Q&A: Lee Pelton

Marjorie Malpiede / October 15, 2018

The president of Emerson College on creative approaches to a more equitable campus.

Emerson College is fully integrated into its host city, recognized by large purple banners hanging from several buildings lining Boston Common, including three restored iconic theaters. As an institution devoted to communication, the arts, and the liberal arts, Emerson has a vibrant culture of innovation carefully stewarded by its current president, Lee Pelton.

Pelton considers Emerson’s creative environment a key advantage in a global economy that requires innovation in every discipline. But having come from traditional liberal arts institutions (Harvard and Dartmouth), Pelton says the student experience at Emerson can sometimes be, well, different, when individuals prone to marching to the beat of their own drums come together to form a community.

Pelton shares his current students’ talent for communication as he speaks eloquently about the mental health dangers of a “heads down” digital world. He outlined the steps Emerson is taking to better support students’ emotional and behavioral health given the correlation between wellness and academic success – a key takeaway he says he received from the Mary Christie Foundation Presidents’ Colloquium on the subject, which he attended in 2016.

Pelton has launched a number of forward-thinking, student-centered initiatives at Emerson, including opening a physical campus for undergraduate students in LA and “Global Portals” – an initiative that will establish international degree programs in Paris, Switzerland, Barcelona, Sydney, and Hong Kong, making Emerson a borderless campus.

But for these and other innovations to work, he believes higher education will need to operate less vertically to match the horizontal environments of today’s students. Asked how well Emerson is doing on “flattening,” Pelton says he’s “working on it.”

Here is an excerpt from our conversation.

Mary Christie Quarterly: It sounds like our MCF Presidents’ Colloquium on student health and wellness had an impact on your work in this area. How so?
Lee Pelton: Yes, very much so. Speaking with my peers around the country about this topic, it was clear that colleges and universities have a responsibility to invest in services that support students’ learning, which, by extension, means those services that ensure that students are mentally healthy and engaging with their community in a healthy way.

At Emerson, we’ve prioritized student emotional and behavioral health as a necessary component for academic excellence and success. So we always need to make sure we’re on the look-out. I have been spending a lot of time talking to students, and you can learn so much just by asking them.

MCQ: What kinds of improvements have you made?
LP: Just since that meeting, we’ve added three new psychologists, a new case manager, and a post-doctoral fellow to support our counseling services. Now, we make sure the students have around-the-clock, ubiquitous access to support. We created an office of care and support with a director who works closely with counseling and psychological services. This office makes sure students are getting the support they need, particularly around persistence and retention. Recognizing that there are a number of factors that impact a student’s retention, one of them is obviously their financial well-being, but emotional security is equally important.

There’s another piece here that I’ve long wanted and finally have gotten and that is we now have a full-time chaplain, a director of spiritual life. He is a Buddhist, and he provides training for students in mindfulness and meditation. The response from the students has been wonderful, which is terrific because I really believe it contributes to their capacity to learn.

MCQ: Are you optimistic that these changes will address student behavioral health concerns at Emerson?
LP: One of the most important considerations to be given in this area is to understand that the issue of health and wellness is not something to be fixed. People think, “I will fix this and then I won’t have to attend to it anymore.”

Excellence is not about being, but rather, about becoming. Excellence is a process of continuous improvement.

Two years from now, we may be in a completely different place, doing different things, learning from best practices because this is a continuous, unfinished project. And it’s important for students to know that we will continue to work on this.

MCQ: What are some of your biggest concerns for your students?
LP: Our students, like most of the country, are living in a digital world. And the digital world is a heads-down world where you are connected to your phone (except it is not a phone, it is a disintermediation machine with a phone app, which is probably the most anachronistic of all the apps on it).

So, we spend the majority of our time in the heads-down, digital world, which I worry is overwhelming the heads-up analog world of conversation and thoughtful engagement, which leads to understanding, empathy and imagination. This analog world is threatened and diminished by our slavish devotion to our digital devices.
I don’t have a solution for this but I do recognize it as a problem – a mental health problem – because it creates and sustains a level of tension and stress like I’ve never seen before.

Being in a tumult of this digital world, this highly uncurated environment, where content is coming at you at a rapid rate, you don’t have an opportunity to distinguish facts from fiction. It destabilizes truth. We are having conversations here about how we can create a center that can at first recognize this issue, provide some research around it, and also provide encouragement for analog conversations.

MCQ: What other initiatives related to student development are you working on?
LP: At Emerson, we are engaged in developing four capacities in students, all beginning with the letter C: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. My view is that these capacities are critical to success in the 21st century, not just for people in the arts.

However, they are not very well reflected in the structure of higher ed. The world of the modern-day student is a flat world. Young people move across multiple media platforms horizontally. One of the problems with higher ed is that it’s not horizontal, but vertical. Departments are silos that keep people from interdisciplinary collaboration.

We still need departments, but we need to make them more porous. And we need to flatten them out because that is the experience students seek.

MCQ: What is the typical profile of the Emerson student? How does this factor into the student experience here?
LP: Our students are part of the creative class so in high school, they tend not to be in the dominant circle. They are not the football captains or the student government presidents. They sit on the periphery, like most artists do. They see the world through a different lens, their own particular, idiosyncratic lens.

Our students tend to be a little less communal and more individualistic. Their tendency as artists is to be singular and to march to the beat of their own drum. That said, they are very supportive of one another because they have to be – they are working in groups, collaboratively.

I think all of this makes Emerson a really vibrant, exciting place to be. Innovation is not something we have to manufacture here.

MCQ: What are some of the innovations you are working on?
LP: We’re opening campuses in Paris in 2019, Switzerland in 2020, and then in Hong Kong and Sydney in 2022. These are not study abroad programs but campuses where students without US passports can matriculate and received Emerson degrees.

We are calling them “global portals” and no other college of our size will have our breadth of global engagement.

MCQ: What is your motivation behind this big effort?
LP: To be global – that’s where the future is. Despite the fact that, as a country, we are closing ourselves off, the future will be a borderless world with a borderless economy. We want to be at the forefront of that. We build bridges, not walls.