State of the College

November 2013

A year ago, we launched an ambitious strategic plan, many of whose initiatives have already been implemented or are in the process of implementation. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) re-accreditation visiting team wrote in its July 2013 report:

Emerson is a college on the move with a lot of plans, pivoting from an emphasis on physical planning to programs and people. A new President has infused enormous energy into the institution and many institutional practices and policies are being rethought. The visiting team was impressed by the boldness of Emerson’s vision, first in moving the campus and now in its ambitions to be an outstanding school that combines professional training with a liberal arts foundation… The visiting team uniformly expressed great optimism about Emerson’s future… The trajectory of progress is very clear.

The College’s fiscal health is robust and sound. We ended FY ’12 and FY ’13 with operating surpluses of $4.6M and $3.6M, respectively. In addition to funding commitments to facilities from the operating budget, the College set aside $6M for capital reserves in FY ’12 and FY’13, respectively, as well as budgeted capital reserves for already committed facility projects of $7.9 in FY ’14. Emerson’s FY ’12 and ’13 tuition, room, board and fees charges make the College the most affordable institution of higher learning in our historical peer group: Boston University, Ithaca College, New York University and Syracuse. In order to maintain the College’s commitment to enrolling students from diverse social and economic backgrounds, financial aid increased from FY ’12 to FY ’13 by 5.2% ($29.2M to $30.7M)

Despite the College’s fiscal strength and strong balance sheet, there are challenges and pressures on College operations:

  • Emerson remains heavily tuition dependent.
  • More than nine out of ten dollars in our financial aid budget are funded by annual operating revenues.
  • Emerson’s endowment remains small, despite steady growth in its value.
  • Fund-raising has not historically been a high priority.
  • Emerson’s commitment to capital needs is significant.

As we develop plans for a comprehensive fundraising campaign, much of our focus will be on raising endowed funds to reduce our dependency on tuition for revenues, while increasing financial aid in order to continue to enroll socio-economically diverse students, while shifting over time financial aid funding from operations to endowed scholarships. We will also need to raise significant dollars for facilities, beginning immediately with a $20 million campaign to offset funds already spent on the Emerson Los Angeles Center. Success in these areas will allow the College to continue to keep an Emerson education affordable, maintain our commitment to economic, geographic and ethnic diversity in the student population and free up more operating revenue for our strategic initiatives.

The immediate facilities’ challenge before us is to remediate the Little Building, whose façade continues to deteriorate, albeit at a very slow pace. This is both an expensive and complicated undertaking for which we continue to seek solutions that are least disruptive to our undergraduates at a cost that we can afford.

Little Building projected repair costs, capital related commitments, (including debt service, Emerson Los Angeles Center capital reserves and Little Building mitigation), a planned increase in the percentage of full-time faculty as well as investments in our strategic plan and other program priorities will put significant downward pressure on our operating budgets going forward, which, in turn, will require us to make difficult strategic choices from among a group of competing and compelling good ideas.

The good news, of course, is that our commonwealth of learning is not static, but is ever evolving. Investments that we are unable to make today will be made tomorrow, for as the proverb reminds us, even the longest journey begins with a single step.

Historically, Emerson has not benefited from a strong philanthropic culture, and its fund-raising efforts have not been as focused and strategic as was needed to produce outstanding results. During the last two years, with considerable support from the Board of Trustees, we have begun a process to strengthen our fundraising operations and increase the breadth and depth of our cultivation, solicitation and stewardship programs.

Interest in Emerson from prospective students and their families has never been greater, as we received a record of more than 8,000 undergraduate applicants for the class of ’17, from which we admitted 48% (only 15% of private four-year colleges admit less than half of the students who apply). Our recent fall admissions open house drew record visitors (1200), more than double last year’s attendance.

We matriculated 863 undergraduates this fall. The academic profile of the undergraduates entering this year is one of the strongest in our history, while ethnic diversity and international student representation increased modestly. Overall, graduate school applications were also strong with 1720 applications for our ten programs. Because the overall strength of the application pool is not evenly distributed among our disciplines, we have embarked on an ambitious plan to develop more flexible and innovative graduate and professional studies options, ensuring our ability to grow enrollment in the near future.

