Skip to content

President Pelton: State of the College 2020

Little Building at dusk
Photo/Derek Palmer

I need not tell you that this past year has been like no other. No one could have predicted how a microscopic novel virus would so profoundly change the communities and the world in which we live.

In these past eight months, our commonwealth of learning has come together like never before. With the health and safety of our community members as our top priority, we not only re-opened Emerson safely in August, we have positioned the College to thrive in a post-pandemic world.

In March, as we set out on this remarkable journey, I said that our goal was tripartite:

            • Develop a value-centered teaching, learning, and re-populating plan

            • Assess the cost of the pandemic on the College

            • Develop a plan to mitigate those costs

I am very pleased to report that we have achieved all three of our objectives. We have been successful in managing the effects of the pandemic thus far because we have been united in this effort with shared goals, shared principles, and a shared commitment to the common good. Not only that, in true Emersonian spirit, we have innovated new ways of teaching and learning, communicating, making art, and making connections. And, with the support of the Emerson network of alumni, families, and friends, we are making the best of these exceptionally challenging times.

Listen: President Pelton’s Interview with Journalism Major Amogh Matthews ’21:

Read the Transcript: President Pelton’s Interview with Amogh Matthews

We have put in place safety measures, testing, and precautions to ensure our community stays safe and healthy. We will continue to work with Tufts Medical Center and the Broad Institute to offer testing after in-person classes end next week and through the newly established Winter and Spring Terms.

As a result of the pandemic, many of our students and their families are facing new economic realities, reduced incomes, and sudden job losses. Some of these students have always depended on financial aid to attend Emerson, and the pandemic has only made finances tighter. Whatever the individual situation, more of our students need access to unrestricted financial aid dollars.

In mid-October, 580 Emerson Trustees, alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and students came together to raise more than $53,000 in unrestricted financial aid dollars for students in need as part of Shine Through: The Emerson Face Covering Campaign. As the global pandemic continues to leave its mark, we have more work to do—and with the continued support of our Emerson family, we can ensure that the next generation of Emersonians has the same opportunities as those before them.

While COVID-19 and this pandemic have added a complicated layer to all that we do, let us remember that life goes on.

Emerson continues to be recognized as a leader in the arts, communication, and the liberal arts. For the fifth year in a row, the College was ranked among the top 10 in the U.S. News & World Report Regional North overall category, and made top 10 lists for Most Innovative Schools and Undergraduate Teaching among Northern universities. In August, the Hollywood Reporter ranked Emerson #9 on its annual list of “The Top 25 American Film Schools.” Ranking and college search company College Factual currently lists Emerson’s journalism, communications, and writing programs in the top 1 percent of the nation. The Princeton Review has WERS as the #2 Best College Radio Station in the country and Emerson ranked highly for Best College Theatre (#7), Most Politically Active (#13), and Most LGBTQ-Friendly (#17). Emerson also was selected as the recipient of the 2020 NAFSA: Association of International Educators/Senator Paul Simon Award for Comprehensive Internationalization, the highest honor given in the field of global education, in recognition of the College’s leadership in this area.

This summer, after many months of discussions and planning, we successfully completed our alliance with Marlboro College, which establishes the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson. Our already strong commitment to the liberal arts has been greatly enhanced by the addition of the Interdisciplinary Studies major, which honors Marlboro’s guiding philosophy of letting students seek answers to their own big questions, and apply their learning to self-directed projects. The 53 Marlboro undergraduates, 18 Marlboro tenured and tenure-track faculty members, 2 emeritae faculty, and thousands of Marlboro alumni who joined us in July have added immeasurable depth and intellectual richness to this community. As we move forward, we will continue to weave the Marlboro legacy into the fabric of our College.

And earlier this fall, several long-serving members of the Emerson community elected to accept the College’s early retirement program. We are enormously grateful for their leadership.

Strong Financial Outlook

If FY 20 were only remembered for the modest, yet meaningful, positive financial result we accomplished, it would belie the truly remarkable achievement of successfully navigating a once-in-a-century COVID-19 pandemic. The ups and downs, financially, of this past spring tested even the most disciplined approach and resulted in a stellar performance.

We ended FY 20 strongly, covering: $8.5 million of lost housing revenue due to refunds and credits issued when we shut down our residential operations, lost net revenues from the cancellation of our international study-abroad programs, and lost summer sessions and conferences programs. We made significant investment in online learning preparedness to finish out the Spring Term. With cost controls, a complete pause on capital projects to preserve cash, and a near-total campus shutdown, we were able to cover our lost Spring Term revenues and additional expenses including, most prominently, increases to financial aid as well as setting aside millions of dollars toward necessary investments in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), testing, contact tracing, hybrid teaching, and the de-densification of our campus.

