Transcript: 2020 State of the College Interview 

President Lee Pelton and Amogh Matthews ’21


Amogh Matthews ’21, Journalism:
Hey, everyone, my name is Amogh Matthews. I'm a junior Journalism major here at Emerson College. This year has been a tough one, and I'm joined by President Lee Pelton to discuss his annual State of the College report. Lee, how are you?

Lee Pelton, President, Emerson College:
Hi, how are you? Good to see you again.

Matthews:
Yeah, good to see you. So Lee, this year has been a tough one, and the College has done really well in dealing with the COVID pandemic. What steps did the College take beforehand and what steps is the College taking to keep students, faculty, and their staff safe?

Pelton:
Yeah, thank you, that's a great question and I, you know, I get that question often. As I wrote to the community early this summer, I said we had three objectives. One was to figure out a way to reopen the campus safely in the fall. The second was to assess the financial fallout from the COVID pandemic. And the third was to figure out what remedies or ways that we can mitigate those losses. And so, as you've noted, we achieved all three of those and we achieved all three of them at a very, very high level. And none of this would have been possible without the, really, the heroic help of those who worked this summer. All of those who were on this COVID working group, of which you were one, and I thank you and [am] very grateful for your help there. But the behavior of our on-campus students in particular has just been absolutely extraordinary.

Matthews:
Truly, yeah, you know, as a student, myself too, testing is just super easy. In fact, it's longer to walk there than it is to actually get tested. Anyway, so with how hands-on Emerson is with their program, with all their extracurriculars, with activities, how did the faculty pivot, you know, to make such a quick change to online?

Pelton:
Well, the faculty have just been magnificent, and they've been creative and innovative, working with students and using new spaces in order to provide students with experiential learning. It is not the same, obviously, and no one would expect it to be the same, given all of the social distancing requirements that we have. But I'll give you an example with, you know, our Emerson Stage. So we had students, actors, in the latest production who were in their own studios and their own...their studios were administrative offices that had been freed up for this use. And so they would rehearse and then perform their part in front of a camera. And then, the production itself was an edited version of everyone playing their part, speaking to each other digitally. Sometimes it felt as if you were watching a film, as opposed to a live performance, but I think once you sort of get, you know, gave yourself over to the experience, it began to feel very much like a live audience.

Matthews:
Right, and to that, you know, with life just looking so different now in general, what ways does Emerson maintain that College experience?

Pelton:
Well, you know, again, that's really been mostly students who have done that. I know students continue to use the technology that, you know, that we're on right now, that allow them to converse with each other. And, you know, during the warm days, even two weeks ago, or one week ago, actually, I would see students in groups, you know, appropriately socially distant with masks on, out in the Common and, you know, having conversations. I think there even...I saw some classes out there, as late as last week or the week before, whenever the warm spell was here, so.

Matthews:
Yeah, how would you say, as to that...how would you say Emerson prepares, best prepares students, because the world has changed now. How would you best say Emerson prepares students for the pandemic world, for the pandemic workforce?

Pelton:
Well, you know, the pandemic, post-pandemic world will look a lot different than it does now. Although I suspect that the essential elements of the way we move about the world, how we experience it, our sort of epistemology of the world and knowing the world, will not fundamentally change. I'll give you an example at ELA, which is located in LA County, which has a high and growing positivity rate. We are not open; we're not allowed to have students in residence. So we have some students who are learning remotely, and many of those students have internships. And those internships are remote internships. So, you know, it's not the same experience, but it's still a learning experience that will serve them very well in life after Emerson.

Matthews:
So other institutions around the nation have been making cuts to their programs because of the pandemic, yet Emerson continues to expand. So can you tell me a little bit about, like, what the enrollment numbers were like, and how its academic programs have been expanding?

Pelton:
Thank you. Let me take the first part of your question first. We also had to make cuts. In the spring, we suffered losses of about $8 million, as we had to refund to students and their families room and board that was due to them because we shut down in March. And as we developed a budget for this fiscal year, beginning in June of 2020 and ending in June of 2021, we were estimating cuts anywhere, or a deficit anywhere, ranging from about $23, $27 million up to $40 million. It came in more than 27 and less than 40, but in order to mitigate those losses, we had to take a number of actions. Staff gave up their salary increases for the year, so they had a 0% increase for the year. We suspended for the year the College's contribution to faculty and staff retirement plans. We had some staff who exercised their right to retire early. That saved some money as well. And so we took a, you know, a number of other actions. We had cuts in all of our divisions of 10%. And so all of that allowed us to really, to look to a balanced budget, not the balanced former budget, but the new COVID budget. And enrollment helped us out considerably; enrollment for first-year students was up by about 80 students. So this was probably the sixth or seventh successive year of having record applications and enrollment. And what I'm most pleased by is that, unlike a lot of other places that had to make wholesale cuts...these are people losing their jobs and furloughs. We did not have to do any of that.

Matthews:
Great, great. So the students here at home, you know, in Boston, the Boston campus, have been supported, and we're doing a lot of the hybrid learning. What would you say for the international students? How are international students being supported, and how are students at home, who chose to stay home through these times...how are they being supported?

Pelton:
Yeah, well, we've developed, you know, remote learning for students who chose not to come to campus. I think about a third of the students who were undergraduates who were eligible to come to campus chose not to. International students, unless you were here, you're not able to enter this country. Luckily, you know, we've developed really robust campuses abroad, and so international students were able to engage Emerson through those campuses, or to engage Emerson through remote learning like all other students who are, you know, studying remotely.

