Pelton's Acceptance Speech
September 8, 2010
Jackie, thank you for your very kind and generous introduction.
It is a great privilege for me to be here today in this magnificent setting. I am deeply honored to accept the Board of Trustees’ offer to serve as Emerson’s 12th president.
As was once recently, famously said: “You can have only one president at a time.” Obviously, true. Nevertheless, Jackie and I have agreed to work together during the course of the academic year to develop a transition plan that will have the best chance of ensuring that when the baton is passed next summer, the College will not miss a stride.
Jackie, having myself served as a college president for a dozen years, I am sympathetic to how difficult it is to leave behind an institution in which one has made such an emotional commitment for such a long period of time. It requires focus, tenacity, and fortitude—not to mention plenty of sleepless nights. I pledge to you that I will honor your legacy by sustaining and building upon the good work you have done in your many years of service on behalf of Emerson College.
Your inspired leadership has transformed Emerson and most recently, substantively revitalized Boston arts and culture through the creation of a new campus. You did this by nurturing a strategic partnership with Boston’s mayor, Tom Menino (a great supporter of you and the College), moving from the Back Bay to the Theatre District, greatly enhancing facilities, reorganizing and strengthening academic programs, doubling the size of the full-time faculty, and selectively strengthening the enrollment profile.
Perhaps, most important, you have strengthen Emerson’s capacity for wonder and learning, enhanced its national visibility and reputation, and instilled into this community a sense of unceasing hope and optimism, much as is expressed in Keats’ lyrical poem, Ode to Autumn:
…To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease…
Thank you for creating in this place and in this time an unending summer for all of us to enjoy.
I am certain the faculty, students, staff, and Trustees who are gathered here this morning will join me in thanking you for your tireless dedication.
My acquaintance with Emerson dates back more than three decades ago, when I studied, taught, and lived on the other side of the Charles River. Emerson’s former, more modest, location in the Back Bay is still fresh in my memory of it. Imagine my surprise when, having been informed by my daughter in her sophomore year of high school that she wanted to attend Emerson, I discover that it had packed up and moved to the Theatre District, creating this wonderful new campus of which we are the happy beneficiaries.
Mind you, my daughter made it clear she was not seeking my advice on this important decision, for she had already made up her mind that she wanted to go to Emerson and no other place—in fact, if left to her own devices, she would have applied only to Emerson, save for a worried father who prudently coaxed her to apply to other, shall we say, less worthy colleges.
So, today, I stand here as an extreme representative example of that thing which college and university presidents most dread and loathe: the helicopter parent, one who not only hovers nosily above presidential offices, but actually, in my case, moves to college with his firstborn child. And to make matters worse, I have done it in the most impossibly embarrassing and amazing way. Dear Clare, darling, thank you for your forbearance and charity in permitting me to return to Boston.
I commend Jackie and the Trustees on Emerson’s efforts to build a comprehensive center in Hollywood that will enrich academic programming for Emerson students—for undergraduates, graduate and professional studies students—and create spaces that integrate living and learning as well as enhance alumni/ae ties to Emerson. It represents a bold, visual statement of Emerson’s presence in LA, which includes several thousand alumni/ae active in the media and entertainment industries, many of them well known.
ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage will not only advance the educational ambitions of Emerson faculty and students, it will also refresh and invigorate a new performing arts era in Boston and beyond through the diversity and depth of its professional theatrical productions from around the world at the College’s Cutler Majestic and Paramount theatres and other venues.
I inherit a wonderful platform on which to begin a new job. And while we have all learned the inherent danger of a president-elect making too many bold promises before he or she has even assumed office, I would like to offer a few tentative ideas of what the future might hold for us working together, acknowledging that these ideas perforce suffer from the lack of sharpness that debate and discussion with faculty, students, alumni/ae, staff, and Trustees would lend to them, the helpful discourse of sharp governance that transforms good or interesting thoughts into excellent ideas.
Emerson’s mission is to educate the people who will solve problems and change the world through engaged leadership in communication and the arts—a mission informed by liberal learning, recognizing that the world is still in want of clear-headed citizens, tempered by historical perspective, disciplined by rational thinking and moral compass, who speak well and write plainly with hearts warmed to the transforming power of virtue and beauty—no matter their discipline or profession. Communication, marketing, journalism, communication sciences and disorders, visual and media arts, the performing arts, writing, literature and publishing represent the disciplines and materials out of which Emerson graduates will create ideas that will make of this old world, a new world.
