton’s lecture that the First Lecture Series gives faculty the opportunity to interact with students outside of their traditional role.