Pelton speaks about condition of college, city, and country.
It has been six years since Emerson College gained its 12th president. Marvin Lee Pelton was born on September 25, 1960 in Wichita, Kansas. After graduating magna cum laude from Wichita State University with degrees in English, psychology, and a focus in 19th century British literature, Pelton attended Harvard University where he received a doctorate in English and American Literature. Pelton’s early life in Wichita was not privileged, but his personal experiences and education shaped the person he is today. Pelton, 66, has three children: 2012 Emerson graduate Clare, who is 27 years-old, his 23-year-old son Eli, and his 17-year-old daughter Sophia. Travel 14 stories up to the top of the Ansin Building, enter through the glass doors and take a left, past the seating area and behind the front desk. There you’ll find President Pelton’s office. Today, Pelton wears a tailored navy suit over a blue gingham shirt—no tie. He leans into his wooden chair in his spacious office that looks over Tremont Street and onto the Common, and in a soft-spoken voice he tells me he’s ready for the interview to begin.
(MZ) How old are you?
(LP) Sixty-six. But you know, one has a chronological age, a physical age, and a mental age. And my chronological age is 66, but my physical age and mental age [are] a lot younger than that.
(MZ) What is your physical age?
(LP) Depends on who you talk to, but somewhere in the 40s.
(MZ) What about your mental age?
(LP) Some people describe me as boyish, so I’m probably just in my mid-twenties.
(MZ) Are you excited to be our cover model?
(LP) I’m very excited, yes. It’s a great honor to be on the cover of a magazine. I think the last time I was, was three years ago for the cover of Boston Magazine. It was their spring “Power” issue. And it was powerful innovators.
(MZ) That’s quite an honor.
(LP) Yeah, it is. It was pretty cool.
On Being the President
(MZ) Before becoming Emerson College’s 12th president you served as president at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon for 13 years. What did you learn from your experience there that you carried over to Boston?
(LP) Three things: The first was that I learned I had the capacity to change the culture of an institution, and that is no easy thing to do. It’s a difficult exercise [but] that cultural change endures even today. I also learned that I had the capacity to create a heightened sense of aspiration so that the institution could see not what it is but what it might be at it’s very best. And third—and this might be the most important thing I learned—is that authenticity is so very important in leadership; the best leaders, in my view, are those who are not afraid to be authentic and to talk about who they are.
So I began for the first time talking publicly about my growing up—you know that I was raised in a house without indoor plumbing until I was six years old, that my mother, as well as my grandmother, [cleaned] houses for a living for all her life, that my father did not complete high school, that I grew up in sometimes difficult circumstances, that my goal in life was really to live to be 50 years old. So none of those are things about which I feel shame. All of them are things that have shaped me and I’m very grateful for those experiences. I wouldn’t change my growing up for anything. My children live a very different life—a very privileged life—but I’m very grateful for the life that I’ve had.
(MZ) How have your childhood experiences shaped your role as President of an institution?
(LP) I see one of my principal roles in life as making sure that young people—no matter their station in life—have the ability to see the opportunities that wait for them. For my privileged children, the doors for opportunity are at their fingertips. It’s in the air they breathe, the friends that they have [...] they have contacts and a social, cultural, and educational network that envelops them and nurtures them every day. And then you have a set of young people, like myself, who had none of those and I had to find my way through and in life, really on my own. More than anything else, I’ve been driven by a passion and dedication to those young people for whom the doors of opportunity, the path of leadership, are not readily available or visible. That guides me in everything I do.
(MZ) You came to Emerson in 2011 and now this is your sixth year as president, how have you liked it so far?
(LP) Oh, I love this place. I love the students especially. It is such a wonderful melting pot of a community. This is the most affirming culture that I’ve ever been in; students affirm each other in wonderful ways, they affirm each other in these beautiful and effective ways.
As I often say, this is the place where young people come to become the people they want to be. That was certainly true for my daughter. At her high school she was not part of the dominant social structure, then she came to Emerson and found people just like her with the same interests and inclinations and quirky way of looking at life—students who are just enormously creative, collaborative, have great communication skills. I just adore this place and I adore (I think of them this way) my students, so I’m having a great time.