Strategic Plan

Our vision is to become the hub of arts and communication higher education in the world. The way we’ll get there is through the five strategic priorities that guide our work and by ensuring that across campus we are working towards the same end. We will commit our best thinking and efforts to strengthen:

  • Academic excellence
  • Civic engagement
  • Internationalization and global engagement
  • Innovation
  • Financial stewardship and sustainability

The grounding assumption of all the work that we do—under the auspices of our individual strategic priorities and outside them—is that true institutional excellence is inextricably tied to the diversity of our community and the ideas we engage, as well as the work that we produce. Our formal Inclusive Excellence Initiative was announced last fall, and it has been the source of a remarkable amount of work since then. As a representative example of inclusive excellence, I note the successful Faculty Fellows Program, a three-day workshop that offered the nineteen participating faculty members—drawn from across campus—the opportunity for sustained engagement with the pedagogical issues that go hand in hand with a diverse curriculum and a diverse classroom. The strength of the Inclusive Excellence Initiative goes beyond even such powerful programs as this, however, to inform the choices we make and the goals we set in each of our five strategic priorities.

Academic Excellence:

As I have said before, academic excellence is the priority around which all of the others revolve. It is also a multi-faceted goal, the achievement of which comes from:

  • A community of diverse people and ideas.
  • A strong and well-supported faculty.
  • An environment in which conversations and curricula within and among disciplines are thriving.
  • Understanding and nurturing the inherent strengths of Emerson and its distinctive integration of arts, communication and liberal learning.
  • Understanding and assessing student learning in the majors and in the College.

Our progress in this area can be charted in many ways:

  • Hiring seven of the 40 new full-time faculty we expect to appoint over a five to six-year period, a 20% increase in the size of the full-time faculty.
  • Increased support for faculty research, through the establishment of the Office of Faculty Research and Creative Scholarship, the creation of the President’s Fund for Curricular Innovation, and the increase in faculty development funds.
  • Re-instating the President’s Advisory Council, and establishing regular faculty lunches and breakfasts, all to ensure that I hear directly from faculty in a variety of settings.

In the spring term 2013-14, the Faculty Assembly gave support to plans to deepen the connectivity of arts, communication and liberal learning by establishing a Liberal Arts Faculty Council and supporting increased agency for the Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies dean in curriculum planning as well as recruiting, hiring and promoting liberal arts faculty in the departments. Pathways to tenure for the Institute faculty and lower enrollment caps for Perspectives courses were acknowledged to be important as well. All of these efforts will move forward this year. A robust mentoring program has been established for tenure seeking faculty and new Faculty Handbook language encourages the internal appointment of department chairs.

The School of Communication was awarded a $200,000 grant from the Davis Educational Foundation for a two-year project called, Sustainable Innovation: Re-Imagining Communication Education at Emerson College, which will focus on faculty and curriculum development in the communication disciplines.

Finally, we will soon begin a process to seed the development of Centers for Academic Research and Creative Expression. Our ultimate goal is to establish Centers that will be the locus of imaginative, multi-disciplinary work involving faculty and students across the college. We will start more modestly, however, with a call for proposals to develop “studios” or “labs” that will grow over time.

Civic Engagement:

The nation looks to colleges and universities to solve its most pressing problems, and I know that many of you share my belief that those of us working in higher education—and those of us here at Emerson—need to be active and good citizens of the communities to which we belong. This work is, of course, multi-dimensional, involving the classroom, the co-curriculum, the many communities of Boston and the world beyond. It is tightly interwoven with our commitment to being a community of inclusive excellence.

