Winter 1999

His Time, His Hour

M. Lee Pelton is the new president of Willamette University


"When I graduated from Wichita State, I set out for Harvard as fast as I could. I hadn't considered pursuing a graduate degree anywhere but at an eastern college, because I believed that was where all the old stuff — all the good stuff — was," says Lee Pelton '73. Bearing his bachelor of arts degree in English and psychology, an unflagging ardor for the 19th-century Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, and a quixotic belief that in the East he would find the community of intellectual contemporaries he had wholeheartedly sought but not entirely found at wsu, Pelton began an eastward journey with the visionary zeal of a true believer — a journey that would ultimately lead him West to become the 22nd president of Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

He and his wife Kristen Wilson, a writer and magazine editor whom he met at Harvard; 10-year-old daughter Jordan Clare; and 6-year-old son David Eli began their journey to Oregon in 1998 with, Pelton said in his inaugural address, "the intimation that we would find our own adventure here, just as generations of westward-bound travelers had done before us." He was inaugurated in February 1999, and daughter Sophia Rose was born the next month.

Looking for Kindred Spirits

When he articulates his vision of higher education these days, Pelton speaks of "a commonwealth of learning," a phrase that resonates with multiple meanings, among them a repository of knowledge as opposed to mere information, a community of people with a common belief in the value of ideas, and the wealth, both actual and intangible, that accrues to society from such a place and such a group of people. Although he might not have been able to fully express such a vision as a young man first entering college, that is what he was seeking even then.

Yet his first year at wsu was both academically and personally disappointing. Confused and adrift, he did what many students in similar situations have done. He went abroad. He spent the summer living and traveling with friends who were students at the University of Heidelburg, Germany, and that hiatus transformed his life. "I encountered a community of intellectuals," Pelton explains. "I thought, ‘Here is what I've been longing for, a community of people who have an interest in ideas and the value of ideas and the capacity of ideas to motivate and inspire and change the world.'"

He returned to wsu and forged a version of that intellectual alliance with several of the younger faculty members in the English department, most notably the late Fran Stephens. Don Wineke, associate professor of English and the only member of that group still teaching at Wichita State, remembers, "Fran was a crucial mentor for Lee, as were a few others. We all came from good schools, and we were excited about ideas and their potential." Pelton received straight A's thereafter and graduated magna cum laude.

An Intellectual Idyll

"Lee was born to be a graduate student," Wineke remembers. "He wanted to go east, and at the time Harvard was trying to diversify its student body in terms of ethnic and geographical background. It was a good fit." Pelton entered Harvard to undertake graduate studies in English and American literature and languages on a full scholarship that carried a bonus: the commonwealth of learning he had experienced in Germany. "I was fortunate," he says. "At Harvard I was finally able to participate in the undergraduate experience I had idealized for so long."

It was an extended and fulfilling idyll. For nine years, he lived in one of the colleges comprising Harvard's 13-house system. Modeled upon England's Cambridge and Oxford universities, each house has its own faculty, library, dining hall, dean or "senior tutor" and mix of undergraduate and graduate students, so each house serves as a small community that fosters a strong intellectual connection. Pelton moved up in the academic ranks from tutor to senior tutor, and from teaching fellow and instructor to lecturer in English and American literature.

"I was still drawn to the Romantic writers, because they appealed to my revolutionary impulses," Pelton explains. "They were iconoclasts. They created and lived personal epics. They were pioneers during the period that ushered in modern literature as we know it, and they were the avant-garde of their generation." His fundamental Christian upbringing also played a part in that affinity. "The Bible as text is rich with meaning. I've always been attracted to history and origins and the meaning and significance of stories as they translate to different cultures and times. The works of the Romantic poets definitely have that kind of mythic core."

However, Pelton's doctoral dissertation was on Tennyson. He had noticed some connections with Romantic poetry in Tennyson's early works, so that became his focus of study. He received a doctorate in 1984 and in 1986 became academic dean at one of Harvard's undergrad colleges.

Wearing Two Hats

In the beginning, that experience was far from idyllic. Long-time friend Michael Davis fs '72 recalls, "Lee was humbled by his first year at Harvard. He was overwhelmed by where he — a kid who had graduated from a state school in the Midwest — was. He didn't think he was going to be able to cut it. He went down on his knees and made a covenant with God that if he got through, he would shine. When I call him every now and then, I say, ‘Lee, it's God, calling to collect on that promise!'"

