“So here is what I want you to do while you are at Willamette:
Stand for something. Stand up for something.”
— M. Lee Pelton
Maybe it says something that President Pelton asked us to avoid making this feature all about him.
Of course we intend to recognize Pelton’s distinct influence on Willamette, acknowledge his dozen-plus years of forward-looking work, and offer something
that can help readers engage with a presidential legacy consisting, among many things, of great ambition and the willingness to seek out meaningful challenges. But what Pelton was saying, as we chatted in the fifth-floor Waller Hall office he keeps so wide open, was that, in his mind, the last 13 years comprise a story about a university and not just a president.
Rewind to the summer of 1998. One and a half thousand high school seniors applied for admission to the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). There was no Ford Hall, no Kaneko Commons, no Campaign for Willamette, no Willamette Academy, no Dempsey Environmental Lecture Series. “Sustainability” wasn’t a hot word yet, and Willamette wasn’t known as first in the nation for it. It was already a great time to be a Bearcat, but President Pelton stepped on campus with the future on his mind.
His arrival caused quite a stir. After his inauguration, a February 1999 article in the Statesman Journal contrasted his background and experiences with his new role and setting: “M. Lee Pelton is an Ivy Leaguer in the land of Pendleton plaid shirts. He’s an East Coast intellectual with a Midwesterner’s sensibilities. He’s a black man in a predominantly white state, an academic in a CEO’s role, a man of letters in a job that requires crunching the numbers, a man of faith in the largely un-churched Northwest.”
Very soon, however, the man from the East was the man from Willamette, and Pelton went to work employing fond, closely held Willamette ideas (such as “Not unto ourselves alone are we born”) in new, energized ways.
Today, Willamette receives more than 8,000 applications to the CLA per year. The graduate programs have seen corresponding measures of growth and academic refinement. Willamette Academy, especially dear to Pelton, is considered one of the most effective mentorship and college-prep programs for underrepresented students anywhere near the Northwest. Colin Powell, Desmond Tutu, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Brooks and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., all have fond memories of recent trips to campus.
This isn’t just a how-big-can-we-make-the-list exercise: It’s a snapshot of outcomes that have sprung naturally from one of Pelton’s clearest goals: raise the profile and recognition of Willamette on a national level to attract able minds, engaging commentators, people of diverse outlooks and backgrounds, and group upon group of promising young citizens to our patch of green campus.
As President Pelton departs, Willamette is positioned to emerge from national economic woes in a favorable position relative to its peers. People are hopeful here. There are assorted reasons why, many of which go back a hundred years or more to ideas and liberal arts priorities whose relevance only seems to get clearer with time. One of the reasons, though, goes back almost exactly 13.