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Lasell University’s 10th president – Eric Turner – has deep Memphis roots

For years, former Memphian Eric Turner excelled in the world of finance, following a career choice that made his father, Jesse H. Turner Sr., and older brother, Jesse H. Turner Jr., household names among a host of Memphians.

Now, Eric Turner finds himself on another career path – in academia. On April 10, he as elected as the 10th president of Lasell University in Newton, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb. He took office July 1.

During a recent telephone interview while things still were being delivered to his new office, Turner said he “was stepping into the shoes of 35 years of history,” a reference to the university’s previous two presidents: 

Thomas de Witt, who transformed Lasell from a two-year women’s institution with 200 to 300 students, which was close to closing, into a co-ed four-year university with 1,200 undergraduate students and 700 graduate students.

And, Michael Alexander, who kept Lasell on the institution’s growth surge over his 16-year leadership tenure.

Eric Turner’s father is the late Jesse H. Turner Sr., the first African-American CPA in Tennessee. The elder Turner, who died in 1989, was a long-time Shelby County Commissioner, and also served as the commission’s first Black chairman. 

Turner Sr. served as treasurer of the National NAACP for years and was the long serving president of the historic Tri-State Bank, which provided crucial financial resources to help African-American churches, organizations and HBCU’s. 

Jesse H. Turner Jr. succeeded his father as bank president in 1990 and served in that position until 2016.

Eric Turner graduated from Christian Brothers High School, which Jesse Jr. integrated in 1963 when the high school still was part of the then-Christian Brothers College campus.

He earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Harvard and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

He worked as an investment banker for seven years in New York City. 

“I left that to work for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as deputy treasurer from 1991 to 1992. I didn’t stay long because my boss asked me to run the state lottery. I did that from 1992 to 1996.

“It was a fun job, but it was tough. We had 400 to 500 employees across the state and about 10,000 retailers.”

His introduction to Lasell came in 1991 when a friend, who was on the university’s board of trustees, asked Turner to have lunch with the then-president Thomas de Witt.

“He (de Witt) was high energy … I was sold. He transformed the college…,” Turner said. 

And, sold he was.

He chaired the board for five years, including chairing the board committee that hired Alexander. Alexander, he said, approached him in 2017 to be vice president of graduate and professional studies.

Since then, Eric has served as Lasell’s chief academic officer. He was appointed provost in 2020, a position he held until being elected president.

Turner said Lasell, which is eight miles from downtown Boston, is best known for its fashion design, fashion media and fashion merchandising programs. It offers graduate programs in communications, management, MBA, and business.

Although he was not involved in the search that eventually led to Turner’s election as president, Alexander said that once the board search committee decided to open the president search to internal candidates, it took about three days to convince the board Turner was the best candidate.

“He (Turner) is highly respected and revered …He is cool, calm and collected. He’s the most diplomatic person I have ever met,” Alexander said.

Alexander said faculty and staff wrote a letter, “asking why we needed a national search when we have the perfect person right here? At that point, the board and search committee listened. The other two internal candidates also supported him,” Alexander said. 

Board chair Gerry DeRoche said about Turner: “I have a lot of respect for him; for his business background … It was impressive that so many faculty endorsed him even though he did not have an academic background. He was the right person for the situation. We are thrilled to have him as president.”

Turner wants the university to continue to grow its graduate program, while adjusting for a demographic reality: The country’s declining birthrate, which means a shrinking number of potential college entrants.

Turner said the birthrate issue, along with other factors, is “the enrollment challenge that small independent colleges have to face… (that is why) we have to grow the graduate programs and put more focus on workforce development.”

Turner is married to Wanda Whitmore, a writer and producer for a small video production company. They have four grown children, Weslie, Candice, Jared, and Allegra.

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