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President Pelton Speaks on COVID and Equity in Higher Ed in AICUM Panel

Zoom screen with 20 faces in frame
President Lee Pelton, upper lefthand corner, joined 10 other college presidents, journalists and the incoming AICUM president to talk about the past year in higher education.

President Lee Pelton joined 10 other college presidents, higher education journalists, and the incoming president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM) in a May 24 Zoom panel to talk about the most pressing issues facing higher ed today.

It would be Pelton’s last official appearance as Emerson president before leaving to become president and CEO of The Boston Foundation on June 1.

The panel, moderated by Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Laurie Leshin, covered a range of topics, including COVID-19 and the challenges and opportunities that presents, achieving racial equity on campuses, and addressing growing mental health needs of the student population. Joining Pelton and Leshin were presidents Carolyn “Biddy” Martin (Amherst College), Roger Brown (Berklee College of Music), Robert Brown (Boston University), Gilda Barabino (Olin College of Engineering), Mary-Beth Cooper (Springfield College), Anthony Monaco (Tufts University), Robert Johnson (Western New England University), Nicholas Covino (William James College), and Maud Mandel (Williams College).

In thinking about the last 14 months, Pelton reminded panelists and journalists that the Greek etymology of the word “crisis” is “to change.”

“Despite all the challenges the pandemic has presented to us, it’s also presented enormous opportunities, and if we don’t seize those opportunities and change the way we teach and learn, the way we engage people… the way we do work, we will have failed miserably,” he said.

While Emerson won’t revert to a fully online model, he said he’s asked faculty to look at ways to better use technology in pedagogy, and departments will evaluate who needs to be on campus to do their jobs and who can continue to work remotely.

Responding to a question for the panel about what needs to change in order to achieve campus “diversity,” Pelton said the question is really about “equity.”

“They’re two different things; they’re related, but not the same,” he said.

“[You’ll keep asking that question] until every institution devotes itself to an honest appraisal of the culture that prevents many students from thriving and feeling like they belong there,” Pelton said.

In an earlier conversation about boosting equity in procurement and using more contractors and vendors owned by people of color, Pelton said that as TBF president, he will commit to helping his higher ed colleagues “stay on top” of their goals.

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