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2019 State of the College

rendering of boylston street
Re-imagining our campus: A rendering of the completed Boylston Street sidewalk expansion. Rendering/Elkus Manfredi Architects

Amid the achievements and celebrations of a new academic year, the start of the fall term has been marked with unexpected tragedy and sadness, as our campus community mourned the untimely loss of Daniel Hollis ’22, a marketing communications major, and Moses Shumow ’01, MA, an Associate Professor of Journalism. Both were exceptional people with the bright promise of their future endeavors still ahead of them. Our community extends our deepest sympathies and well wishes to their families. Please hold them in your thoughts and prayers.

An Extraordinary Alliance

The Emerson Board of Trustees has approved the College’s intent to explore and pursue an extraordinary alliance with Marlboro College, a small liberal arts college in southern Vermont.

If approved by Marlboro and Emerson Trustees, beginning next fall, Marlboro undergraduates may elect to matriculate and its tenured and tenure-track faculty may choose to teach at Emerson within our Individually Designed Interdisciplinary Program (IDIP), which is located in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies. In turn, Marlboro will gift to the College its endowment currently valued at $30M and its real estate holdings appraised at more than $10M. In recognition of Marlboro’s $40M gift, the Institute will be renamed the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College.

Perhaps the best way to understand this transaction is to think of the $40M in the same way one would think of an individual making a $40M gift to endow an existing Emerson program. In doing so, the gift will permanently fund the Institute and increase Emerson’s endowment by 17%.

If our alliance is approved, Marlboro College will move its program to Emerson’s Boston campus in July 2020. The alliance will keep the Marlboro legacy alive on our campus, while its undergraduates will be able to complete their degrees and their tenured and tenure-track faculty will continue to teach.

Established in 1946, Marlboro is a remarkable, tight-knit community of scholars dedicated to independent learning and academic excellence. Marlboro undergraduates create their own course of study, much like our IDIP. The Marlboro undergraduate curriculum is self-directed during the third and fourth years through deep partnerships with faculty, culminating in a major final project.  Likewise, Emerson students enrolled in our IDIP may design their own majors with faculty advisors.

This is a quintessential win for both of our commonwealths of learning.

Of course, there is much more work to be done to bring this vision to life. Our respective communities will work diligently over the next several months to develop a synergistic program that lifts up both colleges and expands learning opportunities for Marlboro undergraduates.

In the next few weeks, Emerson and Marlboro will each form working groups on the essential elements of our alliance. These working groups will meet both separately and jointly to propose various aspects of the implementation of our alliance, including, but not limited to academic affairs, student life, administration, human resources, fiduciary matters, facilities and governance.

This work is to be completed in mid-spring so that we can then finalize contractual details.

This is an exciting time for both of our institutions. Even though we are at the very early stages of this exploration, I am grateful that with this new alliance, Emerson is even better poised to continue our forward momentum now and well into the future. 

Our New Students

We experienced another extraordinarily successful admission cycle, which is emblematic of the continued demand for an Emerson education.

For the fourth year in a row, we received a record number of applications for new first-time students. There was a nearly 19% increase in applications for Fall 2019 compared to Fall 2018 (15,300 compared to 12,900). I am pleased to report that the acceptance rate is the lowest it has ever been at Emerson—33.3% in Fall 2019, down from 35.6% for Fall 2018 and 46% for Fall 2017. International students comprise 17% of the first-year class, which is the most we’ve ever had. (Last year was 16%.) There are 28 countries represented this year compared to 19 last year. Students of color represent 25% of the incoming class and combined with the 17% international students, 42% of the entering class represents some form of diversity.

We enrolled nearly 920 new first-time students, almost 200 transfer students, and 470 graduate students, which is a record for us. We have been able to increase graduate enrollment, thanks to our successful new Speech@Emerson online program, which has 150 new students enrolled this year.

Additionally, we welcomed 24 students (from more than 400 applicants) into our new Global BFA in Film Art—our joint program with Paris College of Art—meeting our enrollment goal for the first year of that program.

