President Pelton's Parent Welcome 2011

August 30, 2011
Emerson College

Thank you. It is my pleasure to welcome you to Emerson College.

When Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton University, shortly after the opening of school, he received a call from the anxious mother of a first-year student. “My son’s health is delicate,” she said, “and I am afraid that he is not eating properly. Would you please make sure that he is getting three nutritious, hot meals a day?” President Wilson reassured the mother as best as he could and said that he would look into the matter. A week later, he received a call from the same woman. “My son has been staying up too late. I am afraid that he has fallen in with the wrong crowd and is not getting all the sleep that he needs.” President Wilson reassured her again and said that he would look into it. Not more than a week passed when the mother called again. “My son is studying too hard, Mr. President,” she said. “His professors are assigning too much homework and he is anxious and distraught.” President Wilson did his best to reassure her once again and said that he would look into the matter. A week later she called again. “Chapel services are too early. He needs plenty of sleep and getting up that early to attend chapel is not good for his health.” At which point, the exasperated President said, “Madam, we guarantee our education. And if you are not perfectly satisfied, Princeton would be more than happy to return your son to you free of charge.”

So there.

To the proud parents who helped pack the car, delivered countless pieces of advice, and grudgingly calculated what four years of tuition will cost...

To you, this moment is variously significant. we are today – at long last – lives – measured out in teaspoons – have filled the bucket full – until our lives and that of our children are over brimming with promise and hopes yet unmet.

For most, it is both a loss and a gain—a reward for all the many hours of labor, of always appearing to be a chapter ahead of your child in the algebra book, of bearing years of missed notes to finally hear one flawless recital or, if you were like me, already exhausted as you watched your children rearrange the living room furniture in order to make room for a theatrical production of their own invention—already exhausted, I say, because you knew that the person responsible for reassembling it to its former state of civility and usefulness would be you.

This is my eighth week at Emerson. And while I have much to learn, there are a few things of which I am certain.

Emerson College is a special place, a magical place even—a commonwealth of learning of national distinction and international reach. Our students are determined and focused—they already have a sure sense of what they want to do with their education, even though few understand that they will end up in a job, or more likely end up in jobs not yet created and professions not yet imagined.

We are reminded of what Rousseau once wisely said: “It matters little to me whether my pupil is intended for the army, church, or the law. Before their parents chose a calling for them, nature called them to be a person…When they leave me, they will be neither a magistrate, a soldier, nor a priest; they will be a person.”

This is why it is important that they leave Emerson not only with proficiency and mastery in a particular field or discipline or specialized area, but that they must also acquire knowledge about human cultures as well as the physical and natural world; that they develop intellectual and practical skills including critical and creative thinking, the capacity to write plainly and speak persuasively; that they learned the value of collaboration, teamwork and problem solving; and that they develop personal and social responsibility through civic engagement and a sympathetic understanding of cultures not their own.

These are the building blocks for lifelong learning and if mastered, will make them better filmmakers or television producers or marketing and communication leaders or editors, or journalists, or publishers or poets or writers than they might otherwise be.

Emerson offers an integrated educational experience that is truly distinctive in higher education. We stretch the classroom, as it were, to include meaningful engagement in the marvelous creative laboratories on campus, in expansive internships off campus, in collaboration and group projects with their peers as they work side-by-side with committed faculty and celebrated practitioners in diverse, high-demand professions.

They experience the curve of their educational development as a seamless whole, a synthesis of advanced achievements across general and specialized studies. At Emerson, our students learn wherever they are.

There is nothing quite like it in higher learning, especially when considered in the context of our fabulous, cutting-edge facilities and in an urban setting that is as wonderful as it is accessible.

The core—the very heart of Emerson—is academic excellence and the importance that we place on the engagement of the individual student in the learning process.

Learning at Emerson is about engagement with faculty, engagement with fellow students, and engagement with students around the world. It is about conceiving of education as a whole rather than as separate compartments. It is about resisting the temptation to compartmentalize college life into “work” and into “play,” as if these human enterprises are not related to each other. At Emerson, work is play and play is work.

While it is true that I am a college president, I am also a father whose daughter is a senior in college and so, like you, four years ago, I participated, for the first time, as a parent and consumer, on the “other” side of the admissions and selection process. 

Even knowing as much as I knew about colleges and college admissions, it was indeed a bewildering endeavor.

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. I became reacquainted with the College, in ways that I could not have reasonably anticipated, when my daughter, then in her senior year in high school, informed me that she wanted to attend Emerson.

Mind you, she 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 would do—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 two other colleges with considerably less appeal.

In a sense, she is the experienced senior and I’m the naïve first-year student, a reversal of roles, which, as you might imagine, delights her to no end.

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, moved to college with his first-born child. And to make matters worse, I have done it in the most impossibly embarrassing and amazing way.

And so I say to the parents, while many of you have smiled widely at me and laughingly thanked me for assuming the task of housing and feeding your child, it is a smile I recognize. It is a smile that says, “Mr. President, I am trusting you with my most valuable possession. I am trusting you with a piece of myself.”

I thank you for your confidence and I promise you my complete and undivided attention. They, and you, are joining a family of more than 30,000 Emerson graduates dating back more than 130 years. They are in experienced and caring hands.

Best wishes and good cheer.