President Lee Pelton was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Wichita State University, during its fall Commencement ceremony Sunday, December 17.
“Honorary degrees are conferred only upon persons of notable intellectual, scholarly, professional, or creative achievement, or other service to humanity consistent with the endeavors of Wichita State University,” WSU President John Bardo said before presenting the degree. “Lee Pelton embodies these qualities and more.”
Pelton graduated from WSU with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1973, then went on to Harvard University, where he earned his PhD in English literature with a concentration on 19th century British prose and poetry. He has taught at Harvard and served as dean at Colgate University and Dartmouth College. Prior to coming to Emerson as the College's 12th president, Pelton was president of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
He is an internationally known writer and speaker on the importance of a liberal education, leadership development, civic engagement, and diversity in higher education, and in recent years has been out front among higher education leaders in issues such as gun control and creating welcoming communities for immigrants.
Pelton is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions. He was named to Boston Magazine’s “21 Most Powerful People in Boston Business” list in 2017 and to its list of “75 Bold Thinkers Who Are Shaping Our City and the World” in 2014; he was named one of “Boston’s 100 Most Influential People of Color,” and presented with the Ad Club’s Rosoff Award 20/20 and the Champion of Freedom Award from Freedom House.
Pelton told the WSU graduates that his success was thanks to the “legacy of my family,” and credited a Wichita State English professor, Fran Stevens, “whose capacity for critical, innovative, and creative thinking” inspired him and urged him to pursue a life of the mind.
In a speech peppered with quotes from writer and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamsons, transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and “poet/philosopher” Bill Murray, Pelton laid out his hopes for the graduates.
“If your dreams don’t scare you or keep you up at night, then they are not big enough,” Pelton said. “I hope [WSU] has taught you to make no small plans, because small plans do not create the magic that stirs the hearts and imagination of people.”
He exhorted them to share their talents in the service of the wider world.
“Know that as a nation committed to equality and social justice, our hope is that, out of the rich diversity of human experience, we can create communities made both beautiful and effective by their pluralism, communities that will turn the tide of human want into a sea of joy and light and hope,” he said.