Pelton positions himself as People's President

by Beacon Staff • September 15, 2011

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Pelton’s contribution to this year’s 9-11 vigil

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This president lives in a Beacon Hill mansion, but not an ivory tower.

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Every year since the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Emerson students and faculty have gathered on Boston Common to remember the victims of the terrorist attacks, three of whom were part of this college community. This year was no different, as more than 100 came together for the annual candlelight vigil, except that — for the first time — the president of the college accepted an invitation to join.

We were moved by President M. Lee Pelton’s speech last Sunday, when he joined student leaders and alumni at the Parkman Bandstand.

Unlike his predecessor, President Jacqueline Liebergott — who limited her face time to Student Government officials, administrators, department chairs, and the 10 or so students she advised each year — Pelton is a people person.

Days after he was named the 12th president of the college, but still months away from taking office, he talked for more than an hour over the phone to a Beacon reporter. All attempts to contact President Liebergott over the last few years were hastily deferred to a college spokesperson.

Pelton, on the other hand, opened his new presidential mansion to reporters, resident assistants, and other students, dedicating rooms on the first three levels of the five-story building to communal functions. During a recent tour with reporters, he delightedly imagined students lounging eating chips and salsa in the garden-level living room.

Liebergott was a businesswoman who immeasurably raised Emerson’s profile. When she took office, the college was floundering, contemplating a move to suburban Lawrence, Mass. She changed that. We now boast a sizable student body, a coast-to-coast presence, and a burgeoning international reputation. Heck, we even hosted the last gubernatorial debate.

But our steroid-like growth has left us with growing pains. Students are frustrated, often questioning if the college is worth the $32,128 tuition. The sanctuary of creativity and open-mindedness remembered by countless alumni seems to elude many.

Liebergott gave us stellar facilities, high-profile connections, a handsome endowment and a formidable donor base. Now, we need thoughtful community.

Pelton’s eloquent speech gave voice to our community and filled a long-empty void in our college’s leadership. The president’s address managed to be both moving and academic, referencing Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Where Liebergott was a lady of numbers, Pelton is a man of letters. And if last Sunday showed us anything, it’s that people will finally be a priority.

If the president’s spirit of accessibility continues, we can optimistically say: see you around, Pelton.