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Meet Dr. Jay M. Bernhardt, Emerson’s Next President

man in grey suit stands in front of book case
Dr. Jay Bernhardt. Courtesy photo

On June 1, 2023, Dr. Jay Bernhardt will arrive on the 14th floor of Ansin to become Emerson’s 13th president. Bernhardt currently serves as Dean of the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, and a Professor of Communication Studies, as well as the founding director of the university’s Center for Health Communication. He’s an internationally recognized, award-winning leader and scholar of communication and marketing related to public health and health care, and a member of six honor societies.

But who is he beyond his CV?

To learn a little more about our next president, Emerson Today asked Bernhardt about his attraction to the College, his proudest accomplishments as dean, and whether he thought he could hack a Boston winter after seven years in Texas.

Emerson Today: Congratulations on your appointment as the 13th President of Emerson College. What is it about Emerson that attracted you to this opportunity?

Bernhardt: Thank you so much! I am incredibly honored and humbled to receive this opportunity from the Board of Trustees. Emerson College has been on my radar throughout my career because of its unique focus on communication and the arts, which I firmly believe are among the most important and impactful fields of study today. I also love that Emersonians are known for their innovation, creativity, and passion, which is a perfect fit for who I am and what I most value.

Emerson Today: Why are you so enthusiastic about communication and the arts?

Bernhardt: Many of the major problems facing humanity, including climate change, mis- and dis-information, social justice and equality, and threats to society and democracy, are all firmly rooted in the diverse issues of communication. Similarly, the arts are critical for advancing our society through creativity and storytelling. The arts are one of the only tools we possess to bring people and communities together at a time when many forces are tearing us apart. Add in Emerson’s liberal arts foundation, and you have all the key ingredients to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow and the better society that we all desire and deserve.

Emerson Today: You officially start on June 1. How do you plan to approach your first few months on the job?

Bernhardt: Let me start by expressing my appreciation to Bill Gilligan for his fantastic work as Interim President. Emerson has been very fortunate to have his steady and experienced hand on the wheel these past two years. I will use these next few months before I begin and the early months of my presidency to listen and learn as much as possible about all things Emerson. I plan to meet the Emerson community for the first time, in person, on January 25, and look forward to getting to know all aspects of the community and campus in the months ahead.

Emerson Today: What three words would you most associate with Emerson?

Bernhardt: As I mentioned earlier, Emersonians are incredibly innovative, creative, and passionate, so those three words definitely come to mind. I’m sure I’ll add many more words to the list as I meet more people and learn about the community.

Emerson Today: What are you most proud of from your time as dean of Moody College of Communication at UT Austin?

Bernhardt: I’ve been honored to serve as Dean of Moody College for the last seven years, and we accomplished many big things that make me proud, but I’m “most proud” of our significant accomplishments in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. By working together and strategically applying best practices in all areas of our work, we significantly increased diverse representation among our faculty and students and made our programs and culture much more inclusive and welcoming. We set ambitious goals, measured our progress, and demonstrated that positive change is possible when we work together toward our goals.

Emerson Today: You’ve studied and worked in New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. Are you ready for winters in Boston?

Bernhardt: I grew up in New Jersey (for those who know, at “Exit 9”), and I’m incredibly excited to move back to the Northeast and live in Boston, one of my favorite cities. I have family in the area and have always loved my visits. There is no better city than Boston to pursue higher education, and I’m thrilled to help Emerson grow its reach and impact throughout the city and beyond. I’m also excited to engage with Emerson’s vibrant programs in Los Angeles and the Netherlands, and its partnerships in many other countries. In short, I’m ready to trade my cowboy hat and boots for winter wear, and burnt orange for royal purple!  

Emerson Today: Serving as a dean, or a president, is a challenging and demanding job. How do you relax and unwind when you are not working?

Bernhardt: It is a tremendous honor and responsibility to be a dean, and even more so a president, and it is a responsibility and commitment that I do not take lightly. These positions require arduous work, long hours, and constant communication with leaders and stakeholders throughout the institution. Although the work burden can be high, so is the satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment when you make progress, and I love that feeling. I maintain my work/life balance by spending quality time with my wife Cassie and our four children from our blended family, who range in age from 13 to 23. I listen to lots of recorded and live music, with a primary interest in classic rock and the blues, and a particular fondness for the Grateful Dead. And I love all forms of media and the arts, including film, TV, theater, and all forms of creative expression. I’m so excited to have access to the arts through Emerson and, time permitting, plan to be a frequent guest at our many performances!

Read the official announcement.

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