M. Lee Pelton

M. Lee Pelton is the CEO and President of the Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s leading philanthropic organizations. Born and raised in Wichita, a first-generation college student, and the grandson of sharecroppers, Pelton attended Wichita State University and pursued his passion for literature and poetry. He developed a desire to continue learning and to find a community of intellectuals with shared interests. This led him to Harvard University on a full scholarship for his graduate work. 

Pelton’s administrative career in higher education started a few years after earning his doctorate and teaching at Harvard. He accepted the role of dean of students at Colgate University in 1986 and became dean of the college in 1988. He left in 1991 to be the dean of the college at Dartmouth College. He filled that capacity until he left for the presidency of Willamette University. In 1998, Pelton was inaugurated as its 22nd president and led the institution to recognition as a top-tier liberal arts college. Thirteen years later, in 2011, Pelton became president of Emerson College and served the institution for 10 years, stewarding it to higher academic ranking and admission selectivity.

While serving in each of these academic posts over his career, Pelton emerged as a powerful national voice on diversity, social issues and the value of a liberal arts education. He has held the distinction of being the first African American dean at Colgate and Dartmouth, and the first African American president at Willamette and Emerson. His written address to the Emerson community in the days following the murder of George Floyd, “America is on Fire,” was nationally recognized for its powerful, stirring message and was read by more than six million people.  

Since joining the Boston Foundation in 2021, Pelton has positioned the organization as an agent for social change by centering equity in its programs, grant making and civic leadership. Under his direction, the Foundation’s defining ambition is to achieve equity, by acknowledging and then seeking to eliminate the structural and underlying causes of outcome disparities for historically marginalized communities. Its current primary focus is to close the racial wealth gap in Boston. 

Pelton’s numerous awards and recognitions include the Champion of Freedom Award; Boston 50 on Fire; Sabra Award; Diversity Leadership Award; Boston’s 100 Most Influential People of Color; Robert Coard Distinguished Leadership Medal; Governor’s Award from Mass Humanities; Leader of Change Award; Academy of Distinguished Bostonians; Living Legend, Boston Museum of African American History; Lifetime Achievement, Boston Arts Academy; and six appearances on Boston Magazine’s annual list of 150 most influential Bostonians, where he was ranked third in 2023.

Pelton is a 1973 graduate of Wichita State University and holds a bachelor’s degree in English. He earned a doctorate in English literature from Harvard. He also holds honorary doctorates from Wichita State and institutions in Boston and Japan.