Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

A conversation with President Jay Bernhardt

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Ashlyn Wang
President Jay Bernhardt. (Ashlyn Wang/Beacon Staff)

The week students return from spring break, Emerson will host a series of panels and activities to celebrate the inauguration of the college’s 13th President, Jay Bernhardt.

Bernhardt took the reins at the college last June after two years of former interim President William Gilligan’s leadership. The official investiture ceremony on March 22 will install Bernhardt as president.

The Beacon sat down with Bernhardt to reflect on his two semesters at Emerson, his plans to update the college’s mission through a new strategic plan, and his commitment to continuing to engage with the student body and address their needs. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Beacon: How do you feel about the upcoming inauguration?

Bernhardt: I feel great. The inauguration is really about celebrating Emerson. It’s about seeing all the great things that we do. We have panels and presentations, a film festival and a comedy show. It’s about shining a light on many of the great things we do at Emerson, and then we’ll do the official investiture ceremony, and that’s a historic moment for the college. I’m excited. It’s going to be fun.

Beacon: You’ve been at Emerson for almost two full semesters now. How would you describe your time at Emerson thus far?

Bernhardt: It’s been fantastic. It’s just such a vibrant, exciting, positive, passionate community. It’s been really welcoming. People have been incredibly kind and warm in welcoming me here. I’ve spent a lot of time listening and learning, and I’ve learned a ton enough about all the great things Emerson does. I’ve met more people whose names [than] I can remember. I just enjoyed learning about all the different things in our history and our present and future. I’ve also found some things that we need to work on and things that need some improvement and some effort, and so that’s been a really good learning experience.

Beacon: What are some of those things the college needs to work on?

Bernhardt: The list is long. There are lots of things that we can and should do better. We need a strategic plan and a shared vision for where we can and should go in the future. That’s something we’re actively working on. We need to make sure we think about how changing technology affects what we teach, how we teach, and how we prepare students for a very rapidly changing future. We need to tell our story better, get the word out better, and raise our brand profile. We’re going to be doing work on how we can improve our branding and positioning. 

Beacon: Carolina Avellaneda was recently appointed to VP and General Counsel, filling a hole in personnel that had existed since 2022. How do you envision she will be able to contribute to the rest of the semester and year?

Bernhardt: Carolina is a great academic attorney and leader. She’s actually been working here in Boston. She was at Fisher College in the Back Bay, where Emerson used to be, and she’s been at UMass Boston. She has great academic legal expertise and a good understanding of Boston and Boston higher education. I think she’s going to be a terrific addition to our team. She’s already hit the ground running. She’s only been here a few days and has been involved in lots of really important discussions about our strategy and about how we protect the college and all the people who work here and go.

Beacon: You mentioned the need for a new strategic plan to update Emerson’s missions, values, and priorities. Where does the development of the plan stand now?

Bernhardt: We’ve started the first phase, which involves doing some in-depth interviews and also creating our steering committee, which has two student members. More than 30 people have already come through in-depth interviews, and we’re now scheduling focus groups. We’re going to be doing another 20 or 30 focus groups of all different groups: faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, industry leaders, partners, local business partners, and others to give input on Emerson and its future. That’s going to take place over the next month. We’re then going to be doing what we’re calling forums. We’ll be having some student, faculty, and staff forums where additional people can come and learn about the process and give input. 

We just launched a student survey. It actually opens this week. I hope all the students on campus get a chance to fill out that brief survey and share feedback not only on our strategic priorities but also on our financial planning. We really are seeking student input both on those issues and on the strategic planning process … The main point is everyone in all groups who are Emersonians needs to be engaged in the process. We’re creating many ways and opportunities for people to give voice. 

Beacon: What has your community outreach looked like so far? What has it looked like for students, faculty, and staff?

Bernhardt: My whole first year, and every year, but especially my first year, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get to know as many people as I can and learn about as many programs as I can. Even in a college sort of medium-sized like Emerson, there are still a lot of people, groups, and units to get to know and learn. I have spent time in the Netherlands at Kasteel Well, and I’ve spent several trips to ELA and Los Angeles. I’ve also been to six or seven other cities to meet with the alumni and other folks who are connected to the college. I’ve spent a lot of time going to activities. I’ve had lots of meetings, more meetings than I can count with staff, faculty, and students. I’ve worked with SGA and been to a few SGA events. I’ve been to athletic events and several performing arts, student performances, and lots of Arts Emerson shows. 

