In 1954, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, Robert Frost was asked what’s the most important thing he had learned during his lifetime. He responded: ”In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.”
It does, indeed, go on.
Emerson has been my academic home for more than 38 years. And in that time, Emerson has not only gone on, it has gone beyond what anyone could have dreamed. The College has grown and improved by every measure: the strength and depth of the faculty, the breadth and relevance of our curriculum, the quality and diversity of the student body, the currency and utility of our facilities and technology, and the focus, stability, and resilience of our institution.
The progress we’ve made is evident: in our community of creative scholars; in the bold initiatives we’ve undertaken; in the global reach of our curriculum and programs; and in the continued– and increased– demand for an Emerson education.
The College continues to be recognized for this progress, most recently by US News and World Report, who ranked us #7 in its Best Regional Universities (North), moving up one spot from last year. It marked the seventh consecutive year in which Emerson has made the Top 10. Within that same division, the College was named seventh Most Innovative School (in a four-way tie), tied for #10 in Best Undergraduate Teaching, and made it into the top 10 schools with the most international students. And, this past summer, Emerson once again was ranked #6 on The Hollywood Reporter’s list of Best Film Schools and #7 by The Wrap.
As the end of the semester draws near, I have been reflecting on how good it feels to be back to normal – this semester is the most “normal” one we’ve had in years. All of our campuses are open– in Boston, Los Angeles, and at the Castle. Our theaters are open and our sports teams are playing normal schedules. In fact, earlier this fall I joined our women’s basketball team for a reception to celebrate a fantastic achievement last year: the highest team GPA in all of the NCAA (3.84), including Divisions I, II and III. And I was so proud to help send off our Women’s Soccer team to its first ever NCAA Division 3 tournament game in November.
Most importantly, classes are back in person.
The demand for an Emerson education is stronger than ever. We received more than 12,100 applications for Fall 2022 (up 5% over Fall 2021), including 326 applications for our Global BFA in Film Art program, which is only in its fourth year (up 50 from last year). Our acceptance rate was 42.7% this year (down from 45.3% last year), and we welcomed 1,012 new first-time students to campus this fall, including 32 Global BFA students. Likewise, graduate student enrollment is strong, with 554 students, including 178 in our Speech@Emerson program, a program that enrolls three classes per year. This successful enrollment cycle has contributed to a record 4,161 undergraduate students enrolled at Emerson this fall, compared to last fall’s previous record of 4,133.
Our first-year class is an impressive group of creative, diverse, spirited, independent, socially-minded students. Approximately 28% of the Class of 2026 identifies as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and nearly 16% are international students, making for the most racially diverse first year class we’ve ever had. For comparison purposes, in Fall 2016, 23% of the first year class identified as domestic BIPOC and 8% were international students. The class has a very strong academic profile with an average high school GPA of 3.73 (compared to 3.67 last fall) and average combined SAT verbal and math score of 1360. In this class, 17% are the first in their families to attend college and 14% are Pell Grant recipients. Also, this year we successfully launched the Emerson Circle of Creative Scholars with 10 new first time students receiving a full scholarship and 10 transfer students receiving $40,000 scholarships.
Our Academic Enterprise
The heart of our College continues to be our strong academic enterprise. Even in this period of transition, we continue to move the College forward in a number of academic areas. Beginning next fall, we will be offering two new multidisciplinary, one-of-a-kind majors: Media Psychology and Health and Social Change. Additionally, we are launching a new minor in Social Impact Design, in which students will apply skills they’ve learned in the arts and communication to tackle critical social justice issues. These new majors and the minor are aligned with emerging needs for the 21st century, with an Emersonian twist, of course.
We have embarked on a Future of Emerson initiative that will be consequential for our College going forward. I have charged five committees–comprising faculty, staff, and administrators–to research and make recommendations to the new President in five areas: the Future of the Classroom, External Growth, Academic Structure, Enhancing Student Experience, and Physical Plant. Committees have begun meeting and will do so through the academic year, ultimately creating a multi-year strategy to identify opportunities, innovations, and improvements to Emerson’s academic programs and student learning experience. Informed by the College’s values and strengths, this future-oriented strategy will develop ideas to engage existing stakeholders and expand to new audiences. This whole-College approach will incorporate outcomes of implementation concerns, resource requirements, and current experiments. This process will provide Emerson’s next president with a series of financially viable initiatives that sustainably improve and expand the academic enterprise.
Our progress also is evident in the external funding we received last year, which was one of the College’s most successful grant-seeking cycles. During FY22, Emerson was awarded $2.4 million in external grants for research projects and initiatives. While some of this is attributable to government funding aimed at helping institutions recover from the damages wrought by COVID-19, non-pandemic revenue has continued on an upward trend for the past several years. In addition to awards received for faculty work, the College received $1.76 million in funding from National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Boston Cultural Council, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for use by the Office of the Arts, Ploughshares, and WERS.
Finance and Administration
Emerson continues to be in a strong financial position, even as we continue to address the COVID pandemic. For the current year (FY23), we are slightly ahead of our budget goals and we continue to attract students at record-levels of new first time enrollment, as mentioned above. When combined with transfer students, our enrollment levels are very strong. With the increased fall enrollment is an increase in financial aid, significantly higher than the previous year, and supporting students with tuition-funded aid while we continue our multi-year campaign to attract donor funding for additional support. Our current fiscal year budget was strengthened by a final award of government COVID relief funds which will provide about $3M this year, offsetting some of the incremental costs we have borne due to COVID.
Despite the steep market losses this year and a decline in our endowment investments, our FY22 financials yielded strong operating results. Sound financial controls, fiscal discipline and judicious investments have helped keep Emerson on solid financial footing.
Emerson continues to be a highly tuition-dependent institution and plans accordingly with regard to enrollment, residency, and investment in financial aid. We continue to work on areas of revenue diversification, even in small ways. For example, investment in Emerson Polling during this year’s midterm election cycle has yielded and improved the College’s revenue outlook, brand awareness, and market pickup. Additional funding for the Engagement Lab has been provided to promote expanded research and funding opportunities.
In December, the College and the SEIU (staff) union reached a collective bargaining agreement that includes wage and benefit enhancement for Union staff. The College continues collective bargaining negotiations with the ACOPS (police) union and we are optimistic about reaching a mutually-agreeable contract.
Equity, Access, and Social Justice
We are focused on working to infuse our values of equity, access, and social justice across the College. With the arrival of Shaya Gregory Poku, vice president for social justice and equity, and following review of the comprehensive report and recommendations delivered from consultants Beyond Racial Equity (BRE) in October, we are moving forward. We are committed to addressing seven key priority areas that the College identified for immediate action following the BRE report over the next 2-3 years and look forward to sharing our progress in this area.
Internationalization & Equity
The Office of Internationalization & Equity continues the important work of supporting Emerson’s international student population. Our international students hail from 69 countries this year.
The College’s signature internationalization initiatives continue to thrive: 170 students participated in 14 Global Pathways programs across 12 countries in Summer 2022. This coming winter, students will be able to participate in winter break Global Pathways in Australia and Chile for the first time since 2019. Our exchange programs are likewise successful and Emerson welcomed its first exchange student from our newest partner, Universidad Argentina de la Empresa (UADE) this fall and will welcome another student in the spring. We have received a record number of applications for our outbound exchange programs in Paris (Paris College of Art), Barcelona (Blanquerna), and Lugano (Franklin) for Spring 2023 and also anticipate reopening our Hong Kong exchange programs in the near future.
International Education Week concluded recently, marking the first large-scale giving campaign for three newly created funds that support global efforts (Internationalization & Equity Fund, Education Abroad Assistance Fund, International Student Assistance Fund). This past summer, the College received a six-figure gift– the first major gift toward the Internationalization & Equity Fund– by a generous parent.
Our Community, Moving Forward
During times of transition, it is natural for staff and administrators to leave for new jobs elsewhere. This has been true at all levels at Emerson, and I know many in our community are feeling the impact of those vacancies, which, while higher than normal, are consistent with the local and national economies and employment trends in higher education. We have worked to reduce delays inherent in the hiring process, to provide support for retention strategies, recently shared compensation increases, and are preparing to announce structural changes to our compensation philosophy, resulting from our market study over the past year.
I also feel incredibly fortunate that a number of people across the College have stepped up to take on additional responsibilities during this transition, ensuring that Emerson continues to move forward.
Indeed, it is the people– the caring, compassionate, and creative members of our community– who make Emerson what it is today and what we dream it can be in the future. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this community as interim president– it’s been the honor of a lifetime– and I look forward to our work together in the months ahead.
William P. Gilligan