Inaugural Address

September 14, 2012
Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts

As prepared for delivery

Thank you. I would like to acknowledge Board President Jeff Greenhawt, Presidents emeriti Jackie Liebergott and Richard Chapin, the Emerson College Board of Trustees, Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor Tom Menino (who was with us this morning), other elected officials, Ron Crutcher, and our speaker Andy Delbanco. I also extend greetings to the Emerson College community, and our friends and family.

It is with great pleasure and humility that I accept this appointment as the 12th president of Emerson College. 

The great news of this week is not our gathering here, but rather that our great and mighty Quidditch team received its permit to play again on the Boston Common. So, go forward, our brave chasers, beaters, keepers, and seekers; go forth on your sturdy broomsticks in pursuit of your quaffles, bludgers, and snitches, and claim victory and glory for ECQ!

No doubt, there are those among you who may be thinking or, perhaps, even whispering to the person next to you, “Well, it’s certainly about time. What took him so long? Didn’t he become president a year ago?”

Yes, I did; so let me provide a bit of context that may persuade you to greater charity. First, I wanted to speak to you as your president when I had something of meaning and purpose to say, rather than subject you to the platitudes that you would have most likely endured, say, nine months ago, when I had been on the job for only a short time. Second, this is after all Emerson College, where we place great value on marching to the beat of our own creative genius—happy, even obliged, to break free from the tyranny of tradition.

It is so good to be back in Boston—a wonderful city, my intellectual home—back, after a too-long absence, reunited with those whose bonds of friendship not even the length of almost four decades of winters and summers could sever.

On this occasion, I am reminded of Wordsworth’s lovely poem of redemptive beauty when the poet, with his sister at his side, reflects on the years that have passed since they last gazed on Tintern Abbey, then again lying before them in the valley below:

Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration…

Recently, we marked the death of Allen Koenig, president of Emerson from 1979 until 1989. His achievements were notable. It was during his tenure we came to understand that our excellence, in large part, was dependent on the vigorous interplay between the city, what we teach and how we teach it, between the College’s spirited students, talented faculty and the vibrancy of the city itself.

Today, as then, Emerson animates Boston just as we, in turn, are animated by it. Emerson is a place of light, liberty, and beauty.[1] So, too, is Boston.

Just as the life sciences and technology continually nourish Boston’s vitality, so, too, do culture and the arts. Pausing from our daily routines, we are uplifted, ennobled, and renewed by our engagement with art and music and dance and theatre and poetry and performance so beguiling and splendid, we are made more human (and humane), never to be the same again. In turn, our endeavors are fed and inspired by the power and eloquence of communication, giving voice to our lives, aspirations, and stories.

Culture and the arts create a miracle of sorts, which we have already seen taking place in Boston’s downtown and which we will see again in the much-anticipated new academic center in Los Angeles. It is a miracle in which Emerson has played a central role, just as the city, our partner, helped the College when it resettled in a neighborhood then known more for its grittiness than its gracious cultural attributes.

The creative impulse inspires and adds texture to our living. It has the capacity to transform neighborhoods and stimulate economic development with astonishing power and results.

From its beginnings, the history of Emerson reflects a College that embraces change and innovation. It’s as if there is something in Emerson’s metabolism to change and evolve and then to change and evolve again. The inspired leadership of Jackie Liebergott is a good example of this. Jackie, will you please rise so we can acknowledge your many achievements while at Emerson?

As a new chapter in Emerson’s impressive history begins today, it lies with all of us to answer our generation’s call to set about working where we can, with fresh eyes, to renew Emerson’s capacity for wonder and learning. Together, we will add distinction and brilliance to an already wonderful College, inspired by the endless possibilities of what lies ahead.

Our vision of Emerson’s future is simple, compelling, and aspirational: to establish Emerson College as the world’s leading institution of higher education in the arts and communication. This goal might seem presumptuous, if history were not on our side. For Emerson’s history instructs us that when this College meets its challenges head-on with vision, courage, and integrity, it will flourish beyond measure.

We begin this important work today, at this hour and in this place, with a sense of urgency about what it is we need to do and with confidence in our ability to get it done. 

To establish Emerson as the world’s leading institution of higher education in the arts and communication, to move from excellent to extraordinary, we will commit ourselves to five measures, rooted in the needs and realities of the 21st century. These are:

To raise even further the bar of academic excellence; to innovate; to extend our reach globally; to engage and assist the communities around us; and to ensure sound financial stewardship of these goals at the heart of our mission.

These measures are authentic, deeply vested in what we value: engaged student learning; teaching excellence; research and creative expression that strengthen instruction; innovation; the exemplary and thoughtful use of technology; diversity of thought and people; ethical engagement; moral courage; and active, meaningful interaction with local, national, and global communities.

