First woman of color VMA Chair prioritizes inclusion, sustainability


Courtesy Cristina Kotz Cornejo

Cristina Kotz Cornejo, the current VMA Chair.

By Alec Klusza and Ann E. Matica

Since ascending to chair of the Department of Visual & Media Arts in July—becoming the first woman of color to take the helm of the college’s most popular major—Cristina Kotz Cornejo has prioritized making the department more inclusive, eco-friendly, and pandemic-oriented.

A 20-year veteran of the college, Kotz Cornejo’s new responsibilities as VMA chair include overseeing a vast population of Emerson’s student body—30 percent, to be exact—and managing an annual budget of one million dollars. She now also commands a department representing 21 percent of the college’s faculty, according to the most recent data collected by the college.

She previously served as an associate chair of the department for five of her 20 years working at the college, during which she led production operations and oversaw the facilities and equipment budget for the department.

Some of the things that are important to me personally as the first female BIPOC chair are issues of racial and environmental justice and equity and inclusion,” Kotz Cornejo said. “It’s why I created the Women in Film Media Summit and why we are actively moving to decolonize the VMA curriculum and reflect on what accessibility means in media production and exhibition.”

The Women in Film Media Summit, which the former professor created in 2015 to bring together female filmmakers to share their experiences in the industry, is something she’s hoping to expand as chair. 

“She had an idea for a summit of women who worked in key positions in the film industry,” Brooke Knight, former VMA chair and now assistant provost, said. “She put together a terrific series of panels… that was a really big deal to recognize the importance of women in production.”

In the spring of 2020, Kotz Cornejo went on a presidential leave to pursue her own filmmaking project in Argentina. After her predecessor, Brooke Knight, was promoted to assistant provost in March, sixty-two of Kotz Cornejo’s peer faculty members elected her for the chair role at an annual faculty retreat last May. Due to the pandemic, Kotz Cornejo was trapped overseas in Argentina for her filmmaking project until May. 

As chair of the VMA department, Kotz Cornejo says one of her focuses is on reducing the department’s environmental impact by promoting the Green Production Committee—a faculty-run organization with student advisors—to investigate ways to reduce the department’s carbon footprint. The committee was formed last semester. 

“The green production committee, in collaboration with a national alliance of green production schools, is working on guidelines and resource materials to support and expand sustainability in the film industry,” wrote Green Production Committee Head Homa Sarabi-Dauunais in an emailed statement. “We are planning an event for Earth Day on April 22nd to roll out our program, guidelines, and resource lists, invite the students to participate, and host a panel about the importance of sustainability and climate awareness in the film industry.”

Kotz Cornejo’s role as associate chair of the department for nearly half a decade has well-prepared her for the new role, Knight said.

“VMA is a terrific department, and they couldn’t be in better hands than with Christina Kotz Cornejo,” Knight, who held the position for seven years, said in an interview. “During really, really challenging times, it’s extraordinarily tough. Cristina really deserves a lot of credit.”

Throughout her career at the college, Kotz Cornejo also held chair positions for the Facilities and Equipment committee—which reviews proposals for facilities or equipment—and the Development, Promotion and Tenure Committee—which reviews materials submitted by individuals up for tenure review and makes recommendations to the Dean and Faculty Status Committee.

“She’s been involved in a lot of the service work that faculty do that’s behind the scenes that a lot of students don’t see,” Knight said. “There’s committees for just about anything, and she’s really involved in that.”

While still stuck in Argentina, Kotz Cornejo spearheaded the creation of the VMA COVID 19 Production Safety Guidelines—a 54-page document outlining the protocols anyone on an Emerson film set must adhere to in order to be in compliance with the college’s COVID-19 guidelines. Some examples of rules include the instatement of the position of a “COVID Captain” on every set—someone in charge of making sure everyone on set is following the guidelines—and the requirement that all crew members wear face shields when an actor has their mask off.

“I want to make sure to give her credit for the safety protocols that are in place for COVID shoots, that allow students to actually shoot something,” Knight said. “I was the one who shut stuff down when we had to in the spring—but Christina has found a way to open it back up.”

In addition to managing on-campus film festivals, like the Bright Lights Film Series and the Emerson Film Festival, Kotz Cornejo oversees workshops hosted by the department to aid students in production classes. 

Workshops range from safety demonstrations to Steadicam workshops outsourced by the college, according to Kotz Cornejo. The department is continuing to hold workshops throughout the pandemic, though they have shifted to an online platform.

“The workshops were really [made to] support the classrooms,” Kotz Cornejo said. “We’re doing workshops in-house that are designed to support the curriculum.”

In September, Kotz Cornejo announced via email to the VMA department she was holding socially distanced office hours for the fall semester. She has not held any in the spring but hopes to continue them in the future, she said in an emailed statement to The Beacon.

“I had in-person office hours in the fall and have been trying to find time this semester, but I lost my assistant so I haven’t had someone to manage my calendar,” Kotz Cornejo said. “I hope to try and bring back some in-person or online office hours once I have a permanent assistant.”

For Kotz Cornejo, adapting to the hybrid learning environment amid the pandemic has proven frustrating, as VMA requires a substantial amount of hands-on learning in certain on-campus spaces with specific equipment.

“I deal with challenges a lot in this position,” Kotz Cornejo said. “There’s more students going into quarantine and isolation and our faculty adapting. Adapting to having their flex classes with a component of students Zooming [in] is confusing right now because in the fall we didn’t have that many COVID positives or a lot of people in quarantine.”

Kotz Cornejo added that despite the challenges of heading the department during a pandemic, she is dedicated to fulfilling the myriad roles her new position entails. 

“Being a department chair is a difficult job,” Knight said. “You have multiple constituencies at all times—obviously students and faculty, but you also work with deans, and then you have parents, and then there’s the upper administration. A lot of people look at being department chairs as kind of part of their service. It’s service to the college.”