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2021 State of the College

aerial shot of campus at night
Photo/Above Summit

In August, after helping our new students move into their residence halls and later, after speaking to their parents in the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, I received an email from a couple—parents of a new Emerson student—who had been in the audience. They told me that they each had taken a class with me more than 30 years ago. The campus looked different, they said, but they were heartened to know that Emerson is that same amazing, creative environment that they knew back then. 

I couldn’t agree more. 

Today, nearly six months into my role as interim president, I’m pleased to say that Emerson is resilient and strong. We are successfully staying the course—a course of extraordinarily nimble reaction by people across the College, at every level, to unforeseen events and consequences. This is a moment to be thoughtful and strategic about what initiatives to undertake and what may be more appropriate to leave for the next president. It is a time to recommit ourselves to what Emerson does—and does well—to ensure that the College is poised for continued success when a new permanent president begins. Confidence, continuity, and collegiality are the keys to making this happen. 

Around Campus 

We successfully reopened our Boston, Los Angeles, and Kasteel Well campuses in full this fall, which was no small feat after 18 months of unprecedented disruption. While the pandemic is certainly not over—and while important safety measures such as masking and testing requirements remain in place—it feels good to be able to work, study, and live in an environment closer to normal than we’ve had in quite some time. I was recently reminded that of our undergraduate students, only our senior class has experienced a fully “normal” year at Emerson (2018–2019, when they were first-year students)—it’s a stunning reminder of how long we have endured this pandemic. 

Despite these external challenges, Emerson is thriving. 

This fall, we were ranked #8 by U.S. News & World Report in its list of Best Regional Universities (North), marking the sixth year in a row the College has been ranked in the 

Top 10. We also tied for #3 in Most Innovative Schools and #11 in Undergraduate Teaching. Over the summer, The Hollywood Reporter ranked Emerson #6 among its Top 25 Film Schools in America. 

Emerson did quite well this year at the Emmys—four Emersonians won Emmy Awards for their creative work and more than two dozen Emersonians were nominated. 

This fall, Emerson Stage put on its first in-person production, with a live audience, since the pandemic began. Likewise, earlier this month, ArtsEmerson held its first in-person performance since March 2020 with the premiere of Iphigenia. And, as of last month, spectators are once again allowed to cheer on the Lions at Rotch Field. 


One key indicator of the sustained health and strength of the College is our record enrollment numbers.

Despite the continued challenges of the pandemic, Emerson welcomed more incoming new first-time students than ever before—and the most diverse the College has seen. 

There are 1,778 graduate students and 4,113 undergraduate students registered for Fall 2021 to total a record 5,891 total students that are a part of Emerson College’s community this term.

The Class of 2025 comprises 1,061 individuals, who are as creative as they are diverse—the headlines speak for themselves. In the Class of 2025:

  • 28% are domestic students of color; 
  • 15% are international students; 
  • 14% are the first in their family to attend college; 
  • Domestic students come from 47 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., compared to 39 states last year; 
  • Our international base remains strong with students from 30 nations, plus Hong Kong and Macau SAR, compared to 21 countries last year.  

Additionally, we welcomed 188 students who transferred to Emerson and 734 new graduate students. 

Our record admission cycle is an indication of the continued excellence of Emerson and the strong value of and demand for an Emerson education. 


As a world, a nation, and a College community, we have navigated a very challenging and, for many families and individuals, a devastating year filled with personal and financial loss. As we emerge from the crisis caused by the pandemic, we enter this new fiscal year with deep gratitude for the collective efforts made by so many to ensure Emerson maintained its academic excellence, and with optimism that the worst of the pandemic, financially speaking, is behind us.  

To be clear, Emerson has suffered through one of its worst financial challenges since the Great Recession, with more than $32M in revenue losses. In addition, in order to fully and comprehensively ensure the health and safety of our community, the College invested approximately $14 million more on COVID-related expenditures, most notably on our robust and highly successful testing and contact tracing programs, and additional essential health-related mitigation measures to significantly de-densify our campus by expanding our residential and teaching spaces through arrangements with nearby hotels. 