While the pandemic dominated the financial story for the year, it was certainly not the only notable financial achievement this past fiscal year. The full opening of the Little Building last fall allowed for additional residential capacity and needed revenue, and supported continued increases in our undergraduate enrollment. Our very successful Speech@Emerson graduate program grew substantially, exceeding initial projections, adding significant revenue gains. Perhaps most notably, just after the close of the fiscal year, the completion of the Marlboro Alliance brought more than $22 million of endowment funding to support our newly branded Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies—strengthening our foundation and investment in the liberal arts.

As we moved into the current fiscal year, FY 21, we collaboratively developed a financially sound model to realistically forecast enrollment levels for the fall semester. With a strong enrollment process resulting in a record level of admitted students, we implemented a measured approach to offsetting revenue losses with achievable budget reductions and cost savings measures. I am deeply grateful to the faculty and staff who have made significant financial sacrifices, which have allowed us to manage our FY 21 budget shortfall without the wholesale layoffs and furloughs implemented at many other colleges and universities. Our financial approach and the commitment of faculty and staff saved jobs.

Still, as we look ahead to our FY 22 budgeting process, we will continue to face the uncertainties of the pandemic and its significant costs, while working to ensure that an Emerson education stays affordable. We will press forward with our plans to increase and diversify enrollment while fulfilling our commitment to financial aid and student support. We will need to maintain the best public health practices for safe density in a teaching and learning environment, as well as offer and expand the online course offerings that have been successful in FY 21. These are no easy feats, but they are achievable, if we continue to take on these challenges together as One Emerson.

Continued Demand for Emerson

We welcomed a record number of new students to campus this fall—1,805 students, which is 80 more than last year. That includes 922 new first-time undergraduates, 21 students in our Global BFA in Film Art with Paris College of Art, 156 transfer students, 53 students from Marlboro College, 319 new graduate students, and an additional 334 new graduate students in our online Speech@Emerson and Digital Marketing and Data Analytics programs.

The undergraduate Entrepreneurial Studies (E3) program achieved record enrollment this fall, enrolling students that represent every Emerson academic department. On the graduate side, our online programs have thrived. The Digital Marketing and Data Analytics program, in partnership with 2U/Keypath, exceeded its fall 2020 goals by nearly doubling student enrollment. Speech@Emerson (also a 2U partnership) continues to outpace even the most optimistic projections, with more than 700 students enrolled.  Building on the success of the Business of Creative Enterprises (BCE) program, we launched a new Global BA in Business of Creative Enterprises in Sydney, Australia in partnership with the International College of Management, Sydney (ICMS), with plans to enroll our first cohort for this program in Fall 2021. We continue to work on developing a graduate-level version of BCE, which we look forward to launching in 2022.

Academic Excellence

Academic excellence remains central to all that we do at Emerson. This past year, we were called upon to reinvent courses and programs to be not only safe in the face of the global pandemic, but to reimagine them in a way that did not diminish the quality of education for which we are known. I am enormously grateful to our faculty for their inventiveness, creativity, collaboration, and leadership, and to the many staff members who worked around the clock for months on end to bring us to this point.

This fall, 82% of undergraduates enrolled in our hybrid One Emerson Flex courses, while about 18% enrolled in online only courses. Graduate degree modality was decided by program, so traditionally online programs remained as such, while some on-campus programs migrated to Flex and online. In Boston, one-third of our 450 faculty received special work arrangements and either taught online, team taught, or worked with a graduate teaching assistant present in the classroom. 

Our success in recent years in building deep and meaningful relationships with institutional partners around the world was a critical element to the ways in which the College responded to the pandemic. Because many of our international students could not return to the United States, we relied on our partner institutions to welcome our students.

This fall, students in publishing and journalism have come together to relaunch the venerable media magazine The Independent. Students will manage the creative and financial elements of the venture, write stories, and develop audiences in a new form of experiential learning we’re calling Learning Ventures. A new interdepartmental minor in Dramatic Writing—playwriting, screenwriting, and creative writing—is in development and will launch next year. The Global BFA in Film Art welcomed its second class of students to an online summer semester—40 first- and second-year students are now studying at the Paris College of Art. The G-BFA is preparing for an accreditation review by the New England Commission of Higher Education this spring. 

At Emerson Los Angeles, 115 students enrolled completely online this semester, all of whom live off campus. The campus was originally planning to follow a de-densified Flex model as in Boston; but COVID-19 conditions necessitated an online-only semester. Some of those who withdrew from Emerson Los Angeles enrolled in Boston this semester. In this difficult market—with many media businesses reducing, merging, or suspending activities—110 students secured internships. The remaining students have special directed studies in their majors. The upcoming spring semester has 148 students registered; however, we are awaiting guidance from the County of Los Angeles Health Department on when we can re-open.


