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Lee  Pelton

Lee Pelton

President & CEO, The Boston Foundation & Former President, Emerson College


Lee Pelton became President and CEO of The Boston Foundation in June 2021, after serving as president of Emerson College in Boston for 10 years. He is a nationally respected leader with a long career in higher education, and an 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. Read More >

Pelton began his academic career at Harvard University, where he earned a Ph.D. 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 came to Emerson in July 2011, after serving for 13 years as the president of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.

In his time at Emerson, Pelton outlined a bold vision for Emerson as the global hub for arts, communication and liberal arts, leading the College in efforts 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.

He also 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.

In addition, he oversaw the creation of several new initiatives, including Emerson Launch, a program that provides opportunities for students to launch new businesses before graduation; 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.

He is a well-respected thought and innovation leader, recognized by Boston Magazine as 11th on 100 Most Influential Bostonians, Robert Coard Distinguished Leadership Medal 2021, Boston Chamber of Commerce as Distinguished Bostonian 2020, June 2020, Boston Racial Equity Fund (chair), 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, 50 Most Powerful Leaders in Boston, October 2020 and 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).

He has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Guardian (UK), Forbes,  the Presidency Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Color Magazine, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, Diversity Journal, and countless media in America and abroad. He has been a guest on National Public Radio (NPR) as well as on 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, Wichita State University 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 also serves on the Board of Directors for the Boston Chamber of Commerce (executive committee, nominating & governance committee, co-chair), WGBH (executive, finance and compensation committees) and the Barr Foundation. Read Less ^

Speech Topics

Don't Run Away: What the Future Holds

In this speech, Lee Pelton focuses on the idea that we can’t run away from the future but rather, run towards it. He emphasizes the fact that nowadays, “words matter less and the medium matters more.” The more advanced technology has become, the quicker mediums are established, leaving behind older traditional services. Pelton shares with audiences examples of how digital and media channels are overtaking our everyday lives. From Netflix and Hulu to Facebook and Snapchat, he stresses that we must adapt to this new, visual world.

Make a Difference: Millennials & Social Good

Pelton details the importance of this generation placing more emphasis on the “social good” than any other before. The Boston Strong campaign was started by two young students from Emerson College after the Boston Bombing. A simple idea of selling several T-shirts with the words “Boston Strong” written across transformed into an entire campaign, resulting in a nationwide movement which generated over $1 million, later donated to the Boston One Fund. Pelton showcases how these two students wielded enormous power to make positive change by utilizing the right tools, through effective communication and empowering a community to unite during a time of grief and solace.

Break Boundaries by Leaving Your Digital Mark

Social media has become a “shiny new toy” that has the “capacity to grow like a virus.” Pelton reveals that because users are the ones who decide HOW to use it, this instrument of change can only break boundaries in a positive way if it is managed responsibly. He shares how these platforms do everything from promoting social good like the Boston Strong campaign to revealing misinformation and half-truths, teaching all audiences what they can do to make a positive impact via digital media.