Our vision evolves organically from the Strategic Plan adopted by the Board of Trustees shortly before my arrival. It is a way forward that simply builds on and expands this collective vision.

Excellence is aspirational. It is not about being, but about becoming, much like Tennyson’s Ulysses, “strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” 

This is the Emerson that I know, the Emerson that history reveals.  

Excellence is also strategic and focused, not diffuse. It demands choices. It means not doing some things so you can put your resources, talent, and energy in that which really matters, in that which has the best chance of compelling transformation and change.

Among the many assets that support our future hopes, perhaps none is more important than the distinctive interplay of the arts, communication, and liberal arts in our curriculum. There is nothing quite like it in higher education. It creates an identity and purpose that sets Emerson apart from its peers.

We are not a conservatory; nor are we a liberal arts college in the traditional sense. We have taken aspects from both and created something entirely new. So, while some liberal arts colleges struggle for relevance and some conservatories struggle for academic breadth, we draw strength and distinction from the integration of both.

When we consider our five commitments, academic excellence is the strategic goal around which all of the others revolve. If we devote our full attention to academic excellence, we will have the best chance of powerfully transforming the College by providing our faculty with the resources they need to do their work well and strengthen our student’s educational experience.

To advance academic excellence, I will request the Board of Trustees to approve a plan to add at least 40 new full-time faculty, over the course of the next five years, beginning in the next academic year. Increasing the full-time faculty by almost 25 percent will enhance new academic programs and support curricular innovation and distinction.  We will need to identify new faculty space and maintain our current and favorable student–faculty ratio.

In doing so, we must also continue to recognize the critical and key contributions of term and adjunct faculty by giving them more agency in the College’s future.

The faculty understands and believes that the extraordinary excellence of our departmental disciplines is enriched when they are in league with the liberal arts. Liberal learning has an essential role in our idea of what it means for our students to be truly educated. And, of course, in some of our departments there is considerable, if not complete congruence between the specialized disciplines and liberal arts.

To achieve a fuller integration of liberal learning and the departments, I will ask the faculty to consider a proposal to replace the Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies with a new academic structure—as yet unnamed—that might serve as the core home for faculty who teach primarily or exclusively in the liberal arts. It is vital to have a space where these faculty are able to join together to coordinate programs, develop curriculum, and share best practices. The new structure might include some new appointments that are joint between departments and the liberal arts as well as offer tenurable positions for faculty who teach exclusively in this new setting. The goal of this process, whatever the specifics of the structure that we ultimately develop, will be to make clear that interdisciplinary studies are not the province of a dedicated few, but rather a common good to be encouraged, represented, and supported with institutional resources in all departments and across the entire curriculum.

To be truly successful, the new structure must not create new barriers, but rather remove old barriers that frustrate curricular coherence and integrity.

To further reinvigorate interdisciplinarity and intellectual engagement as well as increase opportunities for research and creative expression—for both faculty and students—I will ask the faculty to identify and recommend the creation of Academic Centers. This initiative will bring together faculty from across the College to Centers in which they share a scholarly interest. For example, a Center on Global Issues might bring together faculty studying global protests or political communication in China. A New Media Center might bring together faculty who are engaged in related new media fields, including, for example, gaming, social media, and interactive online video.

Faculty associated with the Centers may collaborate on grants and teaching practices. The Centers will provide intellectual and physical space where faculty and students can consult both inside and outside the College, bringing Emerson to the world and the world to Emerson.

I also challenge our community to shape and define the future of one of the fields for which we are especially well known: communication. Emerson has been a pioneer and leader in the fields of communication in the past and we are doing excellent work today. But what of tomorrow?

We live in an age of unrelenting, remarkable change, especially in how we access information and communicate with one another. New technologies emerge each year, profoundly changing human interaction, not always for the better. And, as we have seen recently, social media technologies, in the right hands, can empower communities to unite and topple oppressive governments.

Convergence, disintermediation, and asynchronicity characterize this new world. Multiple media platforms create, store, and distribute content across convergent forms of text, audio, images, animation, and video. Technology continues to ease access to content, products, and services unmediated by supply chains that to this generation of young people must seem quaint, even ancient. Twenty-first century technology continues to obliterate time and space, giving us the capacity to communicate and access content almost instantaneously.

We have witnessed other significant communication shifts in world history before. Much like the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, the current revolution seems tectonic, unprecedented in the scope and the speed with which it has effected change. While these technologies present both opportunities and challenges, at the heart of our curriculum in the School of Communication is the message.