Likewise, the pandemic has created new and evolving challenges, goals, and opportunities for our global programming.

In March, COVID-related travel restrictions required us to suspend operations at Kasteel Well, and as such, evacuate the students in residence. The Castle is closed this term for the traditional sophomore program due to ongoing travel restrictions. Explorations are underway for a new type of program for new international students, who do not have the same travel restrictions, in the spring. COVID-related travel restrictions also required us to suspend global programming beginning this summer. Travel restrictions to/from the United States and U.S. immigration regulations have continued to disrupt the travel plans of two-thirds of our international students since March.

Civic Engagement and Innovation

Emerson remains fully committed to civic engagement and responsibility, one of our institutional core values.

The Emerson Prison Initiative (EPI), which is perhaps one of the most significant examples in recent years of the College’s investment in civic responsibility, is in the final stages of submitting an application to the New England Commission of Higher Education for approval of an existing undergraduate degree at Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI)-Concord. While MCI-Concord summer instruction was canceled, EPI is teaching in person there this fall and welcomes the inaugural class of EPI Co-Curricular students at Emerson Boston, where students are learning about issues of mass incarceration while also working on projects to support EPI.

In September, Emerson was once again actively involved in helping students register to vote, as part of National Voter Registration Day, and engagement was up significantly through Election Day 2020. Indeed, we have seen increases in student political activism and in student voter engagement over the last few years, increasing midterm voting participation in 2018 by 33.2% compared to 2014.

And in October, the Emerson-Blanquerna Center for Global Communication hosted a virtual pre-global summit workshop on Building Bridges Through Civic Engagement, with panels on public relations, sports, eSports, nonprofits, politics, journalism, film, and media.

In spite of the pandemic, Emerson faculty remained active in the pursuit of grant and fellowship funding for their research, scholarly, and creative works. Between July 2019 and June 30, 2020, the Office of Research and Creative Scholarship facilitated the submission of 48 proposals requesting funds totaling $8.6 million from federal agencies, private foundations, businesses, and NGO’s. From those applications, 23 awards for more than $986,000 have been received to date—the College’s highest dollar total since 2013. Some notable examples include $200,000 from the National Association for Media Literacy Education to support Paul Mihailidis’s work in identifying and measuring impactful media literacy practice in the United States; a five-year, $500,000 National Institutes of Health sub-award via New York University for Rhiannon Luyster’s research on language learning in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder; and an Anschutz Distinguished Fellowship in American Studies from Princeton, which facilitated P. Carl’s residency in the spring.

Looking Ahead, Moving Forward

It seems almost certain that the post-COVID world will look and feel differently than the pre-COVID world, especially in our orientation to how we work and engage certain aspects of human society.

We know the office is no longer the only place where meaningful administrative work can be conducted. As such, do we have an opportunity to re-imagine our uses of the campus? Our campuses in Boston and LA comprise 1.3 million square feet of space. Is it possible that a shift to more remote administrative work might free up some of our office space for instruction or research or labs, for example?

Is it reasonable to assume that our post-COVID learning and teaching will be influenced by online platforms? If so, should we begin to explore what that might look like? Should online and remote learning—synchronous and asynchronous—be more integrated into what we already do?

Is it time to reimagine our academic departments so they are more elastic and fluid in the face of change? Would a more dynamic, fluid, and pliant curriculum innovate the learning environment?

These are not propositions, but rather they are questions—big questions—whose explorations seem more like an imperative than anything else. If we don’t turn our attention to the future and how we might reimagine it, then we’ve let an opportunity slip away.

Faculty and staff have begun to explore the answers to these important questions. I eagerly await their findings and recommendations.

Of course, there is the other pandemic. Its twin evils are racism and bigotry and systemic racial inequities. They are complementary but not the same. In particular, the latter refers to the systemic and structural barriers which prevent Black, Brown, and other underrepresented groups from full participation in this evolving experiment we call American democracy. 

We’re dealing with structural issues that are not new. George Floyd’s death was not new. As awful as it was, it was just a symptom of larger structural racism in this country. And those issues require some time and patience and endurance.

I urge us all to take actions to avoid backsliding on equity during this COVID era. We should listen intently. We should hold ourselves to the highest standards of accountability. We should self-consciously stretch and extend our campus boundaries to engage the larger society, for we know that the nation looks to colleges and universities to solve its most pressing problems. 

It is work we must undertake together.

I am grateful to the many members of our community whose contributions have enabled Emerson to continue to succeed even—or perhaps especially—during these extraordinary times.

I remain confident that, together, there is nothing we cannot overcome.

Lee Pelton

(Visited 1,625 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply