State of the College: Interim president reflects on Emerson’s successes, struggles in 2021

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By Bailey Allen, Editor-at-Large

Interim President William Gilligan published his first State of the College report on Tuesday detailing the college’s accomplishments over the course of the past year, including the induction of new administrators, increasing enrollment numbers, and the launch of initiatives centering equity and inclusion.

Gilligan, who took up the presidency in June after former President M. Lee Pelton departed to head the Boston Foundation, emphasized that “confidence, continuity, and collegiality” are the keys to continued success, especially in the midst of the search for a permanent president.

Gilligan also commended Emerson for its expansion in academics. He noted that the college reached record highs in several prestigious higher education rankings, particularly the lists of U.S. News and World Report and The Hollywood Reporter.

“Emerson did quite well this year at the Emmys—four Emersonians won Emmy Awards for their creative work and more than two dozen Emersonians were nominated,” Gilligan added.

Gilligan also highlighted the success of the Marlboro Institute for the Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies—which is in its second year of existence—as well as the growth of graduate programs such as Speech@Emerson. The college also plans to offer a graduate degree in business of creative enterprises following the prosperity of the BCE undergraduate program.

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In addition to the college’s accomplishments in the academic sphere, Gilligan acknowledged the college’s booming enrollment numbers, alluding to the fact that Emerson reached a new record of incoming first-year students this year. He noted the diversity of the class of 2025—28 percent being domestic students of color, 15 percent being international students, and 14 percent being first-generation college students.

According to Gilligan, one of the college’s most significant initiatives is the commitment to equitable learning. When Vice President for Equity and Social Justice Sylvia Spears resigned this summer, Ruthanne Madsen, vice president for enrollment, was appointed to oversee the position in the interim. Gilligan stressed the importance of finding a permanent administrator for the position.

The administration had hired consultancy group Beyond Racial Equity, which specializes in anti-racism and anti-oppression, to analyze and review college materials such as climate surveys and published statements from student organizations. The group plans to release a report on its findings in early March.

In addition, the college has launched the Emerson Circle of Creative Scholars—a scholarship program for historically marginalized students—as well as The Dean’s Fellowships for Racial Equity, and a new Student Success, Access, and Belonging unit of the Office of Student Success.

Gilligan highlighted the financial challenges brought on by the pandemic. With more than $32 million in revenue losses and the need to spend approximately $14 million on COVID-related expenditures, staff saw a suspension of raises, a pause in retirement contributions, and a new early retirement program.

“Emerson is particularly proud of the commitment of its staff, faculty, and students to keep the community whole during this challenging time and to do so with no furloughs or layoffs, no staff or faculty salary cuts, no change to health benefits, and no reductions in student financial aid,” he wrote.

Elements of the college’s response, including the hiring freeze and delayed action on a collective bargaining agreement, have drawn criticism from Emerson’s staff union.

“By uniting as a community, and by adopting significant cost-alleviating measures and practices, we were able to meet these challenges head on, and I want to thank all of you for the sacrifices you made over the past year and a half,” Gilligan wrote. “Those sacrifices helped protect the health, wellness and, notably, the jobs of the members of our community.”

The college recently announced a compensation plan for staff, entailing an annual salary increase of 2.5 percent beginning next year and a one-time payment of $1,000 for eligible employees.

Gilligan praised the community’s ability to endure and adapt to the ever changing set of challenges that the coronavirus had provoked.

“While the pandemic is certainly not over—and while important safety measures such as masking and testing requirements remain in place—it feels good to be able to work, study, and live in an environment closer to normal than we’ve had in quite some time,” he said.