Our Reputation

While we had another record year in enrollment, the College continues to be ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report, again making the Top 10 in our category (Best Regional Universities in the North) for the fifth year in a row. Emerson also climbed to #5 for Most Innovative Schools in our U.S. News and

World Report category. This summer, in its list of “The Top 25 American Film Schools,” the Hollywood Reporter again ranked Emerson #10. The College continues to have the #1 Journalism program and #3 Communication Studies Program in the nation, as ranked by College Factual. And WERS, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, was recently rated by the Princeton Review as the Best College Radio Station in the country. Emerson Polling was ranked most accurate pollster by Bloomberg Politics.

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of ArtsEmerson, which is making theatre more inclusive and accessible.

As part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the hit television sitcom Friends, Emerson had on view one of 30 replicas of the show’s set in September. The set came to the College for a few days in September, thanks to Friends executive producer Kevin Bright ’76, H ’11, and Lisa Gregorian ’83, MA ’86, Warner Bros. Television Group president and chief marketing officer and a member of the College’s Board of Advisors. 

Our Campus on the Common

We have made big strides toward achieving our vision of transforming our Boston campus and downtown, to enliven the Boylston Street corridor and make it a destination for all who live, work, visit, and study in Boston.

One of the most visible signs of this transformation is the complete overhaul of the Little Building, which re-opened in August. The renovated Little Building is a stunning achievement– both inside and outside. The newly renovated Little Building’s occupancy has increased from 750 to 1,040 beds, enabling, for the first time, all first-year students to live in one residence hall. The additional capacity in the renovated Little Building, plus the 380 beds at our 2 Boylston Place residence hall, means that we are now able to house three undergraduate classes on campus. We believe that housing three quarters of our undergraduates on campus will enliven and strengthen the undergraduate academic and intellectual experience.

The complete revitalization of the Boylston and Tremont Street corridor is ongoing. The Boylston streetscape improvements will happen in two phases: first, widening the sidewalk this fall and this spring and summer, creating a sense of place with benches, plantings, and wayfinding signage for visitors to Emerson and Boston. Both phases are scheduled to be completed by fall 2020.

The student center at 172 Tremont Street is up and running. It includes office and program spaces primarily for students as well as small conference rooms for the broader Emerson community. The student center as well as the Emerson Contemporary: Media Art Gallery on Avery Street will nicely connect our Boylston and Tremont campus with the Paramount Center on Washington Street.

The second floor of the Little Building will house what we are calling The Commons. It will be used to host conferences, symposia, and meetings for Emerson faculty as well as for the public on a limited and fee basis. It will also include a spacious lounge with soft seating for general purpose use. Food can be prepared and served in The Commons.

Two of the six Little Building retail tenants (two on Boylston Street and four on Tremont) will begin the build out of their spaces later this year with a hoped-for completion date in the spring. Most, if not all of the six tenants will be restaurants for our campus community and the greater Boston community.

Student, staff, and faculty demand for on-campus dining has significantly increased in the last two years. Improved quality, value, and diversity of food options as well as much more attractive dining space have contributed to this demand. As a result, this summer we added 8,000 square feet to our two-year-old 17,000-square-foot central dining facility. We have re-purposed a significant portion of the former tenant space (Whisky Saigon), whose lease we terminated in the spring. It is remarkable to consider that the former, 8,000-square-foot dining hall on the second floor of the Little Building has been replaced by a dining center with more than triple the capacity. As Winston Churchill once remarked, “civilization begins at the dining table.” I am very pleased to see faculty, staff, and students eating and conversing together in our central dining facility.

Our Undergraduate Tuition and Financial Aid

Now that the Little Building has been fully restored and occupied with an additional 280 students, our operating budget, which has been perforce constrained the last two years, will be less so going forward. Additionally, the retail space on the first floor of the Little Building will provide the College with new sources of revenue. Indeed, we continue to focus on diversifying our revenue sources and implementing strategies that move away from relying so heavily on undergraduate tuition as a disproportionate source of revenue.

Financial aid increased by almost $3M dollars this year and $19M in the last six years to support students from middle- and lower-income families. Last year, we made significant cuts in our operating budget—mostly invisible to faculty, staff and students—to reduce the tuition percentage increase and increase financial aid.