Matthews:
One thing COVID overshadowed was the integration of Marlboro College into Emerson College. Can you tell us a bit more about that integration and just a bit more about how the liberal arts program here at Emerson has been expanded through Marlboro College?

Pelton:
If by integration you mean the adjustment that students, Marlboro students who were living on Potash Hill in southern Vermont to an urban campus in Boston, it's clear and understandable that that adjustment is an ongoing process, and students are adjusting differently to their, to those circumstances. Nevertheless, those students are receiving support from the Marlboro faculty who are now part of our faculty. They're also receiving support from our Student Life program and the faculty in what is now called the Marlboro Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies and Liberal Arts. But I think it's true to say that for some of these, for some Marlboro students, this has not been an easy transition for them.

Matthews:
So moving on from COVID, let's take a look at just, almost like the political situation and how it affects us as a community, as a college. So civic engagement is one of Emerson's core values, and throughout the election process, personally, I've received emails from Jim Hoppe encouraging me to go vote, encouraging me to go be civically engaged. So how has our community been engaged, especially with the presidential election, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with all these social movements going on this year?

Pelton:
Well, our students and faculty and staff have been very much engaged in these issues. I think, as we all know, this was a triple pandemic, not a single pandemic. In addition to the COVID-19, there was also economic devastation across the country that impacted probably all of us, and certainly impacted families and students who are enrolled here, and we've done our best to try to meet their particular needs. And then the pandemic also exposed, not for the first time, but for a time where people actually were taking notice, exposed the structural and systemic racism that undergirds our society, and our aim should be to dismantle those systemic inequities so that all folks, Black and Brown folks and other underrepresented groups, can participate fully in this evolving experiment that we call American democracy. It would be my hope that all of us on campus, while we're focused on the issues at Emerson, would also be focused on the issues in the larger society, because the nation still looks to colleges and universities to solve its most pressing problems. And we cannot look out on life from our luxurious shelters, but instead we have to roll up our sleeves and be engaged, not only with the issues here, but engaged in those big topics and those big issues that lie outside of Emerson.

Matthews:
Emerson's academics extends way more into our civic engagement efforts. And we talked about that a little bit in the last question. Can you tell us a little, a bit more about what the Emerson Prison Initiative is and how that's going?

Pelton:
Well, the EPI, as we refer to it, is doing very well and I'm very pleased [we] at Emerson, under the direction of Professor Gellman, have made this extraordinary commitment to incarcerated folks in Concord. Classes are still going on there and they are, you know, I visited the prison and they're wonderfully engaged. They're so bright and they're just, you know, they're just soaking up as much knowledge and intellectual experience that they can. However, I'm sad to learn that within the last couple of days, there was a significant COVID outbreak in the facility, and so they have been in lockdown. I'm not sure how long the lockdown will last, but it means that they spend, you know, 23 out of their 24 hours in their cells. Nevertheless, Professor Gellman and other faculty are developing a remote instruction for those, for those students, to the degree that we are able to do that.

Matthews:
So switching gears a little bit, the alumni at Emerson are a great resource, especially for students like me, who are trying to get into the industry, as well. Can you tell us a bit more about how the alumni are representing Emerson's mission throughout the world?

Pelton:
Well, you know, Emerson's a pretty special place, and our alumni are just, you know, wonderfully creative and innovative, and they are working as you say, not only here, but abroad and around the world. I do know this, that our alumni, especially through the Alumni Association and EBONI, another alumni association of focus, particularly on the issues of Black and Brown folks here, have redoubled their efforts to make themselves available to students with respect to internships and advice and counsel. And so they have rolled up their sleeves wonderfully and contributed and will continue to contribute to the welfare of our students.

Matthews:
Yeah, to that, Lee, you know, I actually have a friend who, a friend's mom who used to go to Emerson, and what was really interesting is that, especially now, whenever she has a new job opening, she always puts it to Emerson Mafia first, you know, any new jobs, and that's not unique to her, too. There's a lot of former alumni who do that, and even to me, they've been just super helpful and super ready to connect any time. So for our final question, where do you see Emerson going for the next two years and then for the next five years?

Pelton:
Well, great question. You know, I, the challenge that I've posed to staff and to faculty is based on an old adage that says, "Don't let a good pandemic crisis go to waste." And if you look at the Greek etymology of "crisis," it means "to change." And so crisis, crises, are always opportunities for change. And so we have this, we have, you know, enormous challenges, but we also have enormous opportunities. And so the faculty have already begun a process to reimagine what our curriculum might look like by using enhanced technology and learning tools that we've developed since March of this year, and which we will continue to develop in the spring term. We have 1.3 million square feet of space at Emerson. Eighty-five percent of our faculty, of our staff, are working remotely. And I suspect that next year or, you know, a couple of years from now, there'll be more of our administrative staff who are working remotely, maybe full-time or part-time, than we have previous to the COVID-19. And that will free up administrative space, which we might be able to use for other purposes. Maybe, you know, faculty offices; we have a shortage of faculty offices. And we may be able to use it in other creative ways. So I do think that the way in which we learn and teach, study and engage with each other on campus is likely to look different, you know, even a year from now.

Matthews:
Well, the future certainly does look very bright for Emerson students, and I'm super excited to be graduating and entering the workforce as an Emerson alumni. So President Pelton, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me; thank you for the folks at home watching. For more information, please take a look at Lee Pelton's full State of the College report on emerson.edu.

[Both]
Thank you.

Pelton:
Thank you. Been a pleasure, thanks.