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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

Faculty votes not to call for Bernhardt’s resignation

Following a special faculty meeting on May 6, the faculty assembly voted via email not to call for President Jay Bernhardt’s resignation.
Students+cross+the+intersection+of+Boylston+St.+and+Tremont+St.+in+front+of+the+Little+Building.
Cho Yin Rachel Lo
Students cross the intersection of Boylston St. and Tremont St. in front of the Little Building.

Following a special faculty meeting on May 6, the faculty assembly voted via email not to call for President Jay Bernhardt’s resignation.

Around 64 percent of the faculty voted not to call for Bernhardt’s resignation. In addition, 60 percent of the faculty voted to enact consequences for his actions and handling of protests this year; nearly 58 percent voted to censure the president; roughly 52 percent voted not to express no confidence; and 90 percent voted to increase shared governance on campus.

A vote of no confidence can lead to an authority figure’s resignation, whereas a vote of censure indicates disapproval but doesn’t require resignation. 

The votes were in response to the April 25 arrests, where 118 pro-Palestine protesters were arrested at the “Popular University Encampment” in Boylston Place Alley—a month after 12 Emerson students and one non-Emerson student were arrested during a protest outside Bernhardt’s inauguration ceremony. Following the April 25 arrests, the Student Government Association (SGA) unanimously voted no confidence in Bernhardt and later called for his resignation.

The Board of Trustees issued a statement on Emerson Today following the faculty vote and said the board respects the faculty’s right to express their views.

“President Bernhardt’s approach to recent events reinforced to the board that he is a strong leader who can address the college’s long-term operational needs and a compassionate leader who can rebuild the faculty, staff, and student relationships necessary to bring us together in challenging times,” the board said. “We urge the Emerson community to come together in a spirit of collaboration to address the challenges we face.”

Bernhardt and several other college officials attended the May 6 faculty meeting to answer questions from faculty members regarding his leadership within the past academic year and his response to both arrests.  

Bernhardt was asked how he plans to rebuild trust among the Emerson community following the March 22 and April 25 arrests. In response, he acknowledged that it would take time for the community to heal. In the meantime, however, he pledged to communicate more with faculty, staff, and students. He added that the community must engage in “sincere civil dialogue” to overcome divisions.

“The only path forward is with more dialogue, more listening, more engagement,” Bernhardt said. “Over time, I hope that that will rebuild trust.”

Bernhardt received criticism for taking a week to respond to the April 29 Town Hall, which discussed the events and emotions leading up to, during, and after the April 25 arrests. His delayed response raised concerns over his limited communication with the community, which was a criticism made against him throughout various points in the past academic year.

“Our internal communication and engagement has been, frankly, not what it can and should be. We understand that [and] I understand that personally,” Bernhardt said. 

Additionally, Bernhardt has been criticized for communicating through email instead of having community-wide meetings. Throughout the academic year, Bernhardt has held private meetings with community members, including members of Emerson Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine (FSJP). He has not held or participated in meetings open to the Emerson community this academic year other than the SGA meeting after the March 22 arrests and the town hall.

“I’m surprised that this is the first time I’ve heard you speak in a public meeting. When the first arrests happened and then the second arrests happened, I felt that you would call a community meeting to support [and] to discuss that,” said writing, literature & publishing associate professor Rosario Swanson. “I felt that that needed to come from you … I do think that it is in those moments of crisis that leadership needs to call for the community to gather in person.” 

The protesters at the encampment called for the college and the Board of Trustees to respond to four demands: disclose financial ties to Israeli entities, divest from companies linked to Israel, drop all charges and attacks on student organizers, and call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza. Bernhardt was asked how the Board of Trustees intended to review the events of the last six weeks and to address the four demands.

In response, Bernhardt said although he cannot speak for the board, he has been in constant communication with them. 

“I’ve had numerous briefings with the board. The board is very aware of all of the events from March 22 through today,” Bernhardt said. “The board has advised me on how we’ve responded as a college and the board has been fully engaged and is fully aware of all activities.”

Bernhardt has also said the college cannot take a stance on the war in Gaza. However, community members have expressed that the college has taken political stances in the past, citing when it announced its support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion. 

“I’ve never said that the college never has or never would take positions on political issues or sensitive issues or social issues. I said that in this specific case, the college can’t take a position in part given the wide range of opinions held within our community,” Bernhardt said. “That is the grounds by which the college has not agreed to the demands of the protesters with respect to a call for an immediate unconditional ceasefire. Those are differences, and it’s important to understand the distinction between those differences.”

Bernhardt spoke about having no authority over the police force that ended the encampment.

“No one does other than the commissioner and the mayor,” Bernhardt said. “We went to great lengths prior to the police entering the alley and making arrests to try to stave that off. We did it through engagement with the city. We did it through engagement directly with police on scene that night. And we did it through engaging with the protesters, pleading with the protesters to remove their tents, which would have allowed them to stay in the alley.”