Nevertheless, there is growing pressure among parents and students as well as among local and federal governments to rein in college tuition costs. For undergraduates and their parents, net tuition cost (the difference between the published price and the actual cost) and financial aid are the two most critical issues we face. Our aim is to begin to make progress on these issues over the next few years, beginning with the FY ’21 budget, if possible.

In FY ’19, we lowered the rate of increase of undergraduate tuition from 4.5% to 4.0%. I recognize that this was a very modest downward adjustment. We will need to work even harder, beginning this year, to reduce the rate of increase further, while, at the same time, renewing our commitment to financial aid.

Obviously, reducing the rate of tuition increase while increasing financial aid concurrently—or put another way, decreasing a significant revenue source while increasing a significant expense—will pose a serious challenge for us. In order to do so, we will need to make additional cuts or budget substitutions in order to address these two critical needs.

The operating budget levers available to us to make significant budget reductions are not plentiful. The largest fraction of our FY ’20 operating budget is, as always, salary and benefits ($111M/41%), the vast majority of which is fixed because of faculty and staff union agreements going forward. Labor, institutional student financial aid ($50M/18%), and debt service ($32M/12%) account for 71% of our $274M total expenses. Other capital related expenses, including operating and maintenance of buildings, deferred maintenance and information technology, and increased housing and food costs due to the Little Building going live account for an additional $41M (15%). In other words, these four major expenses account for more than 86% of our total annual expenses. The vast majority of these expenses are fixed costs.

Nevertheless, our FY ’21 budgeting process will be focused on lowering the rate of tuition increase and increasing financial aid.

Our Academic Excellence

Academic excellence is at the heart of all that we do and strive for, and creating a culture of collaborative pedagogy is an ongoing goal that we all share. The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning expanded its group of Faculty Ambassadors this year and we now have a new Director for Faculty Development and Diversity, Dr. Tuesda Roberts. This new full-time staff position was created with three key goals: to enrich inclusive pedagogy in the classroom, to design and lead specialized programs concerning inclusive pedagogies and instructional strategies, and to infuse diversity and inclusion in all faculty development programs at the College.

We will continue to invest in our core enterprise: teaching and learning. This past year, we hired 18 new full-time faculty members, including a department chair and two tenure transfers. Over the last six years, we have made strategic investments in programs and staffing, working toward our goal of adding 40 net new full-time faculty in order to strengthen the student academic experience. To date, we have hired 33 of the 40 net new faculty lines.

We have made progress on increasing the diversity of our full-time faculty, both in the applicant pools and in hiring. Over the last three years, 50% of our new full-time hires brought diversity of ethnicity and country to Emerson. This year, 43% of our new full-time faculty bring diversity of ethnicity and country to Emerson. 

Our curriculum continues to grow. New this year are minors in Political Polling, Pre-Law, and Public Diplomacy. And in Los Angeles, we are fulfilling the promise of the Emerson Los Angeles campus where all majors from Emerson can participate in experiential learning.

Unhappily, the growth of department operating budgets has not kept pace with the investments we have made in new faculty and new programs. Beginning this year, we will put into a place a strategy to increase academic operating budgets in order to better support faculty work.

The creativity and talent of our faculty continues to draw financial support from a range of foundations, governmental agencies, and for-profit entities. During the last year, the Office of Research and Creative Scholarship facilitated the submission of 60 proposals requesting funds totaling $6.3 million. From those applications, we have been awarded 21 grants for more than $1,228,000, and we expect this number to grow in the coming months. Among the grants received are a Woodrow Wilson Foundation Junior Faculty Fellowship for Kaysha Corinealdi, assistant professor in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies; a Fulbright Scholar award for Mneesha Gellman, an associate professor in the Institute whose work in Mexico focuses on the challenges of integrating native languages into public education; and a $168,000 grant from the UBS Optimus Foundation to the Engagement Lab, which will continue support for their work with primary schools in India on promoting good hygiene practices and sanitation for children.