To manage this, and to maintain a robust residential academic experience, the College enacted a number of measures to reduce expenses, including suspending raises for all staff, pausing retirement contributions for faculty and staff, and creating an early retirement program. 

As some financial constraints related to the pandemic subsided this fall, the College offered staff employees a one-time salary payment equivalent to up to 3% of their salaries and also resumed retirement contributions for all eligible employees.

Emerson is particularly proud of the commitment of its staff, faculty, and students to keep the community whole during this challenging time and to do so with no furloughs or layoffs, no staff or faculty salary cuts, no change to health benefits, and no reductions in student financial aid. 

By uniting as a community, and by adopting significant cost-alleviating measures and practices, we were able to meet these challenges head on, and I want to thank all of you for the sacrifices you made over the past year and a half. Those sacrifices helped protect the health, wellness and, notably, the jobs of the members of our community. 


Academic excellence is central to all that we do at Emerson. One measure of the success of our academic program is our 10-year comprehensive review by the New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE), as part of the accreditation process. (The College completed its last comprehensive review in 2013 and submitted a 5-year interim report in 2018. Both were well-received by the accrediting body and included suggestions for addressing areas for improved excellence, which we have since done.) We are now preparing for the coming 10-year accreditation and the September 2022 site visit of the external evaluation team. 

Our academic areas of study are very much living, breathing, evolving programs. We are getting ready to launch a graduate program in Business of Creative Enterprises, following the success of the undergraduate program. The addition of the Speech@Emerson online modality to our highly ranked Master of Science in Communication Disorders program continues to outpace our original expectations. That program now has close to 1,200 enrolled students across 44 states. Communication Sciences and Disorders has recently finalized an articulation agreement with Roxbury Community College (RCC) so that RCC students who have completed the Health Professions program can easily transfer into our CSD major. The accessibility of the Speech@Emerson modality and this partnership will go a long way toward helping diversify the CSD field. 

The Marlboro Institute for the Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies enters its second year at Emerson. I’m pleased to report we have launched a new minor in Religion this fall, and we are offering eight new courses, including: Black and Postcolonial Feminisms (Interdisciplinary); Living in a Broken World (Religion); Life in the Universe (Science); Who Lives, Who Dies, Why? (Sociology); and Urban Sociology (Sociology). 

We welcomed 155 students to Emerson Los Angeles this fall. Spring enrollment will return to a more normal enrollment level, with 195 students expected.

The first cohort of students enrolled in the Emerson Prison Initiative is on track for a Summer 2022 graduation. A second cohort of students began classes this September. 

The School of the Arts continues to realize important accomplishments in academic excellence, innovation, civic action, global engagement, fundraising, diversity, accessibility, equity, and inclusion across its many departments and programs. 

Of note is a significant three-year grant of $213,000 awarded from the Davis Foundation in order to expand our Partnered Studio Course initiative. Additionally, last year’s renewed partnership with the Institutional Advancement division helped the School of the Arts achieve its highest fundraising totals in 15 years, securing $1.159M in cash gifts and $1.791M in pledged commitments. 


After two consecutive academic semesters without students at the Castle, student matriculation resumed at Kasteel Well with 62 students this semester and another 84 confirmed for the spring semester. Students traveled in late October to Palermo, Italy, their second academic excursion—a unique feature of our program at Kasteel Well. 

I am pleased to report that, after two summers without summer education abroad, planning is underway to run select Global Pathway Programs for Summer 2022. It is likely that 12–14 (of 30) Emerson Global Pathway Programs will be up and running next summer. 

