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M. Lee Pelton named 12th President of Emerson College

President-Elect: Lee Pelton

Chairman of the Board of Trustees Peter Meade and President Jacqueline Liebergott introduce President-Elect Lee Pelton as Emerson College's 12th President.

M. Lee Pelton

Andrew Tiedemann
September 08, 2010

M. Lee Pelton, president of Willamette University and a former dean at Colgate University and Dartmouth College, has been named the 12th president of Emerson College. He will assume office July 1, 2011.

Pelton will succeed Jacqueline W. Liebergott, who established Emerson’s new campus on Boston Common and thereby revitalized the city’s historic theater district. Liebergott became president in 1993 and announced her intention to step down last December.

Pelton’s appointment was announced today by Peter Meade, chair of the Emerson Board of Trustees, who described Pelton as “a dynamic leader with an impressive record of accomplishment in higher education, a steadfast commitment to academic excellence and diversity, and what those who know him well describe as a calm but confident demeanor and a passion for stewardship.”

“We conducted an extensive, nationwide search that identified a number of excellent candidates,” Meade said. “After that comprehensive review, Lee emerged as the clear choice. He has the vision and experience needed to build on the extraordinary progress Emerson has made under President Liebergott and will take the college to new levels of achievement.”

Pelton is a magna cum laude graduate of Wichita State University and holds a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University, where he taught and served as Senior Tutor at Winthrop House. He has written extensively on higher education and is a highly sought after speaker on education, diversity and the liberal arts. 

“I am looking forward to returning to a city I have always loved, to begin what I hope will be a long and productive association with another distinctive, cutting-edge and mission-driven college, one whose contributions to communication and to the arts I greatly admire, and whose values are happily aligned with my own.”

“While I love Willamette University and will always cherish the time I spent there, I am exhilarated by my new assignment at Emerson and look forward to serving as Emerson's president,” he added.

Liebergott said, “I want to thank the Board of Trustees and the members of the Presidential Search Committee for their hard work and for choosing a new president who has the right combination of experience and leadership skills to begin the next chapter in Emerson’s pursuit of excellence. I know that I speak for all of our students, faculty, and staff when I say we look forward to welcoming Lee to our community and to working with him in the months and years ahead,” she said.

“I look forward to helping welcome Lee Pelton to the company of Boston-area college and university presidents,” said Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University. “Lee is a distinguished Harvard alumnus and a highly respected former member of our Board of Overseers, and I wish him and Emerson every success as they launch an exciting future together.”

As president of Willamette for 12 years, Pelton is credited with increasing the University’s academic profile and national reputation and attracting outstanding faculty and students from across the country and the world. His accomplishments include: 

  • Expanding College of Liberal Arts faculty by 25 percent to improve the student-faculty ratio, foster high-impact pedagogy, and support and expand faculty research and scholarship opportunities;
  • Planning and funding of Ford Hall, Willamette’s new energy efficient LEED Gold-standard, 42,000 square-foot digital arts academic building;
  • Dedication of the College of Law’s newly-constructed Carnegie Building, which houses the new Oregon Civic Justice Center;
  • Planning and funding a comprehensive renovation of the Theatre Building, which was completed in August;
  • Establishing and funding four academic Centers of Excellence: the Center for Ancient Studies and Archaeology, Center for Asian Studies, Center for the Study of Democracy, Religion, and Law and Center for Sustainable Communities;
  • Expanding Willamette’s MBA program to Portland, Oregon;
  • Creating the Willamette Academy, an extremely successful college access and preparatory program for youth in grades 7-12 in the Salem-Keizer public schools, targeting those who are historically underrepresented at colleges and universities in the U.S.;

  • Successfully completing the University’s $125 million capital campaign (raised $131 million); and
  • Increasing the number of undergraduate applications from 1,800 to more than 8,000 per year.