He added, “While I don’t have any authority over police in the city … we did try to prevent arrests or prevent the forced removal of protesters from the alley.”

Bernhardt also addressed concerns over the college’s restrictions on demonstrations.

“Students and faculty and staff for that matter must have a right to peacefully protest,” Bernhardt said. “I also understand that protest often involves disruption, that the whole purpose in some cases is civil disobedience or disruption. That being said, we have safety requirements and legal requirements … we have to maintain a safe campus for everyone here.”

Bernhardt left the meeting after the Q&A session and the meeting continued with a faculty discussion revolving around the ballot questions, Bernhardt’s actions surrounding the arrests, and his overall leadership.

Anna Feder, a member of FSJP and head of film exhibition and festival programs for the VMA department, was in attendance during the special assembly meeting. She attended 40 of the 80 hours of the encampment.

“I was there when the encampment started and students were jubilant to be gathering in community and doing something to address the genocide that they were watching unfold on social media,” Feder said. “They spent months writing letters trying to host conversations, besieging the administration, all the polite things that were largely ignored. And here they were, empowered by the ideals that we taught them, finding a peaceful way to be heard, and the space they created was beautiful.”

Heather May, a communication studies professor, spoke about how it would be a premature move to make conclusions about Bernhardt’s leadership. She referenced several news outlets where former colleagues described him as “collaborative” and “invested in his colleagues and his students.”

“I have had the opportunity to speak with him on a couple of occasions,” she said. “And I see the glimpses of those things within those conversations.”

She also acknowledged that if Bernhardt were to resign, it may take a long time to find another president, which could hinder any progress the college could make regarding improvements. It took the college two years to find a full-time president before Bernhardt came to Emerson.

“I honestly don’t know if Emerson will survive it,” May said.

Communications studies professor Phillip Glenn echoed this statement and said that many of the issues at the college would not go away if Bernhardt were to resign because they’re more “structural” and “cultural.”

“They have to do with our board and our desire for better communication,” Glenn said.

However, many faculty members, including Yasser Munif, an interdisciplinary associate professor, said that while a vote of no confidence or censure would not immediately lead to Bernhardt’s resignation, it would still have a significant impact on the community. 

“It’s sending a clear message that we are siding with our students that what happened is exceptional,” Munif said. “The vote just signifies that this is a moment where we need to stop and reflect and send a very clear message.”

Some faculty members expressed that Bernhardt has not taken responsibility for the arrests or the emotional turmoil in the community and said that his responses have been disingenuous.

“To me, that doesn’t reflect someone who’s actually hearing what this body and the student body and the staff has been saying, because he’s the leader here, and he hasn’t shown up to any of the important crises that we’re experiencing,” said visual media arts professor Cristina Kotz Cornejo. “Even today he failed to say, ‘I will do this, this, and that’. It was always, ‘We can do better.’”

VMA Professor and Graduate Program Director John Gianvito said that while Bernhardt may not have had a say in how the police removed the encampment, he “did have a choice about speaking up about the degree of aggressiveness and brutality that the police exercised.” 

He also addressed comments by fellow faculty members who said that the votes for resignation or no confidence may not impact Bernhardt’s presidency.

Ultimately, he said, the faculty’s vote indicates that their “confidence in the leadership and our faith in Jay is something that needs to be earned,” Gianvito said.

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About the Contributor
Hannah Nguyen
Hannah Nguyen, Editor-in-Chief
Hannah Nguyen (she/her) is a junior journalism major from North Wales, Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in publications like The Boston Globe, North Penn Now and AsAmNews. Outside of writing, she enjoys thrifting and painting her nails. (see: https://linktr.ee/hannahcnguyen)

Comments (3)

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  • R

    roger house / May 14, 2024 at 9:31 am

    The take-away is that a majority of the faculty supported a vote to enact consequences for the president’s poor leadership. Now the question is what are the appropriate consequences? It appears that a vote of censure has substantial support among faculty and that should be the next move – with additional provisions below – and without further delay.

    1) A vote of censure for Bernhardt’s actions that tarnished the reputation of the College.

    2) A vote of support for the Emerson staff union demand for an independent and thorough inquiry.

    3) A vote of support for the Emerson staff union demand for a written response from Bernhardt on the school’s position on a ceasefire in Gaza and its investments in Israel.

    This is what faculty can do to support the justified concerns raised in the students protests – and to regain student confidence going into the summer and fall terms.

    Reply
    • C

      Craig James / May 14, 2024 at 4:02 pm

      I’m curious to what you believe should be the school’s position on a ceasefire in Gaza and its investments in Israel, and the reasons behind your belief.

      Reply
      • R

        roger house / May 14, 2024 at 6:26 pm

        Craig, your question is an attempt to deflect attention from the relevant matter at hand. And what is relevant is the position of President Bernhardt in response to the justified demands of student protestors and the Emerson staff union. Period.

        Reply