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President Pelton talks civic engagement at first lecture series

by Mike Disman / Beacon Staff • February 2, 2012

President M. Lee Pelton announced Monday night that Emerson will host a conference in April on the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bill that seeks to provide permanent residency to illegal minors who come to the United States as children and graduate from public high schools.

“There ought to be a coalition of college presidents, public and private, from every state, seeking to correct the ineptitude of Congress for not passing the so-called DREAM Act,” said Pelton at the end of his speech. 

On Jan. 30, President Pelton spoke to an audience of about 100 in the Bright Family Screening Room regarding the role of college presidents in civic engagement. The speech was part of Emerson’s First Lecture series, a sequence of talks focused on bolstering discussion between students and faculty.

Pelton began his presentation in a light, informal manner, quoting former Yale President Angelo Bartlett Giamatti on the life that the head of a colleges lead.

“Being a college president is no way to make a living,” said Pelton, laughing. “The definition of a college president is someone who lives in a big house and begs for money. That’s my job.”

However, as his 30 minute speech  — a preview of a presentation that he will be giving to a conference of college presidents in Philadelphia —  continued, he focused on the responsibility of college presidents to be public figures and activists, saying that in a time that seems to lack the leadership of his younger years, their voices and moral authority are meant to be heard.

“College presidents have an opportunity, even a duty, to put to good use our bullied pulpit to nurture a more creative and civic minded impulse, one that would lead the face of change and act responsibly in an increasingly complex and faster changing world,” said Pelton.

Pelton then spoke of the issues that he and his colleagues need to address. The president said while issues that affect collegiate campuses, such as unequal student diversity and affordability of tuition, need to be brought into light, there is a plethora of larger, worldly problems that need to be addressed.

To efficiently tackle these concerns, Pelton said that he must first build a legacy, noting that tenures for college presidents have decreased since their peaked in 2006. Pelton said that college presidents need to stay in one place for a longer time in order to make a major societal impact, citing Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago and Charles William Elliot of Harvard University, who served as presidents 26 and 40 years, respectively.

“The issues that we face transcend college budgets and party lines,” said Pelton. “They are deeply moral and they have a human dimension.”

Despite these problems, Pelton said that higher education, the tool that he feels will help solve many of society’s woes, has made great strides towards equality. Pelton said that measures like the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more commonly known as the G.I. Bill, have helped even the playing field in colleges and universities.

“The most significant changes in higher education can be seen in two factors,” said Pelton. “The change in those who attended college and the exponential increase in the number, size, and diversity of admissions into college since World War II.”

This evolution includes the rise of community colleges and public universities, as well as an increase of nine million enrolled students, according to Pelton.

As Pelton concluded his speech, he emphasized that he and his fellow college presidents need to speak out and take action against injustice and inequality around the world.

“College presidents by and large tend to be a very timid lot,” said Pelton. “We have not lived up to our leadership responsibility to speak out boldly on the things that we ought to.”

On Monday, Pelton will lead discussions on higher education with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Sen. John Kerry.