You know, there are times when being a college president is not easy. And during those times, I think mostly about the students and my obligation to them. And that gives me enormous personal hope for me and hope for their futures. I’ve never had that experience before in this particular way and I’ve been around forever. It’s a perfect place for me and I love being in the city. It took me a while to adjust to being in a vertical campus as opposed to a horizontal campus, but I love the ambience. I love the way in which the city animates Emerson and how we animate the city. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: there are days, like a day like today, where I walk from my house here across the Boston Common and I am so struck by the beauty of the diversity of this place from the homeless people whom I know by first name to people making their way to the statehouse to work, people in bicycles and scooters, people variously arrayed in costumes, and I am overwhelmed with joy.
State of the College
(MZ) You’ve been making some big changes. It seems our campus is always under construction and that our facilities are always improving and expanding. How is your vision of Emerson’s future campus in Boston coming along? Can you explain what’s being done in terms of institutional branding?
(LP) We’ve been driven by what’s called placemaking to create a community that is highly animated, creative, and joyful. And so, all the construction that is taking place now and in the future is not about building facilities, it’s about creating [a] community. In the end, development is about people, it’s not about the buildings; it’s helping to create places where people can find expression or joy or vitality, and that’s what we are seeking to do here. We sit in the middle of downtown, there are other urban colleges in Boston— BU, Northeastern, BC— but none of them are as integrated and intertwined in the fabric of the community of Boston as we are.
So when I look out the window of my 14th floor [office] I not only see Emerson College, but an entire community of which Emerson is a part of. I believe very strongly that we have a role to play in building community, and creating a place or set of places where people can engage with one another around important topics or where they can joyfully commune with each other, and where they can develop a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. That’s what we aim for. This is about building communities or [enhancing the] community that Emerson is a part of, and I’m very much driven by that vision.
(MZ) By the end of 2019, Emerson will be able to house more than 2,570 students in the 18 story, 375 bed student residence at 2 Boylston Place. Plus, the interior renovations to the Little Building will provide another 290 beds for students. This will allow all freshmen, sophomore, and junior students to live on campus. There will also be a multipurpose student dining center on Boylston Street, scheduled to open in Fall 2019. How do you foresee a larger on-campus student presence impacting the students and school atmosphere?
(LP) I think having three fourths of our students living in proximity with each other is a good thing. There is behavioral science that suggests that best ideas occur in environments where three things exist: 1. Diversity of ideas, thoughts, people, perspectives; 2. Dissonance, meaning culture that not only tolerates but encourages the expression of different points of view; and 3. Distance, [or rather, lack thereof]. That is to say, when you have diversity, dissonance, and proximity, you are creating the environment for new ideas, for new ways of looking at the world, at yourself, new ways of looking at cherished points of view. So I believe that making available a community of three fourths of students who are diverse, have different ideas and views views, who are living close together, creates this wonderful melting pot of new ideas. And new ideas are always invigorating. They’re exciting. New ideas show us not what is but what might be, and that in and of itself is an exciting proposition. And I really get goosebumps just thinking about that.
(MZ) Has the Boston Planning & Development Agency approved turning 12 Hemenway, the four-story Boston Fenway Inn, into an off-campus facility? There has been some push back from Fenway residents concerned with colleges taking over their neighborhood.
(LP) We expect we will get approval to house about 105-110 students on a temporary basis for two years during the construction of the Little Building. And that will allow us to house all first-year and all second-year students during that two-year period.
We are also looking for additional housing for juniors and seniors. Right now, we house first- and second- year students, and we have the capacity to house another 300 or so students. All of the evidence in the past suggests that the demand right now is for about—among the upper classes—300 students. We are meeting the needs. During the two year [construction period] we will be a little shy of our status quo, and we know there will be some inconvenience there. The things that I worry about with housing are related to Emerson Los Angeles, so for the seniors who are going there for a fall semester or spring semester who are having a difficult time finding housing when they return or even before they go. We have to figure out a way to resolve that issue. We went from having about 110 students per semester in ELA to having twice as many, so we have more than 400 seniors who spend their time in Emerson Los Angeles. That’s about half the class. We have to make their transition coming and going more fluid.
