Gilligan says goodbye: an interim president’s permanent farewell to Emerson

Interim+President+William+Gilligan.

Ashlyn Wang

Interim President William Gilligan.

By Adri Pray

William Gilligan knew right away he didn’t want to be president long-term.

Gilligan stepped into the interim presidency in May 2021, just weeks after retiring from his job as vice president of IT. As a temporary replacement for outgoing president M. Lee Pelton, Gilligan was expected to lead Emerson through the summer as the Presidential Search Committee looked for the college’s next leader.

“It was an honor to have been asked to come back, but it was a big surprise,” Gilligan said, sitting across from college spokesperson Michelle Gaseau and two Beacon reporters. “I certainly wasn’t expecting it.”

Just after being awarded professor emeritus status, then-incoming Board of Trustees Chair Eric Alexander ’78 left a voicemail on Gilligan’s home answering machine congratulating him on his achievement and asking him to return the call at his earliest convenience, Gilligan said.

He received the message three days later and was worried Alexander thought he was “ghosting” him. When Gilligan called the chairman back, Alexander officially offered him the interim presidency.

When Gilligan accepted, Alexander told him the appointment would “only [be for] a few months.” But what started as a few months quickly turned into a year, then two, while the Presidential Search Committee restructured itself three times, hired two different consultant firms, and took a three-month hiatus before selecting Emerson’s 13th president, Jay Bernhardt earlier this year.

Since taking the helm, Gilligan has witnessed and led the college through several milestones. During the 2021-22 academic year, former provost Michaele Whelan left Emerson to become the president of Wheaton College, prompting Gilligan to fill the position with interim provost Jan Roberts-Breslin. In an earlier interview with the Beacon, Gilligan explained the search for a permanent provost would not begin until the Board of Trustees found Emerson’s permanent president.

He also appointed Shaya Gregory Poku to the vice presidency of equity and social justice and named Sonia Jurado as Title IX coordinator, filling the position after a four-year vacancy. To investigate systemic barriers faced by students of color at Emerson, the President’s Council hired Beyond Racial Equity, a consulting firm that delivered actionable results for Emerson to implement to make the college a more equitable and diverse campus.

This academic year, he led Emerson through the New England Commission of Higher Education Re-Accreditation visit—a once-per-decade opportunity for Emerson community members to reflect on the college’s progress and identify necessary areas of improvement. Additionally, he appointed and applauded David Howse when he took on the vice presidency of institutional advancement alongside his executive roles within ArtsEmerson.

Being able to fulfill some of the vacant administrative roles (even tentatively) after several staff departures is one thing he prides himself on—“continuity has to be primary on the mind of an interim president,” he said.

Gilligan was present for the opening of Pick N’ Roll Sushi at the onset of the academic year, and soon after saw the first cohort of students from the Emerson Prison Initiative graduate.

Amid these accomplishments and obstacles, Gilligan said his greatest challenge was his first one: navigating the college through the “throes” of the COVID-19 pandemic during a time when there was “no real end in sight.” His presidency saw mandatory vaccine and booster shots, a pooled testing model, remote instruction due to the Omicron spike, and a mask-optional policy.

“It wasn’t the full crisis mode the college had [seen] in 2020, but it was still a circumstance in which nobody knew exactly how it was going to resolve itself,” he said. “[I had] to try to maintain the confidence of the community in that ongoing circumstance and to provide some continuity while the Trustees were looking for that next president.”

All of this on top of a four-decade career at Emerson, spanning faculty and administrative roles within unions, assemblies, and athletics, convinced Gilligan that he was ready to do something new.

“Every day that you work, there’s a day that you can’t enjoy being retired,” Gilligan said. “I had a long and fulfilling career. It was time for me, I thought, maybe incorrectly, to start looking at some other things and transitioning to doing other things.”

Before he accepted the position, and even as much as he could during his presidency, Gilligan said he intended to trade in the classroom for the toolbox—planning on a few “long-overdue” home improvement projects and watching after his grandchildren. Once Bernhardt permanently assumes the position in June, he plans to pick up where he’s left off.

“Grandchildren, home improvement, [spending] more time with my wife who sacrificed for me to be able to do this,” he said. “She gave up a lot of freedom that we expected to have in retirement, so I want to pay back some of that to her—for the contribution that she made to Emerson by letting me come back here to do this.”

Gilligan hopes to be remembered as someone who loved the institution, who came back to help when he was called, and who didn’t “mess things up.” 

“It’s not like you, as an interim president, can set about a long-term plan,” he said. “You have to be mindful of the role of an interim—it’s to make sure that the road is paved for the next president. Make sure that it’s as wide and as well-marked and accessible for the next president.”

His parting advice to incoming President Bernhardt? Listen, learn, and cherish the presidency. 

“This is a special place and it’s different [from] every other place you’ve worked,” he said.

Gilligan said that, while it was unexpected, serving as president was the honor of his life.

“Coming back to work with the people I already knew, coming back to meet people that I didn’t know, it’s the people that make the place special and that’s something I’m going to miss,” he said.