Unlike other institutions that were forced to shrink their global operations during the pandemic, Emerson strengthened and built on its global partnerships. For example:  

  • Argentina: Emerson signed a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in June with the Universidad Argentina de la Empresa (UADE) to establish a joint degree program and establish bidirectional student exchanges. The first cohort of UADE students will arrive at Emerson for the upcoming spring semester. 
  • France: The Global BFA in Film Art degree program welcomed its third cohort of new students this past summer, and planning is underway for the 2022 commencement exercises for the inaugural Global BFA class. 
  • Spain: Emerson faculty and administrators recently collaborated with institutional partner Blanquerna-Universitat Ramon Llull (Barcelona), in all aspects of the coordination and planning of the 7th Annual Blanquerna-Emerson Global Summit, offered as both a virtual and in-person event. A small delegation of faculty and administrators traveled to Barcelona to present papers and represent the College. Emerson undergraduate students are also matriculating this fall at Blanquerna, while another cohort of Emersonians began their graduate studies at Blanquerna’s School of Communication and International Relations this fall. 

Commitment to Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion 

One of the most significant initiatives, which must continue to move forward, is the College’s commitment to making Emerson a more equitable institution of higher learning. 

This past summer, when Sylvia Spears, vice president for equity and social justice, announced she would be leaving Emerson, we planned to hold off on the search—so that the new president could make that critical hire—and appointed Ruthanne Madsen, vice president for enrollment, to oversee the division in the interim. However, when it became clear that the presidential search needed more time, we decided to take initial steps in the search for a new VP, as it is not appropriate to leave such an important role without a full-time leader. 

Justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion remain top priorities for all of us at Emerson and I am pleased to report we are making progress on several related initiatives. 

We have recently hired a consultancy group, Beyond Racial Equity, who has specific expertise in areas of anti-racism, anti-oppression, and equity in higher education. They are currently conducting an analysis and review of College materials, including strategic planning documents, climate surveys, published statements from student organizations, and College policies and communications related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. They have engaged in interviews and focus groups in the month of November and are planning additional activities including holding strategic action planning sessions and launching an interactive decision-making platform. It is expected that Beyond Racial Equity’s final findings report and recommendations will be submitted in early March.  

The College has launched the Emerson Circle of Creative Scholars, a new scholarship program designed to support historically marginalized students throughout their entire Emerson experience. This program will provide scholarships, mentorship, and a network of holistic support to Emerson Circle Creative Scholars from the time of admission through graduation and beyond. The Emerson Circle of Creative Scholars program launches in Fall 2022 with full four-year scholarships awarded to 10 incoming first-year students. Incoming transfer students who hold associate degrees will also be eligible to receive enhanced financial support; five scholarships will be awarded to qualifying transfer students. 

Emerson has created a new unit within the existing Office of Student Success focused on Student Success, Access, and Belonging, which will guide the development of students from historically marginalized backgrounds; support their personal, social, and academic goals, retention and persistence; and improve the overall student experience. The area will support not only new students that enter into Emerson College, but current students as well. Our goal is to increase the quality of the Emerson experience for all students and encourage engagement and success in a myriad of ways. 

The College has increased financial aid to support the retention of students who find themselves in need of additional support while enrolled at Emerson. Coupled with the College’s commitment to increasing financial aid, we continue to depend on the support of the College’s donors and alumni. Thanks to their support and generosity, more than $2.7 million has been raised in the last year toward the College’s three-year, $10 million fundraising mini-campaign for student financial aid, including commitments for two full need-based scholarships for future students. 

Emerson has also launched The Deans’ Fellowships for Racial Equity, which will provide increased financial aid and enhanced opportunities for peer leadership, personal and professional development, as well as academic and career networking. Beginning this academic year, 17 student recipients of the fellowship, who were selected from across the School of the Arts, the School of Communication, and the Marlboro Institute for the Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies, will work closely with the Dean’s leadership team from each school, faculty, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) student groups, and others on campus to facilitate communication and actions that promote racial justice, equity, healing, and inclusion in each School’s academic environment. The fellowship provides an award of $3,000 per academic year. 

A cross-sectional, interdivisional working group that includes Enrollment, Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and the Social Justice Center has been formed and is charged with the goal of coordinating institutional support to improve learning, satisfaction, retention, and a sense of belonging for diverse students. This group will position the College to explore and implement strategic collaborative efforts that holistically address institutional gaps and attend to the articulated needs of student belonging. 

Personnel Updates 

This fall, Jan Roberts-Breslin, dean of graduate and professional studies at Emerson, accepted my invitation to serve in an interim role as the College’s provost and vice president for academic affairs beginning November 13. 

