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How does unconscious bias play a role in our everyday lives and how does this extend to the engagement of potential donors and volunteer leaders to our institutions? What barriers exist institutionally and nationally that prevent Black Americans from fulfilling their philanthropic goals?


Lee Pelton is the 12th president of Emerson College in Boston. He is a nationally and internationally known speaker and writer on the value of a liberal education and the importance of leadership development, civic engagement, and diversity in higher education. He came to Emerson on July 1, 2011, after serving for 13 years as the president of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.

He is a well-respected thought and innovation leader, recognized by Boston Chamber of Commerce as Distinguished Bostonian 2020, June 2020, Racial Justice Grant in Honor of Lee Pelton, $100,000 grant to be distributed to selected non-profits, EOS Foundation, 2020, The Governor’s Awards in the Humanities, 2020, in Boston Business Journal, the 2020 Power 50 award, (October 2020), and 50 Most Powerful Leaders in Boston, October, 2018; Boston Magazine Power Issue, One of The 100 Most Influential People in Boston, April 2018, Boston Magazine’s May 2017 Power Issue: The 21 Most Powerful People in Boston Business and in its May 2014 Power Issue: The Power of Ideas: 75 Bold Thinkers Who Are Shaping Our City and the World. Other awards include Boston’s 100 Most Influential People of Color (Get Konnected!, 2016), the Rosoff Award 20/20 (The Ad Club, April 2016), the Diversity Leadership Award (The National Diversity Council, October 2015), the Sabra Award (Israeli Stage, November 2014), Boston 50 on Fire, recognizing 50 leading innovators in Boston (BostInno, November 2014), Speak the Truth Award (Student Immigrant Movement, December 2014), and the Champion of Freedom Award (Freedom House, March 2012).

Since arriving at Emerson, Pelton has outlined a bold vision for Emerson as the global hub for arts, communication and liberal arts. The College has begun to expand its academic footprint beyond its campuses in Boston, Los Angeles and the Netherlands by establishing Global Portals on several continents. Emerson’s Global Portals will partner with institutions abroad so that students without U.S. passports might matriculate to and graduate from Emerson through a variety of academic programs and disciplines.

Recently, he has established an ambitious plan to redevelop downtown Boston and strengthen Emerson’s sense of place and identity by animating the streetscape in the downtown core in order to inspire, embrace, and celebrate our Boston’s emerging diversity.

He has overseen the creation of several new initiatives, including Emerson Launch, a program that provides opportunities for students to launch new businesses before graduation; the creation of a business of creative enterprises major; the first of its kind comedic arts major in higher education; the Office of Research and Creative Scholarship, which has set successive annual records for the number of grants and grant funds awarded to the College for innovative scholarly pursuits; the Office of Internationalization and Global Engagement, which supports faculty and research exchanges and strategic partnerships with universities abroad; HowlRound, an international center of online communication and collaboration tools for researching processes, opportunities, and best practices for developing new theatrical work; the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research, further establishing the College’s commitment to neighboring communities and addressing a variety of issues of societal importance; the opening of Emerson College Los Angeles (2014), an architecturally stunning 107,000-square-foot living-learning facility in the heart of Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, which dramatically advances Emerson’s rapid growth as the world’s hub for the arts, communication, and liberal arts disciplines in higher education; and an unprecedented partnership between the College and the world’s leading producer of live theatre, Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), to operate the Emerson Colonial Theatre, while providing fellowships and internship opportunities for Emerson students, underwriting theatre arts programs for local youth, and supporting Boston’s arts community.

Pelton began his academic career at Harvard University, where he earned a PhD in English literature with an academic focus on 19th-century British prose and poetry. He taught English and American literature at Harvard and served as senior tutor at Winthrop House. He later served on the Harvard Board of Overseers and as a vice-chair of its executive committee. After Harvard, Pelton served as dean of the college at Colgate University and Dartmouth College.

He has been featured in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Guardian (UK), the Presidency Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Color Magazine, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Diversity Journal, and countless newspapers in America and abroad. He has been a guest on National Public Radio (NPR) as well as on an NPR Boston affiliate radio stations, WBUR and WGBH, and CBS, ABC and PBS affiliate television station, WGBH. He has received honorary degrees from the Urban College of Boston and Tokyo International University.

Over the years, Pelton 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 National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the Association of American Colleges & Universities and the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. In addition to his service as a Harvard Overseer, he has served as a member of the Harvard University Graduate School Alumni Council, the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, Harvard Magazine, Board of Incorporators and several Harvard Visiting Committees.

He is the chair of the Boston Racial Equity Fund Steering Committee (July 2020). He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Boston Chamber of Commerce (vice chair & executive committee), WGBH (executive committee), Boston Arts Academy Foundation (chair), Facing History and Ourselves as well as a member of the M.I.T. Press Management Board, Harvard Magazine, Harvard Graduate School Alumni Council, Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, ML King Advisory Committee and the Barr Foundation, one of the nation’s leading philanthropic organizations, with more than $2.0 billion in assets.

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