(MZ) Undergraduate applications increased by almost 50 percent during the last five years, why do you think that is?
(LP) I think that there is just a growing and depending recognition of who we are, what we offer. I think that Emerson has been ahead of the curb as far as liberal arts colleges. This has always been a place—a marriage—between theory and practice, making and doing. We have gotten some really lovely national recognition.
Our U.S. News & World Report rankings have gone from 14th to eighth, USA Today publishes that we have the number one journalism program in the country. Forbes magazine calls us the 13th most entrepreneurial college in the country.
I think there’s just a growing awareness of who we are and what a wonderful education one can get here. When I arrived, we were receiving about 6,500 applicants a year. And this year, we are forecasting that our applicants will be about 11,500, somewhere in that range. That’s almost doubled in a six-year period. That’s for 850 spots. We’re in high demand.
(MZ) Speaking of renovations, how is the progress on the historic Colonial Theatre? I understand this partnership with Ambassador Theatre Group, the leading international producer of live theater, is groundbreaking. You intend to renovate and preserve the oldest operating theater in Boston.
(LP) Our aspiration is to be the local hub of arts and communication, and so we just struck this deal with a global theater company—the largest in the world, with theaters in three continents and six in the US. In total, they own 47 theaters. This is a great opportunity for ATG, for Emerson, for the city. It’s especially a great opportunity for our students.
The Colonial re-centers the Theatre District to the middle of our campus, and so this now becomes the focal point for our placemaking and community-building, so remember the Colonial will bring in people who are not affiliated with Emerson into our campus. The Visitor Center which used to be tucked in on a dark corner in Boylston Place is now front and center on Boylston Street next to the Colonial. We have about 19,000 visitors a year. The 18-story residence hall on Boylston Place will have a two-story atrium that will serve as a community center for our students but will also have have dining, which can be indoors or outdoors...so it will create a lot of foot traffic there and there will be a Starbucks, by the way, on campus, in that two-story atrium. It will make visible the way in which Emerson is integrated into the city and the city is integrated into Emerson.
(MZ) There was mention of mentorships and internship opportunities being provided for Emerson students through the Colonial Theatre.
(LP) Students will, as the name suggests, have mentors, meaning professional actors and professional theater folks, who will provide advice and counsel for our students. And then, exciting: the establishment of what’s called The Ambassador Awards, says that four students each year will be able to travel to the Edinburgh Festival.
State of the Nation
(MZ) While at Harvard, you received a PhD in English literature with a focus on 19th-century British prose and poetry. That explains your eloquent emails. On November 9, I received an email from you at 1:36 p.m. that sent shivers down my spine.
[excerpts from email]
“The results of the presidential election seem tectonic, as if the very ground on which we stand has shifted profoundly. Some of us feel as if our identities – our very beings – are under siege – that our virtuous hope for individual dignity and respect has been profoundly diminished and altered by this election.
Yes, this was a change election, but so was 2008 and 2012. All is not lost or won, for there will be other change elections to follow in our lifetimes.
To our students: You were educated to virtue.
I want you to understand that to be fully educated you cannot be mere spectators. You must instead stand for something.”
(MZ) These are profound words.
(LP) I was trying to capture all the themes that I had witnessed that day. There was a gathering of students at [Common Ground]. So I went over there and talked to a few students, but mostly just observed what was going on and then I talked to some students on Boylston Street and afterwards I went home and wrote that piece that you just read. I wanted to reflect back to the community what I believe my students and faculty and staff were feeling. Not all of them, obviously, because there are clearly people on campus who voted for Trump and feel good about his election. And that’s wonderful, but I wanted to respond to the people who were feeling defeated and wanted to capture in words what I sensed that they felt, but also to remind the community that these sort of disruptions in our government have happened before and they will happen again, but the important thing for us is how we will respond to them. And I was trying to challenge people to respond vigorously and not to hide in selfish complaining, to take a virtuous action. And it’s pretty clear now that we are entering a new era of civil and human rights.