Additionally, the Office of the Arts received a number of significant awards. These include $100,000 from the Sundra Foundation in support of ArtsEmerson, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year as well as $500,000 and $675,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Barr Foundation, respectively, in support of HowlRound. 

Our Global and Borderless Campus

We continue to work toward our vision of creating a global, borderless campus, which is vital to educating future generations of artists and storytellers.

This past summer, we offered new Global Pathways programs in four countries, and have 23 Global Pathways programs planned for this coming summer. The number of Emerson students participating in Education Abroad increased from 386 in 2017 to 402 in 2018.

We are now accepting applications for the new Global Bachelor of Arts in International and Political Communication, which is the result of our partnership with Franklin University in Lugano, Switzerland. (Students study in Lugano for the first two years and then come to Boston for the final two years of this program.) This new Global BA is in addition to the two accelerated degree programs we offer with Franklin, in which students can earn a bachelor’s degree in three years at Franklin, and a one-year master’s degree in either Publishing and Writing or Public Relations at Emerson’s Boston campus. This coming year, we plan to finalize a similar dual degree program in the Business of Creative Enterprises, and we are working on a 3+1 program in Publishing, modeled on the 3+1 degree with Blanquerna University in Barcelona. Additionally, a cohort of students will travel to Franklin next semester as part of an exchange program there.

This past year, we successfully developed a Communication Studies intersession and Sports Communication summer program in Sydney with CAPA, an international academic provider, who has a campus there.

Finally, we offered a trip for alumni (and partners) to visit Kasteel Well in the Netherlands. It was as much an opportunity for “Castle alumni,” as it was for those who did not or could not experience the Castle as undergraduates. The trip was so successful, we plan to organize another one in summer 2020.

Civic Engagement and Innovation

Civic engagement and innovation permeate the Emerson culture, across disciplines and divisions. The College has long held as a core value the importance of civic engagement and responsibility. One of the most significant examples in recent years is the Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI), which is creating a new pathway to a bachelor’s degree for incarcerated students who have been accepted into the program.

EPI, founded and directed by Mneesha Gellman, continues to offer credit-bearing college classes at a men’s medium security prison in Concord, MA. New this year is the option for credits to accumulate into an Emerson BA in Media, Literature, and Culture. EPI joins nearly a dozen other colleges across the country in the mission of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, where education is seen as vital for transformation and empowerment, based on cultivating the skills of critical thinking and communication. EPI has forged partnerships with Clark University and Brandeis University to bring faculty from all three institutions to teach classes to incarcerated students. As EPI expands access to higher education, Emerson is taking an affirmative step in addressing structural inequality.

Emerson students have many opportunities to engage actively in the larger community, thanks to the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research in Emerson’s Social Justice Center. This year, we welcomed Tamera Marko, PhD, as the Center’s new director as well as Jabari Asim, WLP associate professor, as the first recipient of the newly created Elma Lewis Distinguished Fellowship in Emerson’s Social Justice Center.

We have seen an uptick in Emerson students who are politically active, thanks in part to an effort over the last few years to encourage students to be more engaged in the political process. A study from Tufts University found that 44.8% of Emerson students voted in the 2018 midterm elections, compared to the national average of 39.1%. Just four years ago, the College’s voting rate was 11.5%, compared to the national average of 19.7%.

A Sixth Strategic Initiative

The Board of Trustees and the senior administration have begun talks to add a sixth strategic initiative to the five that have served us well over the last seven years: academic excellence, innovation, civic engagement, global, and financial strength. Following a February 2019 Board of Trustee Retreat, there have been discussions regarding the adoption of a sixth initiative—one that recognizes and builds upon Emerson’s heritage as a pioneer in media.

Indeed, Emerson has thrived for nearly 140 years, in large part because of the ability to adapt its original focus on the spoken word to emerging media and technologies.

There are many examples of how Emerson is currently innovating in media technologies, including but not limited to:

  • Courses in interactive media, game design, and more in our Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab and Department of Visual Media Arts in the School of the Arts;
  • Emerging technologies that are used in all forms of storytelling in courses in the School of Communication;
  • The Engagement Lab’s creative and innovative use of media to build civic engagement; 
  • The Emerson Contemporary: Media Art Gallery, the only gallery in Boston focused exclusively on media art, which presents the work of artists working with new technologies.

