Analysis: turnover following presidential departures

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Photo: The Berkeley Beacon Archives

Emerson College President M. Lee Pelton

By Frankie Rowley, Content Managing Editor

Since the departure of former President M. Lee Pelton, Emerson has seen a number of key individuals cut their ties with the college—many of them amicably, others less so. The string of exits have raised questions over the rate of turnover.

Of the nine individuals who have left the Emerson community since Pelton’s departure in June, three were administrators, three were faculty members, and three were staff. Various rationales were given for the departures, including several individuals who took more prominent positions elsewhere.

Chief among those departures was Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Michaele Whelan, who departed the college on Sept. 9. to take over the presidency at Wheaton College. Whelan was instrumental in expanding the college’s curriculum, overseeing the implementation of numerous new majors and academic programs.

Well before Whelan’s departure, Sylvia Spears, former vice president for diversity and inclusion, became the first of a group that would later balloon to nine to announce her departure. Spears left her role at the college in May to become the vice president for administration & innovation and distinguished professor of educational equity and social justice at College Unbound in Rhode Island. 

Following Spears, former WERS general manager Jack Casey, announced he would be leaving his role at the college’s radio station, but staying at Emerson as a member of the faculty for the fall semester. 

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After these announcements in May, departures stopped until former Associate Director of Emerson’s Healing and Advocacy Collective Greta Spoering announced she would be leaving the college in July—prompting the start of a next wave of resignations in the following months.  

Spoering’s departure was the quickest and most vague, with Spoering leaving no specific reason for her departure but an assurance that she would continue her work against power-based interpersonal violence “beyond the Emerson community.” She announced her departure on July 14 and left a mere nine days after the announcement, leaving those outside of her inner circle grasping at straws as to why she left. 

The only departure following Pelton’s that was clearly acrimonious was that of former Senior Journalist-in-Residence Cheryl Owsley-Jackson, who announced that she would be returning to her alma mater Indiana University following “less rewarding” experiences at Emerson. Owsley-Jackson announced her departure just under a week after Spoering’s announcement. 

“To those perpetuating the decades-long culture of bullying and control, you know who you are, I hope you find peace, and then give peace,” wrote Owsley-Jackson in a July Instagram post announcing that she would be taking up the role of visiting lecturer at the Media School. “From me to you ✌🏽.”

Owsley-Jackson was the only departing faculty member to explicitly cite issues with members of the college in their leaving. However, with nine departures following Pelton’s—some for seemingly impromptu or vague reasons—there is the possibility that she was not the only person to leave under tense circumstances. 

Following Owsley-Jackson’s departure, the remaining resignations came from Jason Meier, Ryan Milligan, and Whelan. 

Milligan came to Emerson in January 2020 and left a mere year and eight months later in August 2021 after serving as acting Title IX coordinator. He left the role to become a conflict resolution specialist at Phillips Academy. 

Meier, the former director of student engagement and leadership, left Emerson after a decade to move across the Charles River, becoming the Associate Dean of Student Engagement at Harvard College. In an interview with The Beacon, Meier stated that his move was another step in his professional journey. 

“At some point in everyone’s personal and professional journey, you have to figure out the time when you have to jump, to take the next risk,” Meier said. 

Like Meier and Milligan, Whelan also took a natural step in her career with her departure from the college.  

Interim President Bill Gilligan attributed much of the turnover to Pelton’s decision to depart the college in order to helm the Boston Foundation. 

“When a leader of 10 years announces that they’re leaving, other people who were close to that person probably look at [other job] opportunities more closely than they had previously,” he told The Beacon in September. “It’s a naturally occurring phenomenon.”

While Pelton’s resignation saw nine departures, Liebergott’s in 2011 resulted in more faculty and staff departures than administrative resignations. Only two of the six departures from Emerson after Liebergott were members of the administration: Gwendolyn Bates and Grafton Nunes. 

Nunes, the former dean of Emerson’s School of the Arts, was the first to announce his departure from the college to become president of the Cleveland Institute of Art. Nunes’s departure mirrors Whelan’s in that he took a higher position elsewhere in departing.  

“I will miss the Emerson culture and my talented colleagues, but I look forward to the challenges and opportunities that await me at the Cleveland Institute of Art,” Nunes said to Emerson Today

After four years at Emerson, Bates, the former associate vice president for diversity and inclusion, announced that she was leaving the college in September 2011 to retire. 

“Have I done everything I want to do? No,” she told The Beacon in 2011. “But I am proud of the things that I have been able to accomplish.” 

The remaining four departures after Liebergott’s resignation were a mix of faculty and staff members, with former head tennis coach John Nestel being the first non-administrator to leave.

Nestel announced a week following Bates that he would be resigning from his role after he alleged that his predecessor participated in “lineup stacking”—intentionally positioning better players in lesser roles in order to gain points. 

His resignation was the most heated of resignations following Liebergott’s leaving, with the accusations being proven untrue in the months following. 

Following the September resignations, the departures ceased for a few months until December, when former Emerson College Police Department Chief George Noonan was fired for failing to report the inappropriate web browsing of former ECPD Officer Edward Villard. Noonan’s firing marked the end of the 2011 resignations, ushering in a new wave in 2012. 

In 2012, former Athletic Director Kristin Parnell marked the first resignation of the year. Parnell announced her departure in May, citing perusal of other professional opportunities as her reason for leaving after nearly 15 years at Emerson. 

Former Dean of the School of Communication Janis Andersen resigned from her role in September 2012, stating that she had no intentions of continuing her role as dean after completing the “five-year commitment.” 

Along with Andersen, former Chair of the Journalism Department Ted Gup announced he would be taking a year away from the college to pursue a fellowship, leaving his role as chair—only to return to the faculty in 2013, where he has stayed to this day. 

“I will not be returning as chair but rather as a member of the faculty, which frankly, suits me just fine since that has always been where my allegiance lies,” Gup wrote in a 2012 email to The Beacon. 

2012 also saw the firing of Villard, four months after the college became aware of his frequent use of inappropriate websites while working—with the evidence given by the college alluding to not safe for work sites being found on a computer he had used and not logged out of. 

The biggest factor present in both series of departures tends to be issues between the college and its staff. 

Owsley-Jackson’s “less rewarding” experiences report hinted at members of the community perpetuating a less-than-positive environment, riddled with bullying and unprofessional behaviors.

Most of the departures, however, were attributed to normal career progressions, as employees who left Emerson took more advanced or innovative positions than the ones they held at Emerson.

Whether the departure of a president provides an avenue to pursue other career paths or an avenue to escape the toxic environments present within the college, a surge in employee departure following a presidential departure does not appear to be out of the ordinary at Emerson. That fact raises questions regarding the college’s work environment.