Five takeaways from a conversation with Lee Pelton
For more than a decade, Lee Pelton led a renaissance at Emerson College. Today, on the cusp of a new career as President and CEO of the Boston Foundation, he reflects on his accomplishments and what will follow.
Transformation rarely happens overnight, but when Lee Pelton is at the helm, it happens quickly: in the 10 years since he took over as president of Emerson College, the native of Kansas moved the school campus from Back Bay to the downtown corridor (reshaping an entire neighborhood in the process), opened an outpost in Los Angeles, and expanded Emerson’s reach internationally with programs on several continents. This month, after a lifelong career in education, the former literature professor retires to try his hand at something new as president and CEO of the Boston Foundation, the second state charity. On the eve of the transition, he sat down with us to talk about Black Lives Matter, the future of Boston, and why comedy is really serious business. Here is the highlight coil.
He is excited about what the future holds. “At the Boston Foundation, I will be able to do full-time what I have been doing part-time since my return to Boston. I will be able to implement my civic leadership, which is quite broad, and every day I will wake up knowing that my job is to improve lives and strengthen communities. It’s the best job in the world. “
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to rally, he believes the time to act is now. “Boston, despite its best efforts and decades of spectacular growth and prosperity, continues to be the story of two cities, one prosperous and well-off, the other struggling to make ends meet. We are both one of the most expensive and economically unequal cities in the country. The triple pandemic of COVID-19, the economic devastation and the very public exposure of the systemic racial disparities that have long plagued our country, even before its founding, calls on all of us, all people of good will and good conscience, to seize this moment, and write a new chapter for Boston and its current and future residents.
He doesn’t believe in free college, at least not for everyone. “When you say give it away for free,” a policy that would allow the wealthiest students to go to college for free doesn’t make sense to me. However, a program that could offer a free community college or a heavily subsidized college makes sense to me, as does a program that supports students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. It is very difficult for them to attend the best colleges and universities. So it’s not just a question of affordability. It’s access. And you have to think of them as twin problems that both need to be resolved. “
However, he strongly believes in Emerson’s major in comedy arts. “You know, there used to be this wonderful English bard named Shakespeare who wrote great comedies. Aristotle wrote comedies. The comedy tradition is centuries old, and it is this tradition that forms the basis of our comedy program. It’s not just for students who want to go stand-up. But even they need to understand, deeper and deeper, the impact of comedy and satire. This is what allows the satirist to shed light on the issues of the day. Comedy is a serious subject.
A few things are missing from his country of origin. “I miss my family, miss the Kansas City barbecue, and miss the Kansas scenery. You know, Kansas is as flat as a table, and you can see miles and miles without a break. With a setting sun in Kansas, the sun occupies most of the horizon. The same with the rising of the moon. It’s a sight to see.