There has never been a more important time to study human communication in all of its forms. Beneath the glitter of dazzling changes remains the essential human need for personal relationships. From speech therapy to journalism, from marketing campaigns to politics to health communication, experts will shape the future.

To keep our contributions to the field of communication on the cutting edge and to position Emerson to lead in this rapidly changing field, I will ask the School of Communication faculty and its interim dean to conduct a review of the School to ensure that its curriculum and departments serve the future well and provide our graduates with the capacity to lead in the face of change and act responsibly in an increasingly complex world.

Our second commitment is to advance innovation. For more than a decade, Emerson has promised that we “[bring] innovation to communication and the arts.”

To live up to that promise, we will establish an Office of Enterprise Development and Innovation whose purpose will be to reduce our heavy dependence on tuition through new sources of revenue, better leverage our existing resources, and create new innovative programs that add value to our core mission. 

We will also establish a creative laboratory to develop new works and new products. The lab will provide funding, resource support, advising, and space for faculty and students to develop and advance their good ideas and will complement our already highly successful Emerson Experience in Entrepreneurship program.  Participants will be selected on a competitive basis by a committee of faculty, students, and professionals.

The time also has arrived for Emerson to explore thoughtfully how we might use online instructional technology to our advantage, while ensuring that we maintain the highest standards of academic excellence and individualized attention that have characterized our student–centered learning environment.   

Since the end of World War II, institutions such as ours—for very good pedagogic and mission-critical reasons—have resisted wholesale changes to how we deliver instruction and build learning communities.

However, as a smart French philosopher once said, “The future is not what it used to be.” 

Today, it is undeniable that higher education has reached a tipping point in online instruction. EdX, the high–profile online partnership involving Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley, is a game changer. It has already begun to influence how higher education thinks about online instruction. It will quicken the adoption of online instruction in all sectors of higher education.

Emerson has already established eight online courses, three of which are credit bearing. Now is the time for us to consider expanding our current offerings, especially those designed principally for non-matriculated learners.

I am pleased to announce that recently we have had initial discussions with Berklee College of Music to create an online instructional partnership. Berklee established its online program 10 years ago. It currently offers more than 130 courses in music production, business and theory, as well as song writing, arranging, and voice. More than 10,000 students enrolled in Berklee online courses last year. 

An Emerson–Berklee technology partnership would extend the reach of Emerson’s educational excellence to a global audience with an educational partner who shares our values and has already achieved notable success in this area. Emerson and Berklee are both distinctive institutions with great futures, and I believe that our partnership—one of many that I can imagine, including, for example, a global partnership—can be synergistically powerful, providing each of us with advantages that we might not reasonably be able to achieve on our own.

The Emerson–Berklee partnership, which could do for the humanities, in the arts, communication, and music disciplines, what edX has done for online education in science, technology, engineering, and math, will be financially sustainable and financially beneficial, as well.

Of course, our initial discussions cannot go further without the benefit of significant faculty involvement—a process that I will begin as soon as possible. 

Our third commitment is to benefit the global society. We will establish an Office of Internationalization and Global Engagement to support faculty and research exchanges and program partnerships with universities abroad. We will establish, where it makes sense, joint- and dual-degree programs. We will begin our global efforts with a focus on Asia and Europe.

In doing so, we will do much more than expand our study abroad program, which we have already begun to do. This will require a commitment to provide our students with deeper and more robust language education and opportunities to engage with countries and cultures in languages other than English.

Our graduates—wherever they live, work, or study—will encounter the increasing diversity of the United States. They will encounter how a new “globalism” has changed our relationships with neighbors that once seemed so far away and so abstract; and how this new proximity and interdependency changes the way we think about education, commerce, and society.

That’s why it is so important for our graduates to leave Emerson with confidence and competencies in intercultural exchange in an increasingly interconnected world.

Our fourth commitment is to advance civic engagement and responsibility. Our nation looks to colleges and universities to help solve society’s most pressing problems. Just as we ask our students to share their talents and resources with those who have not had the good fortune to participate in the bounty of life, so, too, must Emerson College. Just as we ask students to live a life of no regrets and where they see wrong, to right; where they see hurt, to soothe; and where they see a broken heart, to mend it, so, too, must Emerson College.[2]

To further Emerson’s commitment to civic engagement, I am very pleased to announce the establishment of the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement and Learning.

Elma Lewis, born in Roxbury, worked her way through Emerson College, graduating in 1943. Seven years after she graduated she founded the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts (1950) and the National Center of Afro-American Artists. She was one of the first women to receive a MacArthur Genius Award; she was awarded the National Medal for the Arts in 1983. Though Boston was her home, she became known nationally as a leading advocate for the arts, introducing generations of diverse young people to dance, opera, and theatre. She understood the power of the arts and culture to help young people to imagine the possibilities of a better life.

