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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

Interview: President Jay Bernhardt responds to arrest of 13 students

Naia Driscoll
President Jay Bernhardt. (Naia Driscoll/Beacon Correspondent)

On March 22, as President Jay Bernhardt was officially being inaugurated as the 13th president of Emerson College, 13 students were arrested outside the ceremony that was taking place in the Cutler Majestic Theater. These students were detained while protesting “tuition hikes, silence on the genocide in Gaza, and overall student suppression.” 

In response to the incident, Bernhardt sat down with the Beacon to address many of the questions that are currently on the student body’s mind: the campus culture leading up to the arrests, the incident and its aftermath, and how the college will move forward after an event that has undoubtedly shaken the Emerson community to its core. 

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a larger series surrounding the March 22 arrests. It has been edited for punctuation and AP style, but has been kept in its entirety for transparency’s sake.

Beacon: Can you tell me a little about the events leading up to the inauguration? What was planned on the day itself? 

Bernhardt: Let me first say, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. I know it’s been a challenging few days for the whole Emerson community, as well as for me and the college leadership, and I appreciate the chance to talk and share our feelings and experiences from the last few days. 

In the lead-up to the inauguration events, we spent many, many weeks planning for an opportunity to celebrate Emerson, and to bring our campus and community together with several events, programs, and panels, culminating with the investiture ceremony on Friday morning. That would be a chance to be inaugurated as president but also celebrate and share all of the things that it means to be an Emersonian. 

Beacon: You sent a school-wide email regarding protesting outside of the inauguration that mentioned plans to go inside the ceremony. Can you tell me anything about how you heard of those plans and what they were? 

Bernhardt: I know that there’s been lots of protests and lots of demonstrations in recent weeks and months on campus on a whole range of topics. And so, in advance of the Investiture Ceremony on Friday morning, it was important to me that everyone in the community understand what the guidelines are on peaceful protest. Protest was allowed; protest was not discouraged for the Investiture Ceremony. 

But what was important to me was for students or others to demonstrate and share their perspectives in a way that’s consistent with our code of conduct, to help prevent conflict, and prevent any incidents from happening. That was my hope for sending that email: not to discourage protest, but to ensure that any activities happen within our guidelines. Our guidelines related to protests and related to free expression exist to protect community safety and to ensure respectful dialogue within our community. They’re very modest restrictions. They don’t discourage speech, but they ensure safe speech. 

Beacon: Despite several attempts, we have not been given any official word on what exactly happened leading up to the arrests. Have you spoken with the Emerson College Police Department (ECPD), and is there anything you can tell us about this conversation?

Bernhardt: I can share some updates on what occurred. I didn’t witness any of what occurred. I was literally on the stage in the Cutler Majestic from 10:30 till noon when I got the news of what had happened. But I can share what’s been shared with me through the video, the police reports, and witness accounts.

A number of students approached the cordoned area to demonstrate in advance during the ceremony. They were directed by police and staff on-site to a designated area for protest, where they proceeded to protest reasonably within the guidelines for much of the time of the ceremony. I understand what then happened was a number of times during that demonstration, a number of students left the designated area and approached the doors. At times, they were encouraged to go back to the designated area. About 50 or 60 people were protesting, I’m told. And then, at one point, a number of the protesters approached the doors and were told by the police that they needed to go back to the other area, as they were blocking the passageway on the sidewalk and blocking the doors. For safety reasons, the doors must be available in case the theater needs to be evacuated, filled with hundreds of people.

After multiple warnings by the police to go back to the other area and comply with their orders, a student was arrested for failing to comply with the orders. That was followed by another student in a similar situation. And then at that point, I’m told, and I saw on the video, that a number of people crowded the doorway, after which there was a larger number of arrests.

My understanding of what happened was that the vast majority of students who were protesting stayed within the guidelines and stayed within the designated area. A small number approached the area that they were not supposed to, for safety reasons. They were asked multiple times to move from that area. When they didn’t follow those police instructions, they were subsequently arrested.

Beacon: You mentioned you were on stage while the arrests were happening. At what point were you made aware of the incident and what was your initial reaction? 

Bernhardt: I was not aware that there was even a protest happening, let alone that there had been any arrests, until the ceremony was over. I left the stage at around noon. I was shocked. I was in a position of joy and appreciation, and in a moment where the college had come together in such a positive way. And then to hear this news was heartbreaking for me because it had such an enormous impact on our students and our community. I understood immediately the gravity of the situation. So it was a significant surprise and shock.

I’d like to be very clear: I did not order any arrests. The college cannot order or plan for arrests. There was absolutely no intention for arrests, and there was a deep desire that there be no arrests, nor that there be any activities that would lead to arrest. So, this was a significant occurrence that we didn’t plan for, hope for, or expect.

