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A series on President Pelton's five commitments: Academic Excellence

Nicole Miscioscia
September 17, 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE: President Pelton, in his September 14 inaugural address, outlined five specific measures that he believes will move Emerson from “excellent to extraordinary”— establishing the College as the world’s leading institution of higher education in the arts and communication. The measures are: to raise the bar of academic excellence; to innovate; to extend the College’s reach globally; to engage and assist nearby communities; and to ensure sound financial stewardship. In a five-part series, beginning today, we will address one measure each day. Below is an excerpt on academic excellence from President Pelton’s inaugural address:

Academic Excellence

To advance academic excellence, President Pelton aims to add at least 40 new full-time faculty over a period of five years.

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 and 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 communication to political 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. 

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