This current administration has very little tolerance for dissention and our president has shown that when you dissent, he takes to name-calling, and I think that’s regrettable. In a democracy you have to be open to different ideas and perspectives and dissent. And um…I'll just stop, that's enough. There’s a lot more I can say.
(MZ) Many of your students have been engaged in marches and rallies. Is there anything you’d like Emerson students to learn from this election?
(LP) Marches inspire. They are a legitimate and powerful form of expression. Having said that, we are entering a litigious era where many of these issues will be settled in courts. I think that’s the future we have to look forward to, [with] a lot of courtroom battles over who we are and what we stand for as a nation.
(MZ) When the immigration ban was ordered, you sent out an email on January 29 offering comfort and counsel during unsettling times. How do you feel about Mayor Marty Walsh’s and the city of Boston’s response to this ban?
(LP) I thought his response was pitch perfect. There is misunderstanding in general about what it means to be a sanctuary state, a sanctuary country, or a sanctuary campus, so I think there are now four states that are so-called sanctuary states, there are now 360 counties that are so-called sanctuary counties, and there are now about 36 cities that describe themselves as sanctuary cities. In no instance do those jurisdictions protect immigrants and undocumented immigrants unconditionally. What those declarations are, they say the following: that the local law enforcement officials will not voluntarily assist the immigration customs enforcement (ICE) in identifying and detaining immigrants except for several conditions, including immigrants that have been convicted of a violent crime, immigrants who are on the sexual predators registry, [and] immigrants that are on the nation’s terrorist watchlist, but in all other instances, it will not assist. The federal government can still act without the assistance of those jurisdictions. The same thing goes for colleges and universities.
The good news is that I spoke to the Mayor’s Office wanting to ascertain whether or not Emerson students, faculty, and staff were covered by the protections afforded to the citizens of Boston. Our students have those same protections that every person who lives, works, or studies in Boston has, so that’s a good thing.
The question is: Can Emerson go beyond the statement that says we won’t willingly or voluntarily assist? I’ve asked some legal folks to help me figure that out and that’s going to take a while.
On January 25, Trump said he was going to withdraw federal aid, federal funding from all these jurisdictions and by implication, colleges and universities too. We receive 42 million dollars a year in federal financial aid, either direct or indirect, either money that comes to the college or money that is distributed individually to students. The loss of 42 million dollars on a 200-million budget means we could lose 20 percent of our budget. It would have devastating, far-reaching consequences [and] we’re not in a position to put ourselves in that kind of loss and jeopardy. So the question is: What other actions can we take in addition to the actions we have already pledged, which is not to willingly participate with or assist the ICE officials in the way they treat immigrants? And what can we do beyond what the city’s already provided?
(MZ) Coffee or Tea?
(LP) Neither. Water. I don’t drink caffeine. I stopped many years ago and I stopped because I have a hard time going to sleep, so the less caffeine, I’m hoping the more sleep I will get. If I can get six hours of sleep, that’s really good, but I sleep intermittently, so I will sometimes get up twice in the middle of the night to do some work, or try to puzzle through something. My day is generally so full that I don’t have time to process things during the day.
(MZ) Favorite show?
(LP) Because I’m so busy, I don’t have much time to watch television, even though I hear there is plenty of quality programs.
(MZ) Do you have a favorite play?
(LP) No, but I love the magic of live theater. There’s nothing like it. I love it.
(MZ) Favorite film?
(LP) Pulp Fiction and then there’s a film that not many people have seen called Slapshot. I love film that’s literate. It’s the words that I’m listening to. I love Fences, for instance. That’s what I love about theater because theater is highly literate. And Pulp Fiction has just got some of the best lines in the world. [Quoting the movie] ‘Do you know what they call a Big Mac in France?’ ‘A Royale with cheese.’
I cry a lot in films, so Love Actually, you know? I cry every time I see that.
(MZ) LA campus or Netherlands campus?
(LP) That’s tough. I love being in Central Europe.
(MZ) Favorite world leader?
(LP) That’s easy, Nelson Mandela.
(MZ) Wichita or Boston?
(LP) Boston, God that’s easy.
(MZ) Favorite place in Boston to decompress?
(LP) On my bicycle.
Photo by: Tom McLaughlin