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A Letter to the Community from President Bernhardt

Dear Emerson Community,

As we approach the final days of the academic year, I’d like to share my reflections from last Monday’s Town Hall and some important lessons from my first year at Emerson.

Town Halls provide a forum to engage in dialogue and publicly share perspectives, which can help move toward collective healing. I respect the organizers’ efforts, the activism of the Pro-Palestine protestors who shared their experiences, and the courage of others who spoke. As I listened to the 100-plus stories, passions ran high, and I could feel the pain expressed by those arrested, those who cared for them, and those who were adversely affected by the encampment. To move the College forward toward healing and unity, we all must play a role in creating civil and open dialogue within and across our community.

The Town Hall also surfaced painful stories by both Jewish and Palestinian members of our community, experiences that are inconsistent with our values. We must all commit to ensuring that Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and hate in all its forms have no place at Emerson. We will continue to take the actions required to put this unyielding commitment into practice. 

I certainly heard and now better understand the pain these recent experiences have caused our community. I deeply regret that despite our best efforts, our students’ activism resulted in police action over their encampment, especially in the heartbreaking way it occurred. I sincerely appreciate and am concerned for the professional staff who supported students on-site and the distress they experienced as witnesses.

In recent weeks, the College administration and I have worked hard to balance our genuine support for student civic activism with our commitment to safety on our urban campus, which spills into public spaces. While we have tried our best, we have also made mistakes in our actions and communications. As president, I commit to learning from this experience and growing as a leader and a person.

The Town Hall revealed the divisions present within our community and the urgent need for us to come together despite different perspectives. Our campus has been through a traumatic experience, and recovering from trauma takes time and effort. At this moment, we must ask ourselves if the shared values that bind us together as Emersonians are more powerful than the forces that threaten to pull us apart. I firmly believe we are better together.

In my short time here, I’ve seen that all Emersonians profoundly believe in the transformational power of the arts, communication, creativity, and dialogue to advance society and improve the world. We all celebrate the power of finding and raising one’s voice, whether it be through monologue, speech, song, or protest.  In these shared beliefs lies the foundation for our healing.

Going forward, we will partner much more closely with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and parents to understand how to use these difficult lessons to foster learning for all. Although Emerson College will not officially take a side in the war in the Middle East, we can find common ground in declaring that the safety and well-being of all people must be respected and protected, whether in the Middle East or on our campuses. As an individual, I join our community in grieving the tremendous loss of life and the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, mourning the tragic loss of life in Israel, and wishing freedom for all hostages. I pray for safety and peace for all in Palestine and Israel.

More practically, as it relates to common ground, we identified specific demands from the protestors where our priorities largely aligned, including (1) fully committing to work in equity, access, and social justice, (2) reviewing the circumstances of the March 22nd arrests, (3) increasing financial transparency, and (4) elevating student, staff, and faculty voices. Regarding financial divestment, the Board of Trustees has considered this request and may continue to do so further in the future.

Our response to the protestors’ demands reflected our desire for respectful engagement, emphasizing unity over divisions and focusing on proactive and thoughtful actions. We will work with faculty, staff, and students to develop new ideas about improving our communication, policies, training, protest response, and more. We recognize the importance of immediately addressing alleged bias incidents and will establish a campus bias rapid response team. We will further integrate civic activism, free speech, and public discourse and dialogue into our academic and informal programming.

On a personal level, I recognize how important it is to develop stronger relationships with the campus community. I am eager to meet more frequently with our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and parents and invite your additional suggestions for engaging more closely. I am committed to rebuilding and growing these relationships, which are the basis for restoring mutual trust. As a campus community, we will also explore constructive ideas to restore community, such as regular town halls, small group meetings, leadership office hours, and other ways to actively listen and engage.

Although our divisions feel deep and our challenges seem vast, I remain optimistic that we have much in common. Please join me in coming together to help rebuild our community and strengthen our shared culture.

Emerson is unique, creative, and strong, and I am proud to be an Emersonian.

Respectfully yours,

Jay Bernhardt

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