I’m doing everything I can to get out and about and listen and learn and be engaged with our community.  I’d like to be very engaged with students, faculty, and staff as much as I can. The best way to do that is for me to come to them. That’s a big part of what I intend to do. My hope with student engagement is that people see me enough that it’s not such a big deal when they see me that it has to be reported as a site.

Beacon: So, if a student were to see you on campus, how would you like for them to approach you?

Bernhardt: Being president is fun because a lot of people know who you are, and you’re sort of a minor celebrity. When I walk around Tremont and Boylston, people recognize me, and I’m thrilled when people come to say hi and introduce themselves. I would love to hear about what they’re studying or where they’re from and questions like that. I enjoy those Tatte-line conversations about people’s experiences here. I would hope students are happy to come up and introduce themselves, and they don’t need to shoot a secret video of me walking down the sidewalk but just come up and say hi and have a conversation.

Beacon: Student engagement and talking with the student body are one of your priorities. Have there been any steps that you’ve taken to address their needs or any concerns that they have?

Bernhardt: When issues have come to our attention, we certainly try to hear and listen. The whole purpose of the student survey we just launched was to ask specific questions and get feedback on things we can and should prioritize. We’ve talked about having some kind of official student engagement plans and strategies where we can more regularly hear the voices of more students, and faculty and staff for that matter. There are existing groups like the President Provost Faculty Advisory Committee. It’s a formal group that I meet with several times a semester of faculty. These are not like the deans or the administrators, who are people whom I already meet with, but faculty from across the college. I find it to be a really useful form to hear feedback and share ideas. I want to do more things like that for the students as well. 

I’ve also started a program where once a month I provide breakfast to the 20 faculty and staff. It’s just an open dialogue, no official agenda. I think I’d like to start just kind of inviting students to come because I could learn way more in those kinds of settings and forums than it is in formal meetings where everybody is more nervous and comes with a specific agenda as opposed to just talking about what’s important to them. 

Beacon: The annual Teach-In on Sustainability is here. Emerson has a goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. Is this goal attainable? 

Bernhardt: It’s attainable. That pledge was made in 2007, so it’s not a new thing. We’ve been working towards this for a very long time. We have a really great team led by a terrific expert leader, Jennifer Lamy, the head of our sustainability work here. She and others who work with her have created a really strong plan for how we can get from where we are to where we need to be by 2030 and beyond. We have a roadmap. We have lots of changes that we’re already making. Some of you may have seen the signs on campus about our attempts to increase recycling, for example, and create more streams into recycling and reusing as opposed to as much waste as we create. 

Beacon: Looking ahead as the college’s new leader, what is your vision for the future of Emerson? What steps are you taking to bring that vision to fruition?

Bernhardt: I think our shared vision is an exceptional college of inclusive excellence that is really just focused not only on preparing students for really important careers of the future but also in making a difference in the world. We believe in our hearts that communication and the arts are incredibly important fields to make the world a better place, improve our society, support democracy, and bring joy to people’s lives. All of these things are things that we teach and that we do here that we emphasize. We’re an exceptional communication arts college, and we will continue to be so. It’ll be things like staying and becoming even more global in our engagement and the things we do. There’ll be things like looking at ways to become more interdisciplinary. It’s also about our brand and the fact that we know that this is an incredible college—not perfect and not without challenges we need to overcome—but it’s an incredible college, and we want the rest of the world to know that.

Beacon: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Emerson community?

Bernhardt: In terms of the students I’ve met here, they’re really talented, creative, and passionate. I’ve really enjoyed my time with students, and I’m looking forward to being able to spend a lot more time listening, learning, and celebrating with our students.

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About the Contributor
Olivia LeDuc, News Editor
Olivia LeDuc (she/her) is a journalism student and assistant editor for the campus coverage of The Beacon’s news section. When she’s not reporting, you can find her crocheting or going on yet another long walk in the city.

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