Provost Roberts-Breslin succeeds Michaele Whelan, who, as you know, accepted the presidency at Wheaton College and departed Emerson on November 12. Provost Roberts-Breslin is now serving in the interim position until a permanent provost is named. It is expected that a search for the permanent position will be launched in accordance with the Faculty Handbook when a new president of Emerson College takes office. 

As Emerson’s chief academic officer, Provost Roberts-Breslin will lead our domestic and international academic programs and oversee teaching, research, ongoing faculty searches and promotions, our upcoming accreditation, and participate in the College’s Community Equity Action Plan.  

Provost Roberts-Breslin, who holds the position of professor of visual and media arts, began serving as the interim head of Graduate and Professional Studies in 2014 and took the permanent role in 2017. She was the founding director of Emerson’s MFA in Film and Media Art program and has previously served as Faculty Assembly chair. She is a media artist whose experimental video work has won awards at international and domestic festivals, and  she is also the author of Making Media: Foundations of Sound and Image Production, 5th edition (2022) by Routledge Publishing. From 2014 to 2018 she was a summer visiting scholar at Communications University of China in Beijing. Prior to Emerson, she was an assistant professor of communication at Seton Hall University. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Video Production from Temple University.  

I am also pleased to announce that Kim McLarin, professor of creative writing and graduate program director of the MFA in Popular Fiction Writing and Publishing at Emerson, has accepted my invitation to serve in an interim role as the College’s dean of graduate and professional studies beginning January 1, 2022. Professor McLarin will succeed Jan Roberts-Breslin and it is expected that she will serve in the interim position until a permanent provost is named.

Professor McLarin holds the position of Professor of Creative Writing and has served as the Graduate Program Director of the MFA in Writing and Publishing Popular Fiction program since 2016. A critically acclaimed novelist, essayist, and playwright, she has been on the Emerson faculty since 2003. Prior to Emerson, she was a faculty member in the MFA program at Fairfield University and taught journalism at Northeastern University.

Professor McLarin is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, several essay collections, and the bibilomemoir James Baldwin’s Another Country: Bookmarked.  She is co-author of Growing Up X by Ilyasah Shabazz. Her latest essay collection, Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life, was published in January 2019. Her forthcoming collection, Countersteering, will be published in 2022. 

Her nonfiction work has appeared in the New England Review, The Sewanee Review, The Sun Magazine, The Root, Slate, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and many other publications. Her short fiction has appeared in Confrontation, Solstice, Callaloo, and other publications. She is a former staff writer for The Associated Press, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the New York Times. She holds a BA from Duke University and is a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy.

We welcome Ronee Penoi to the Emerson community. Penoi (Laguna Pueblo/Cherokee), the new director of artistic programming for ArtsEmerson, is a well-respected leader and producer in the American theater. She is ArtsEmerson’s third artistic leader, following founder Rob Orchard and Artistic Director David Dower.  

She brings to Emerson a track record of centering artists, artistic curiosity, and a commitment to racial justice and climate justice. Penoi has collaborated with 

ArtsEmerson for many years through her most recent role as producer at Octopus Theatricals, which collaborated to bring many boundary-pushing artists to ArtsEmerson audiences. She is a two-time ISPA (International Society of Performing Arts) Global 

Fellow and has been an APAP (Association of Performing Arts Professionals) Leadership Fellow and TCG (Theatre Communications Group) Rising Leader of Color. Penoi is a founding member of The Industry Standard Group (TISG), a commercial investment and producing organization with an intentional focus on increasing the presence of BIPOC investors and producers in the commercial producing field. 

In closing, let me say that it is the people who make Emerson the incredible place that it is. This was true when I began as a faculty member in the 1980s and it remains true today. The care and commitment of our faculty, staff, students, and alumni have long enabled Emerson to dream big and achieve those goals.  

It is my honor to serve Emerson—a place that has been my home for 37 years—and to work alongside the esteemed members of this community. 

William P. Gilligan 
Interim President  

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