Pelton made the grade and has been shining ever since. The concept of inclusion implicit in the liberal arts educational experience compelled him to succeed as both teacher and administrator. He explains, "I felt I could make more of a difference if I wore both hats. I believed my experiences as a student first at a state school and then a private college could bring something to both roles." This philosophy coalesced at Colgate University in 1986; he became dean of students and then dean of the college and also taught courses on the Victorian Period and English Romantic poets.

In 1991, he moved to Dartmouth College, where as dean of the college he was the chief policy officer for undergraduate student life. James O. Freedman, Dartmouth president during Pelton's career there, says, "Students truly admired Lee. They perceived him to be an exemplary model of an adult. He was dedicated to the power of ideas to change the world; he and his family lived on campus, and the familiar sight of his children made Lee very real, very accessible to students." In what was described as an unprecedented administrative move, Pelton sometimes accompanied students on their daily schedules, from a history class to weight training to a night in a frat house, to gain a better understanding of student perspectives on Dartmouth.

A New Frontier

The call from Willamette came in 1998. A small liberal arts college located at the edge of downtown Salem, Willamette boasts a student population of some 2,500, a 61-acre campus, 190 full-time faculty members, a school of business management and colleges of law and education. Founded in 1842, Willamette is known as "The First University in the West" because it is the oldest institution of higher learning west of the Missouri River. It established the first schools of medicine and law in the region, and played a key role in developing the Pacific Northwest.

"Willamette's trustees," Freedman explains, "were looking for someone at an institution with a strong liberal arts commitment, an institution that had undergone cultural change and academic improvement, and for someone who had been involved in effecting those results. That described Lee perfectly." While Pelton hadn't been looking for another job, the presidency at Willamette was too attractive to resist.

The chance to raise Willamette's national visibility and position it among the country's elite private colleges was a compelling challenge. "This place is as good as any small undergraduate college in the United States," Pelton says, "but it isn't as well known as it should be."

He identifies with Willamette's pioneering heritage of regional leadership. Pelton was, after all, the first African American dean at Colgate and the first African American dean of the college at Dartmouth. And he is one of only three current presidents of the nation's nearly 1,400 private four-year colleges — excluding the historically black colleges — who is African American.

"This is where I can make a difference," he says. "Somewhere down the road, I hope that the results will be quantifiable, that people will say, ‘Willamette was here when he arrived, and now it's there.'"

Another priority is getting people to pronounce its name correctly. Ever the teacher, Pelton says, "It's Wil-LAM-ette. The accent's on the second syllable." He also hopes that a year-long long-range planning initiative will result in a strategic marketing plan and a sizeable investment in technology. While Willamette's current endowment ranks among those of the top 150 institutions nationwide, Pelton envisions a capital campaign that will reach the $500-$600 million range to accomplish his vision for the university.

He also wants to increase the geographic and ethnic diversity of the student body. "I want some student from, say, Grants Pass, Ore., which has a population of maybe 5,000, to have as a roommate someone from the Bronx. That's a fundamental principle of the liberal arts experience. That's where learning takes place. Both students bring much to such an exchange, and both learn a lot from it."

Living His Own Epic

Pelton could be speaking from his own experience of venturing into the world beyond Wichita and Wichita State. Davis remembers, "Some of his students at Harvard couldn't believe he had gone to what they referred to as ‘Podunk U,' and they would ask him what that was like, as if he had gone to college in a tent or something. He'd tell them Wichita was a good place to grow up, and wsu was a good place to go to school, since those experiences had prepared him to succeed at Harvard."

Even then, Pelton had begun to reconcile his edgy memories of wsu, and he intends to re-establish connections with his alma mater.

Poised on a new frontier, Lee Pelton is looking forward to writing his own personal epic, just as his beloved Romantic poets did so long ago. He has discovered that "the good stuff" is an attribute of the mind and spirit, rather than any one place.

At his inauguration, Freedman declared, "The Talmud says in every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour, and so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader. This is Lee Pelton's time. This is Lee Pelton's hour."


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