Our Stories


President Pelton led Willamette to numerous accomplishments during his tenure, including:

  • Addition of two new buildings — Kaneko Commons and Ford Hall — and significant renovations to the Art Building, Eaton Hall, Waller Hall, the Oregon Civic Justice Center and the Theatre Building.
  • Completion of the seven-year Campaign for Willamette, which raised $131 million, exceeding its goal of $125 million.
  • Creation of Willamette Academy, which provides middle- and high-school students with support and educational activities to help them be the first in their families to attend college.
  • A 20% increase in College of Liberal Arts faculty and the restructuring of the teaching load from six to five courses, improving students' academic experience and enhancing faculty's scholarly work.
  • Significant progress for the professional schools, including the expansion of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management to Portland, noteworthy academic improvement at the College of Law and the establishment of the Graduate School of Education.
  • Creation of five academic Centers for Excellence, which promote interdisciplinary research, internships and community outreach.
  • Establishment of the Sustainability Council, recognition of Willamette by the National Wildlife Federation as first in the nation for sustainability activities, and purchase of the Zena Forest research station.

President Pelton reflects on his 13-year tenure at Willamette

President M. Lee Pelton is leaving Willamette University in May after 13 years of distinguished leadership that has helped the university attract some of the best faculty and brightest students while increasing its profile nationwide.

He will continue on in academia as the new president of Emerson College. But his legacy as Willamette’s 22nd president will live on long after he has departed.

Q: What do you believe is your greatest legacy at Willamette?

First, it is important to acknowledge that whatever contributions I was able to make during my 13 years at Willamette reflect the considerable efforts and good will of a great many people — faculty, staff, students, trustees, alumni and others — working towards a common purpose. 

Willamette has irrevocably claimed its standing as one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. We were able to do this by making strategic investments in our academic mission, especially in our faculty, enhancing their capacity to teach well, to support student learning and to develop scholarship that both advances human knowledge and strengthens classroom instruction.

I am fairly confident that history will judge our time here, especially the last five years or so, as a watershed moment in which an infusion of inspired and exciting new faculty — well-matched with their committed senior colleagues — raised the research and scholarship profile of Willamette to an impressive level, while, at the same time, invigorating intellectual life and bringing innovative and fresh approaches to the curriculum.

We deepened our commitment to the values expressed in our motto, Non nobis solum nati sumus (Not unto ourselves alone are we born), so that it has become a distinctive attribute of Willamette’s essential historical character, displayed daily in the activities of our students, faculty, alumni and staff as well as in our regional and national outreach efforts, including such important programs as the Willamette Academy that seeks to prepare first-generation middle and high school students for college so that they may live lives of meaning and hope.

I am pleased by our sustainability efforts as well as the establishment of our five academic centers: Asian Studies; Sustainable Communities; Governance and Public Policy Research; Religion, Law and Democracy; and Ancient Studies and Archeology.

I am pleased by the recent recognition that Willamette has received as a value school, a “place that delivers a high-quality education at an affordable price” (The Princeton Review), as well as our contributions to scientific discovery, the ability to instill a sense of giving back among the student body, and recruiting and graduating high-ability students with financial need.

I am pleased that each of our three graduate programs — College of Law, Atkinson Graduate School of Management and Graduate School of Education — has thrived under strong and capable leadership such that they are now nationally recognized for academic and teaching excellence as well as innovative scholarship.

We are a more diverse community in several dimensions — racial, ethnic, economic and global. One in four of our undergraduates comes from multicultural and international backgrounds, a two-fold increase over the course of a decade. There has been an increase in economic diversity and first-generation students. Half of our undergraduates study abroad. More than 40% of the College of Liberal Arts faculty teaching today were hired in the last six years, of which almost of a third are from underrepresented groups.

Q: What is the most important thing you learned during your tenure here?

I learned the value of listening in order to gain a sympathetic understanding of different perspectives. I learned to trust in the intellectual resources represented in our faculty, students and staff, recognizing that doing so has always produced better outcomes than if I tried to solve a problem, address an issue or develop a new idea in isolation.

Q: What will you miss the most about Willamette?

I will miss so many things: the blossoms in spring time, lighted candles making their way down the Mill Stream at matriculation, pacing nervously — in my letterman’s jacket — on the sidelines during a home football game, the choir singing “Hope for Resolution” in Hudson Hall and South Africa, rugby and ultimate Frisbee on the Quad in the afternoon, the giddy excitement of Opening Days, Atkinson Lectures, the white Adirondack chairs in the summer, lunch at Goudy Commons, and any occasion where I am introduced to a new idea or to a new way of seeing the familiar.

Among the many wonderful people that I have met and worked with, I will miss the students the most. I will miss their voices: late night laughter on the other side of an open residence hall window, rehearsals in Smith, quiet whispers in Hatfield, a noisy and busy Bistro, the sounds of physical exertion on the green play fields.

These sounds are my touchstones. They remind of me of what brought me to this place. Through the good and the difficult times, I always knew that I was here for them, to help bring them to the brink of adulthood with confidence, conviction and a commitment to serving humanity.

I did not come to Willamette with the intent of staying this long. And now that it’s time to leave, I’m surprised at how suddenly it has come to an end.

All of it really has been a marvelous gift. I’m a lucky man and for that I am truly grateful.