Bertrand Russell reminds us:
“[Humankind] fear[s] thought as [it] fear[s] nothing else on earth—more than ruin—more even than death …Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit… Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world…”
A good idea may lead to the creation and manufacture of a silicon wafer, but the great mind—the truly great mind—imagines technology and communication as solutions to fundamental human problems and the arts to that which connects us to enduring human values.
In the years ahead, we must invest in Emerson’s core, beginning with the people and programs that bring it to life. Emerson is a student-centered place of learning, and rightly so, but the faculty represent the heart of its academic enterprise. Emerson demands much of its faculty. It takes a very special person to teach at Emerson. They shape what we teach and how it is to be taught. We must ensure—within the paradigm of shared governance—that faculty have the support, recognition, and reward they need in order to teach well, advance their research and creative work, advise students, and be good citizens.
We must also invest in our students and seek to enhance their educational experiences, both in and outside the classroom. Education does not stop at the classroom door or when they leave Emerson’s glorious creative laboratories and clinical spaces, but rather it extends profoundly into their co-curricular life. We need to make sure Emerson’s curriculum and the architecture of their social lives are organized so as to contribute meaningfully to their growth and development so as to put into play the fullness of their potential as leaders and shapers of society through communication and the arts. We want them to leave Emerson with the sure knowledge that they were educated not to extract value, but rather to add value to human society.
We must invest in the staff and administrators, whose work enhances academic excellence. They are equally committed to ensuring that Emerson provides its students with a first-rate educational experience. They support the faculty in countless ways on a daily basis and their important work, whether in facilities, admission, housing, fundraising, athletics, to name only a few, tells a remarkable story about a remarkable college.
We must invest in diversity and take advantage of the increasing globalism of contemporary life. In 1916, John Dewey described democracy as the most ethical aspiration conceived by ethical communities. This aspiration was unobtainable, he wrote, without a society’s commitment to lifelong education to develop the capacities for associated living in a society characterized by complexity and diversity.
The different points of view that emerge from diverse cultural heritages and ethnic backgrounds enlarge our aesthetic horizons, enrich our intellectual discourse, sharpen our cultural perspective, and give increased focus to who we are and what we stand for as a nation. The very best students want to study at colleges and universities where diversity is represented in several dimensions and where there are plentiful opportunities to live and study in academic environments beyond American borders.
We must invest in programs that drive innovation and create new strategic alliances and partnerships—at home and abroad—that will leverage resources to further Emerson’s evolution as one of the nation’s leading institutions of higher learning in its specialized fields. Emerson occupies a prominent position in the middle of the techno-cultural revolution taking place around us. And it has the opportunity, even some might say it has the obligation—with its committed faculty, terrific students, and first-class facilities—to not only prepare its graduates for significant professional work, but also develop the pioneering, daring, and original ideas that will transform communication and arts into the future.
Finally, we must invest in the community itself by identifying and creating communal spaces that contribute to good conversation, to the sharing of important ideas, and to building trust and comity. For Emerson is an intellectual community, a commonwealth of learning, not merely a congregation of individuals devoted to self-cultivation alone. The faculty especially need informal gathering spaces that enable discussions about interdisciplinarity, excellence in teaching, joint research and creative projects, curricular innovation—spaces that build friendships and allow faculty to step outside of their programs and departments into the bright light of an intellectual community working toward common ends.
As we begin the thoughtful transition of leadership, we are reminded of the importance of legacy and the powerful lessons of history. We have all arrived at this wonderful moment together because of countless gestures of hope made by the generations that preceded us—the baby born, the family begun, the College founded, the care and nurturing of our schools, our communities, a wonderful variety of faiths and, of course, our families and their families before them.
There is a Vietnamese proverb that says, "When eating fruit, remember who planted the tree. When drinking clear water, remember who dug the well."
Let us remain true to the authenticity of Emerson’s mission, a mission that has nurtured its steady progress to a place of distinction and excellence, while, at the same time, we forge new paths of inquiry and discover new academic opportunities. Let us raise the bar high and seek the most noble of our aspirations with common purpose and common hope. Let us be cutting-edge, let us occupy with confidence those intellectual liminal spaces that liberate us from the confinement of our narrow rooms of thought. Let us be dynamic and forward thinking, not only distinctive but distinguished, not only excellent but extraordinary. For the history of Emerson College instructs us—as we have seen in Jackie’s brilliant leadership and those who came before her—that when this great College meets its challenges head on with vision, courage, and integrity it will flourish beyond measure.
Trust is a thing earned and I plan to earn it by being honest, accessible, open, and respectful of diverse points of view. There is something truly great, something exciting, something special and something wonderful, something really cool happening at Emerson and I am thankful that the Trustees have place their faith in the promise of my leadership.
Thank you and good cheer.