We are supporting this work through a Center named for the remarkable Elma Lewis ’43, a civic leader renowned here in Boston and across the nation for her work in the arts and arts education. Under the leadership of the recently appointed executive director, the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning and Research is consolidating the considerable civic engagement work going on across campus already, and will develop it further. Partnerships that connect Emerson to our communities will be an important part of the Center’s focus. We have already made measurable progress in developing a college-readiness program for East Boston High School students and a communications program for Cristo Rey High School (Dorchester) students, who pay their high school tuition through workplace internships.

Even as we build our capacity for engagement with issues of pressing public concern, I want us to remain nimble and responsive to events as they arise. The Newtown, CT shootings were a tragedy that demanded both an immediate and sustained response. My letter to President Obama, signed by more than 200 college and university presidents, constituted the former, and the four public panels on gun violence that we mounted last spring were the beginning, but not the end, of the latter. We will continue to do what we do best by creating opportunities to discuss and debate the issues made visible by tragedies like these. Arts Emerson’s season began with a production of Columbinus, a play based on the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, in the spring of 1999, and the Elma Lewis Center’s first public symposium tied to the run of the play provided an opportunity for further reflection on the impact of gun violence on young people.

Internationalization and Global Engagement:

With this strategic priority, as with all of the others, our goal is not only to prioritize work in this area, but also to weave it into the very fabric of our institutional identity. Leadership in this effort will be crucial, and while last year’s search for an Assistant/Associate Vice President in this area did not conclude with a successful hire, we will seek to make progress as our budget permits, mostly likely through the reallocation of existing operating funds. Whomever we hire will find a strong team already in place and established work on which to build.

Part of the work of this office will be to expand partnerships with colleges and universities in different parts of the world. We made notable progress last year as we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Tokyo International University (TIU) that committed our two institutions to a joint exploration of program possibilities.

A group of ten Emerson students traveled to Japan this summer as part of a course on Asian history, and spent a day at TIU, where they met students and learned about Japanese economics and cultural communication from TIU faculty. In April, we signed an MOU with Ramon Llull University / Blanquerna School of Communication, and Emerson students participated in an International Public Diplomacy Project there this summer. This year also saw us finalize an agreement with Berklee College of Music that will allow Emerson students to participate in Berklee’s program in Spain. And, of course, our existing programs with the Communications University of China, Prague Academy of Performing Arts for Film and Television (FAMU) and at Kasteel Well continue to inspire our students. Discussions this year are underway about strengthening ties between Proyecto Boston Medellin and Universidad Nacional De Colombia, Medellin, which might include faculty exchanges and student opportunities. Joining the International Education Consortium with several liberal arts colleges is also in progress.

To ensure that our developing internationalization strategy is as robust as possible, we are also participating—along with 10 other institutions--in the American Council on Education’s (ACE) “Internationalization Laboratory.” Over the course of the two-year Lab, we expect to learn much from ACE and the other institutions in our cohort, which will serve as thought partners as we develop our campus programming.


In identifying innovation as a priority for Emerson, our goal is to develop a means of nurturing the entrepreneurial drive of our faculty and students, providing them with space and support for what would ideally become revenue-generating work for them and for the College.

Of course, innovation perforce includes fostering academic innovation and this takes several forms, including developing an innovative curriculum of new minors and majors that will enable our students to succeed in a rapidly changing world, beginning with a proposal to the faculty to expand substantively our business and entrepreneurial studies programs.

Planning continues to create enterprise development and innovation programs, which will include prominently an accelerator laboratory to support students in creating new works and new products through advising, networking and modest start up funds.
Under the leadership of our Vice President for Academic Affairs, we continue to make good progress on developing online instruction, which will focus primarily on graduate and continuing education programs. Online programs will increase the diversity and quality of our graduate applicant pools, while encouraging faculty to experiment with online pedagogy and student learning in ways that will be transferable to the classroom. In addition, as noted earlier, the seeding of new centers of research and creative expression that are multi-disciplinary and experiential will bring faculty and students together to solve problems and explore new areas of knowledge. Moreover, the Davis Sustainable Innovation grant will provide the School of Communication with a paradigm for innovative thinking and developing forward-thinking curriculum, while deepening faculty expertise in and use of technology---all with the goal of creating an environment of continuous innovation that can be a model for the College.

