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

Dr. Gregory Payne celebrates his 40th anniversary of teaching Emerson ‘change agents’

DJ Mara
Dr. Gregory Payne, chair of the Communication Studies Department, is in his office during an interview with the Berkeley Beacon, where he reflects on his 40th anniversary teaching at Emerson and the years ahead. (DJ Mara/Beacon Staff)

Dr. Gregory Payne, chair of the Communication Studies Department, celebrated his 40th anniversary of teaching at Emerson College earlier this month, a milestone he feels extremely blessed to have reached. 

“I came over and taught a class at the legacy campus in 1984,” said Payne. “And, forty years later, I’m still here.” 

Payne completed his undergraduate work at the University of Illinois and recounted a moment when he and a group of classmates listened to Robert F. Kennedy speak at the University of Indiana in 1968. 

“At that point, I was a conservative Republican,” said Payne. “There was an authenticity about Kennedy, and I immediately knew he was not the typical politician. I basically converted on the way back to the Champaign-Urbana campus.” 

Payne took a term from school to work on Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He noted that it was a tumultuous time in U.S. political history, with both Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated, in addition to the police riot in Grant Park ahead of the 1968 Democratic Convention. 

“Even though he passed away [on the campaign trail], Kennedy is still a very important figure,” said Payne. 

Payne wrote his doctoral dissertation on the May 4, 1970 shooting at Kent State University, where members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a group of demonstrators, killing four and injuring nine Kent State students. 

“One reason why I teach about Kent is that I don’t think the education system in the United States recognizes issues and events like these,” said Payne. “There’s probably going to be a piece of [Kent] in almost every course I teach.” 

Payne went on to work for Mayor Tom Bradley, the first Black mayor of Los Angeles and, to this day, the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history. Specifically, Payne remembers a moment after Bradley’s unsuccessful 1982 campaign for Governor of California, in which Bradley motivated him to pursue a postgraduate Master of Public Administration (MPA) at Harvard. 

“I was at L.A. City Hall one day and Bradley said, ‘I think that I’ve gotten over the election, but I don’t think you have,’” Payne recounted. “‘I think it would be good for you to go to Harvard.’” 

While at Harvard, Payne’s dissertation advisor from the University of Illinois mentioned to him, “There’s a very creative school across the river you might have heard about.” 

That school was Emerson. 

During Payne’s first year at Emerson, he worked alongside the late journalism professor Marsha Della Giustina in taking groups of students to the Iowa Caucuses. In addition, he has served as the advisor of Emerson’s Communication, Politics and Law Association (CPLA) and worked to create political and sports communication programs for students.

Payne additionally noted that he is proud of the creation of the Emerson Polling Center. 

“There is a joke that if you don’t do math, you come to Emerson,” said Payne. “If you’re going to be an articulate spokesperson with critical thinking skills, you need to understand data.” 

Payne calls the 1990s the decade of distinction for Emerson’s Communication Studies Department and notes that when he stepped down as the department’s chair in the ‘90s, he took part in State Department initiatives in the realm of public diplomacy. 

In 1992, Payne was asked to be part of the team overseeing the first democratic election in Russia after the Soviet Union fell, and he took a group of Emerson students to be a part of the process. Through another State Department initiative, Payne brought journalists from around the world to study in the United States during each presidential election. He brought a team of Indonesian journalists in 2008 and a group of Nepalese journalists in 2016. 

“Suddenly, the Nepalese journalists are here, and they can’t get into Trump rallies because they don’t look like me,” said Payne. “They truly experienced the racial perspective of politics.” 

In addition to his State Department work, Payne noted that through teaching Crisis Communication classes, he realized that one can try to plan ahead, but a crisis can change everything.

“On Sep. 11, 2001, I was coming back from California on an American flight that let me off at Logan Airport at 7:30 a.m. before turning back to California,” said Payne. “The very airplane I was on was the hijacked American 11 plane that went into the World Trade Center. If I had been going out instead of coming back, my situation would have been completely different.” 

Payne recounts that when he got back to campus on Sept. 11, it was an extremely difficult and uncertain time when people were trying to figure out what was happening across the country.

As the day progressed, Payne learned that Emerson community members were among those lost in the tragedy, including Sonia Mercedes Morales Puopolo, the mother of Sonia Tita Puopolo ‘96, MPA ‘97, on the American 11 flight in addition to public relations professor Myra Aaronson. Furthermore, Jane Simpkin ‘88 was aboard the American 175 flight. 

Later that night, Payne distinctly remembers two Saudi students coming up to him and saying, “Dr. Payne, this is a horrible event. This is not our country. This is not what we’re about.” 

Payne was part of the first group of Westerners to travel to Saudi Arabia after the Sept. 11 attacks, and this pulled him further into the realm of public diplomacy. Additionally, Payne was part of the original Clinton Global Initiative and worked with Emerson faculty to teach student reporters from around the world how to effectively report on and help eradicate hate in their communities. 

In recent years, Payne has served as the co-director of the Emerson-Blanquerna Center of Global Communication, in which Emerson students can study abroad for a semester at Blanquerna’s School of Communication and International Relations in Barcelona. 

“We have developed a global footprint,” said Payne. “A lot of people talk about change and innovation, but we try to live it.” 

Payne describes Emerson as a unique and creative school that gives students immersive opportunities to make them changemakers upon graduation. 

He further notes that President Jay Bernhardt is the first communication-centered president that Emerson has had since President John Zacharis, for whom Payne served as a special assistant. 

“I’m excited in my 40th year to see somebody so communication-oriented,” said Payne. “Students are here at the best time for Emerson since I’ve been here.” 

Referencing Emerson’s history as a communications and speech-oriented school, Payne said, “Lady Oratory is smiling.” 

Moving forward, Payne hopes to secure space for a speech lab and create a more immersive space for Emerson’s esports program. 

Payne hosts a weekly program called Pizza and Politics, where students, faculty, and alumni converse about political and social issues. He ends each meeting by asking each attendee for their “hashtag” to describe their thoughts on the conversation. 

When asked about a hashtag to describe the last 40 years of his career, Payne said, “#ChangeAgent. #Blessed.”

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DJ Mara, Assistant News Editor

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