I did not know her when I lived in Boston. But I knew of her marvelous influence on society, especially on young people who were struggling to find their way in life.

The Center will bring existing Emerson College civic engagement programs under a single administrative structure and support the development of new Emerson College–community partnerships that serve the common good.

We especially commit to work with urban schools to address common problems and to enhance the quality of life for the citizens of our local and extended communities. We have already begun discussions to create partnerships with Cristo Rey High School in Dorchester and East Boston High School: to assist Cristo Rey in improving the communication skills of its students and to establish a four-year college preparatory program for East Boston students.

For we believe that it is our duty to ensure that the path to leadership is made visible and open to all, not just a privileged few.

Finally, our fifth commitment to our future is to create a strong financial environment that enables us to sustain and advance Emerson’s mission. Our vision, From Excellent to Extraordinary, will serve as the template for a comprehensive fundraising campaign, which we will begin to plan this year. The campaign will focus on increasing our endowment by 50 percent over the next decade through gifts for student scholarships, endowed chairs and professorships, and other programs essential to our growth and development. In the meantime, we have pressing technology and infrastructure needs that we must address. 

This year, we will begin to work with architectural and urban planners, Trustees, faculty, staff, and students to establish a more coherent long-term plan for our campus. We will seek to create a sense of place that is aligned with our vision of Emerson. 

Today is a call to action and the beginning of a conversation, recognizing the vital role that debate and discussion play in an academic setting. Yet, we must acknowledge the urgency with which we are compelled to begin our task, though it will take time, resources, and planning.

I will soon distribute to the faculty, students, staff, and broader community a more detailed document, outlining where we are headed and how we plan to get there.

Of course, there are plenty of other good and necessary ideas for us to pursue: continue to enhance our faculty research and creative expression profile; strengthen our Graduate and Professional Studies programs; establish partnerships with community colleges that attract students from diverse backgrounds. Our sustainability initiatives need more resources. We must redouble our commitment to diversity and inclusion. We must continue to make good progress on the development of the new Los Angeles Center. The library needs more space. We must move forward to plan new dining spaces for faculty, staff, and students.

Students may be wondering: Where are we in the president’s vision? The answer is that this is all about you. When we strengthen the faculty, we strengthen your educational experiences and the value of your degree. Whether you are in a small department, like Communication Sciences and Disorders or a very large department like Visual and Media Arts; whether you are in front of the camera or behind it; whether you write poetry or develop marketing strategies, this is all about you.

I came to Emerson with a single idea: to make sure that Emerson provided you with the best that is thought and known in the world, with intellectual stimulation, diversity of disciplines, wonderful resources, great faculty and staff to both challenge and delight you. But more than that, I was anxious that within the warm embrace of our commonwealth of learning you would begin that bewildering process of learning how to live and how to be a good global citizen.

When I think of Emerson College, I think of Alyse Nelson ’97 (BS, Political Communication), now president and chief executive officer of Vital Voices Global Partnership, which works with women leaders to develop training programs and international forums in more than 140 countries. I think of Jennifer Howell ’96 (BS, Film), who founded a Los Angeles–based nonprofit organization The Art of Elysium, which brings actors, writers, musicians, comedians, filmmakers, and other artists to hospitals to give young critically ill patients hope and purpose. I think of Kevin Bright ’76, whom you know as the acclaimed producer of the highly successful television series, Friends, but whom I know as the person who donates his time and resources to the Perkins School for the Blind to teach—miraculously—young blind boys and girls to shoot and edit their own films.

For you see, the Emerson narrative—at its core—is deeply American, a proxy for the ideas and hopes about the unfolding future of an increasingly diverse United States—the common enterprise of many divergent peoples and perspectives, acting together in shared interests—the democratic vista that Walt Whitman, when evoking the opening lines of the epic heroic poems of Virgil and Homer, said in his own prose poem, Leaves of Grass:

            I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear

This is the Emerson—in this great city—that I know and love. It is these varied carols that compel me to rise early and go to bed late nearly every day.

To the students—my students, our students—I wish, more than anything else, for you to make your own carols when you graduate, that you will make your own music: soul-awakening, foot-stomping, life-affirming, joyful music wherever you live, work, or play. If you do, I promise you that the world will hear you, and having heard you, will be a better place for it.

I am proud to be the 12th president of this commonwealth of learning, proud to work with a community, so that we, together, with mutual purpose and mutual aid, will write the next great chapter in Emerson’s history.

Thank you and good cheer.

[1]See “A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.” Benjamin Disraeli

[2]See Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for Robert Kennedy, “My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”