Financial Strength and Stewardship:

Of course, all of our work depends on the College’s ability to maintain a sound financial position and manage its resources effectively. To that end, we have sought to better align our multi-year budgeting process with our strategic priorities. The faculty, student and staff Budget Priorities Planning Advisory Committee created 18 months ago increases community input and transparency in the budgeting process.

Our fund-raising activities are moving forward with very good results, even as we continue plans to increase substantially giving to the College through a comprehensive fund-raising campaign. This past year was our most successful fundraising year ever: we raised $6,344,570, an increase of 33% from last year, and $1.1 million more than our previous record, which was set in 2000. While our pledge and gift totals for FY ’13 are modest relative to what we hope to raise in future years, it is, nonetheless, a very good beginning, a hopeful sign that there is heretofore untapped fund-raising capacity and a willingness to give among our alumni/ae, parents and friends.

The senior administration, in consultation with the Board of Trustees, continue to review, analyze and develop our many institutional priorities, not all of which neatly fall within the five strategic plan objectives. This year we will develop a robust enterprise risk management program, which will identify and prioritize risks associated with strategic institutional risks versus the unit level risk that focuses on internal controls and operational risks. Over time, our enterprise risk program will strengthen our capacity to plan, organize, manage and mitigate those risks that might have a long-term effect on the College.

Recent conversations about sexual assault and the College’s educational, awareness and response programs will provide a way forward for improving safety and giving voice to an issue that remains – even after years of discussion and good will here and elsewhere – a serious problem at the country’s institutions of higher learning. I am both pleased and confident of the very positive and promising work that we have undertaken in this area, work that was renewed, improved and expanded beginning last spring. Despite the effectiveness of our efforts, I have pledged to do more and we will. I am confident that our community, while learning from others, has the courage to make an honest appraisal of ourselves so as to improve and grow in goodness and truth.

Finally, as you know, we are rapidly approaching the January 2014 launch of our new Emerson Los Angeles Center, and with Kevin Bright’s appointment as the Inaugural Executive Director, we will build significantly on the strong internship program first established in 1986. Emerson Los Angeles will significantly expand opportunities for juniors and seniors to enroll in internships and content-based courses that span all of the College’s major disciplines as well as create new credit and non-credit opportunities for post-baccalaureate and graduate students.

As this report suggests, the enthusiasm and optimism about Emerson’s future on campus and among our important constituencies of alumni, parents and friends is well placed. Ours is a commonwealth of learning, which understands that excellence is rooted in the inclusive diversity of people, ideas and thought and that our success in meeting our aspirations derives from putting to good use and valuing the talent of those who work, teach and study at Emerson, while remaining faithful to our willingness to work together towards a common hope and purpose.

All of us—faculty, staff, and the members of our Board of Trustees, Board of Overseers, and Alumni Board—contribute to the educational mission of Emerson College. We are all here to ensure that our students have access to the best education possible in the arts, communication and liberal arts disciplines. In addition, our student life programs seek to enhance the quality of campus life, especially those that facilitate an integrated and holistic learning environment – one that promotes student success in and outside the classroom.

It is a time of significant change at Emerson, with many of us pulled in more than one compelling direction. To ensure that we maintain our equilibrium and find genuine satisfaction in our joint efforts, I want to make sure that the lines of communication are open, that our various efforts align with and ideally support each other and that we continue to make progress on creating a culture of support and trust.

If my first year at Emerson was a time of intent listening, my second was developing and beginning to execute a strategic plan focused on the development of “people and programs,” keeping in mind that our facilities continue to need attention, our space needs continue to grow (as our campus master planning process this year made clear), and we will always be able to make use of enhanced technology infrastructure. And so we are focusing on both at once, prioritizing people and programs as much as possible, while we make sure to be good stewards of our physical plant and financial resources.

I am honored to serve as your president during this time of transformation and change. I look forward to our work together with enthusiasm and confidence in our future.

Thank you,

Lee Pelton