Located in Salem, Oregon, Willamette University enrolls 1,800 undergraduates in its College of Liberal Arts and 760 students in graduate schools of law, management, and education. This year, Willamette received the Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll Presidential Award from President Obama, one of only six institutions nationwide to receive what is considered the highest federal recognition a college or university can receive for its commitment to service-learning and civic engagement. “President Pelton has provided vision, inspiration, and leadership to create a more vibrant intellectual community,” said Steven E. Wynne, chair of the Willamette University Board of Trustees. “It is difficult to imagine Willamette without his leadership. His agreement to continue his service to Willamette through the academic year allows us to begin a thoughtful and orderly process that is designed to have his successor in place before the start of the 2011–12 academic year.”

Pelton will be Emerson’s first African American president. Liebergott is Emerson’s first female president.


Biography of Dr. M. Lee Pelton

M. Lee Pelton is the 22nd president of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon and has served as dean of the college at Colgate University and at Dartmouth College. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Wichita State University and holds a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University, where he taught and served as Senior Tutor at Winthrop House.

Dr. Pelton has served on the Board of Overseers at Harvard University, where he was vice-chair of the executive committee. He has been active in several higher education associations and cultural organizations including the Board of Directors of the American Council on Education (past chair), the Association of American Colleges & Universities, the Association of Governing Boards, the Oregon Symphony, the Northwest African American Museum, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Dr. Pelton has written extensively on higher education and is a highly sought after speaker on education, diversity, and the liberal arts.

As president of Willamette for 12 years, his vision increased the University’s academic profile and national reputation and attracted some of the best faculty and brightest students from the state, the nation and the world. Some of the exciting advancements to occur under his direction include: 

  • Expanding College of Liberal Arts faculty by 25 percent to improve the student-faculty ratio, foster high-impact pedagogy, and support and expand faculty research and scholarship opportunities;
  • Planning and funding of Ford Hall, a 42,000 square-foot environmentally-friendly, LEED Gold-standard, digital arts academic building;
  • Dedication of the College of Law Carnegie Building, which houses the Oregon Civic Justice Center;
  • Planning and funding a comprehensive renovation of the Theatre Building;
  • Establishing and funding four academic Centers of Excellence: the Center for Ancient Studies and Archaeology, Center for Asian Studies, Center for the Study of Democracy, Religion, and Law and Center for Sustainable Communities;
  • Expanding Willamette’s MBA program to Portland, Oregon
  • Creating the Willamette Academy, an extremely successful college access and preparatory program for youth in grades 7-12 in the Salem-Keizer public schools, targeting those who are historically underrepresented at colleges and universities in the U.S.;

  • Establishing the first of four planned undergraduate residential commons; and
  • Successfully completing the University’s $125 million capital campaign (raised $131 million).

During President Pelton’s tenure, applications for admission to Willamette have increased across the board: At the College of Liberal Arts, the number of applicants has risen from 1,800 to more than 8,000 per year. This year, for the first time, Willamette joined the select group of elite American colleges and universities that admit less than half of their applicants.

Willamette’s national reputation and visibility have increased due to recognition the University has received for its achievements in sustainability; the high numbers of Fulbright scholars and Peace Corps volunteers among its graduates; and its commitment to access and affordability, with 92 percent of its undergraduates receiving scholarships and other institutional financial assistance.

Willamette has been ranked one of the nation’s top-tier liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report, Washington Monthly and The Princeton Review.

This year, Willamette received the Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll Presidential Award from President Obama, one of only six institutions nationwide to receive what is considered the highest federal recognition a college or university can receive for its commitment to service-learning and civic engagement.

Steven E. Wynne, chair of the Willamette University Board of Trustees, said: “Dr. Pelton has raised the profile of Willamette in every important aspect of the University’s reputation. He has provided vision, inspiration and leadership to create a more vibrant intellectual community that is deeply committed to the values expressed in our motto, Not unto ourselves alone are we born. His calm, confident, and passionate stewardship has brought all of us to an admirable place, both in our community and outside it, and it is difficult to imagine Willamette without his leadership.”

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