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Emerson College busy diversifying its staff

Kenneth J. Cooper | 9/19/2011, 11:55 a.m.

In March, the MCAD found “probable cause to credit the allegations” of race and age bias made by Desir, who did not respond to interview requests. A mandatory conciliation meeting last month between representatives of Desir and Emerson did not produce an agreement, so the case will probably be scheduled for a public hearing, says MCAD spokeswoman Barbara Green.

Asked how he wants Desir’s complaint to be resolved, Pelton replies: “Obviously, I can’t speak to a specific case. But I am confident that the resolution will be one that’s based on the merits of the case and that represents the best ideas of the college.”

In 2009, faculty advocates of diversity pressed for the appointment of an outside panel to review hiring and promotion practices at the college. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, faced with a similar controversy not long before, had conducted a review internally.

Liebergott tapped Landsmark, a college president who had been a civil rights lawyer specializing in employment discrimination cases in higher education; Evelynn Hammonds, dean of Harvard College; and JoAnn Moody, a national consultant on faculty diversity. Landsmark and Hammonds are black; Moody is white.

Before the external review was complete, Liebergott announced in late 2009 that she would retire in 2011. The executive search firm that the college retained started contacting prospective candidates. Pelton was one of them.

“Emerson sought me out,” recalls Pelton, 60, who had taken a sabbatical to contemplate his future. “It was during that period that the first of several inquiries came to me from Emerson saying they’re interested in me. Those conversations led to my coming to campus and visiting and very quickly to my appointment as president.” The selection was announced in the fall.

A Harvard-educated scholar of English and poetry, Pelton had increased faculty diversity in his dozen years at Willamette. The number of minority professors doubled from 7 percent to 14 percent on the faculty of about 300.

Before and after the Supreme Court’s 2003 decisions in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases, Pelton was an outspoken advocate of affirmative action in higher education.

“I would describe myself as a leading voice on behalf of sustaining the principles of affirmative action that were established in 1978 in the Bakke case, in which Justice (Lewis) Powell described diversity as having a compelling national interest,” Pelton says. “So I wrote about that. I spoke in various settings.”

Emerson insiders dispute the assumption that Pelton was hired — with the college embroiled in the diversity controversy — because he is African American.

“His racial identity had nothing to do with him getting the job,” declares Michael Brown, an assistant professor of journalism who, after filing a lawsuit, in 1979 became the first minority tenured at Emerson.

Colette Phillips, an Emerson graduate and member of the presidential search committee, says of Pelton: “We had some fine candidates. This guy just stood out from the get-go.”

Though Emerson made the first approach, Pelton had expressed interest in the college’s presidency before it became vacant. His daughter Clare is a senior there, and he had checked out Emerson thoroughly — as a father who is also a college president would.