We look forward to exploring such emerging areas as: Volumetric Filmmaking, Immersive Theatre and Mixed Reality Theatre, 3D Motion Capture without Cameras, Transmedia Narratives, Projection Mapping (live events and installation), and Artificial Intelligence and Media.

Provost Michaele Whelan, the Deans, and I will be discussing this sixth strategic initiative with faculty and other members of the Emerson community during this academic year, understanding that it is imperative to continue to build on and strengthen awareness of the College’s media heritage, while becoming a global leader in new and emerging media.

Our New Senior Administrative Leadership

It is a pleasure to welcome two new members to the College’s senior leadership team: John Malcolm, Vice President of Institutional Advancement, and Paul Dworkis, Vice President of Administration and Finance.

John Malcolm joined Emerson in early September to lead the College’s talented team of advancement, fundraising, alumni engagement, marketing and communications professionals.

He brings an exceptional wealth of experience in building highly successful development operations in the higher education and not-for-profit sectors. John was most recently the Chief Development Officer for Partners in Health. Prior to his work at Partners in Health, John was the Vice President of College Relations at Williams College, his alma mater, where he worked with the President to lead the College’s $700 million campaign, collaborating to secure the largest gift in Williams’ history and bringing the overall alumni campaign participation rate to 75%.

Paul Dworkis will begin at Emerson in December, serving as the College’s chief financial officer and overseeing Finance, Financial Business Services, Facilities, Construction, Real Estate, and Human Resources. His exceptional and diverse experience spans 35 years in higher education, finance, and publishing, including leadership in operations, technology, international business, facilities, and administrative and business services. Paul joins us from the University of Maryland, College Park, where he had served as the Associate Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer since 2013. Before working in higher education, Paul spent the earlier part of his career within news and media organizations, holding several roles, including Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President for Newsweek.

I am pleased to have John Malcolm and Paul Dworkis serving as key members of the President’s Council, and look forward to working with them both.

A New Presidential Working Group

Emerson College is deeply committed to fostering a community that is free from power-based interpersonal violence—and to creating an environment that empowers individuals to come forward to report instances that are antithetical to the College’s values. We are also committed to providing a process for addressing these instances in a way that is fair and equitable for all parties. 

We recently assembled a working group focused on student sexual misconduct. The group, consisting of students, staff, and faculty, will review the programs and procedures related to the College’s handling of student power-based interpersonal incidents among students, which were materially revised and adopted five years ago. These incidents are referred to as “sexual misconduct,” according to the College’s Sexual Misconduct Policy. However, the scope of its work will extend beyond our student Title IX process to include the full breadth and range of complex issues, especially those in need of amelioration, that comprise our student “sexual misconduct ecosystem.”

The working group will research evolving best practices for handling sexual misconduct at comparably sized colleges and universities; review support systems for students engaged in the Title IX process; review the flow of information related to student sexual misconduct between administrative offices; and review the Title IX Office, its processes and procedures, taking into consideration the anticipated changes to the Title IX guidelines by the Federal Department of Education and the final regulations likely to be promulgated within the next several months.

I have also asked the working group to examine and report on the motivations behind and implications of the series of incidents that occurred during the closing weeks of the spring term, in which the names of students were posted publicly as having violated the College’s Sexual Misconduct Policy, or otherwise characterized as “abusers” or “assaulters” in this public posting of alleged behaviors.

In many respects, the working group represents a fifth-year review of programs and practices that we put into place in 2014. The working group will report its findings and recommendations to the Office of the President no later than the first week of April 2020.

We have hired external consultants with expertise in student sexual misconduct policies to support, advise, and guide the findings and recommendations of the working group.

In closing, I would like to say how enormously grateful I am for the work, contributions, and perspectives that our hard working, creative, and diverse staff, faculty, and students bring to Emerson every day.

I am proud of the progress we have made and the many contributions all of you have made to Emerson’s continuous excellence.

I look forward to our work together in the coming year.

Lee Pelton

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