Beacon: Can you tell us anything about how those students are now? Have you contacted them in any capacity? 

Bernhardt: The students have been engaged with our administration and our staff from the moment they were arrested. A number of our staff people were at the police station where they were being processed and stayed there the entire time until they were released. Since then, our staff have been in regular contact with them and continue to provide support as needed. And my understanding is that they’re continuing to be processed through the court system.

Beacon: I want to delve into the reasoning behind these protests. A large part of the demonstration was regarding hearings that many call a suppression of free speech. Can you tell us anything about those hearings and why they were held?

Bernhardt: I’m not aware of any hearings that have been held or planned this semester, or that are pending, relating to the context of people’s speech. There have been a number of incidents this [past] summer related to other actions that are outside our code of conduct and our policies, related to vandalism, for example, and causing damage to walls and property. There are issues like that that are pending for investigation. There’s absolutely no suppression of speech or policies that have hearings related to what people are promoting or advocating.

I think that claim is misleading because I’m not aware of any speech-related restrictions that have occurred or resulted in hearings. The hearings I’m aware of relate to damage to property or other code violations, not at all related to speech. Our college has a robust policy for free expression and demonstration. Our college has a core value related to people’s ability to share and advocate for what they believe. And our community has strong, diverse beliefs. That is what makes us Emersonian, what makes us special, and what makes us the community that we all care for.

There are modest limitations around speech on our campus related to issues of safety and protecting identities. Those are the only restrictions that exist. We have not gone out of our way to suppress anybody’s speech; just the opposite. People are encouraged to speak their minds through many different platforms and channels within the bounds of our policies.

Beacon: Another protested issue was the tuition hikes being implemented next academic year. Do you have any comments on this? 

Bernhardt: You know, we know, and I know very well that among the very biggest challenges we face as a college are issues of access and affordability. I shared in my investiture speech, which I hope people will soon be able to watch if they missed it, that there is no bigger problem we have, and there’s nothing more important for us to do than to address issues of access and availability. We are working with the Board of Trustees, which approves our budget each year, to determine what, if any, changes there will be for next year with respect to tuition and financial aid.

But we’ve heard loud and clear from the students through our survey, which we conducted in recent weeks, about the strong need to invest in greater financial aid, particularly if there are going to be any tuition hikes. We’re taking that very seriously as we consider what the implications may be for next year.

Beacon: A main call to action from this protest and many others is for the college to demand a ceasefire in Gaza. Has the college ever considered taking a public stance on this?

Bernhardt: As individuals, all of us care incredibly deeply about what’s happening in the world. And our hearts break for the loss of innocent lives in Gaza, as they do in all places around the world. This tragedy of such proportions weighs heavy on all of us.

As president of Emerson College, my personal opinion of how I feel about the world is not the same as what the college takes as a position in a public way. And I understand that people care deeply about this issue, among many others. However, Emerson College does not have a foreign policy. Our position is that we are not going to take a formal position or take a side in a global dispute that doesn’t directly affect our college and our operations.

I know that this stance may be disappointing to many people in different parts of our community. But that’s the reality of Emerson, and that’s the reality of higher education. Colleges and universities do not have foreign policies.

Beacon: I’m going to direct back toward the arrests themselves. Many students have noticed an increase in police presence at peaceful protests, especially pro-Palestinian ones. On the inauguration specifically, many people have expressed this may have contributed to a hostile environment and escalated tensions. How do you feel about this? 

Bernhardt: Again, I wasn’t out in front of the building, so I can’t speak firsthand to what was there or not there. I do know that when the college puts on significant events, like the investiture ceremony in the Cutler Majestic Theatre with hundreds of attendees, there is a security presence, and there are staff, police, and others who are always involved in planning for the response. I can’t say I know or believe that there was an excessive presence there. I don’t understand how that would contribute to protesters choosing to not follow the guidelines, but I also didn’t see it myself.

Beacon: Another big part of this conversation is that 11 of the 13 students arrested were Black and brown, causing many to believe they were singled out. What is your reaction to this? 

Bernhardt: I have no evidence or reason to believe that any students were singled out for arrest based on their race or ethnicity. People were arrested because of their failure to comply with police directions after multiple warnings to relocate to the other area for protests. So, in terms of who was arrested, it would be a function of who approached the doors and failed to comply with the police directives. It was not a function of their background in any way.

Beacon: It’s been circulating that the 12 Emerson students arrested have had their campus movement restricted. Do you know how and why this has been implemented? 

Bernhardt: We can’t comment on specific students and their hearing status for privacy reasons. But I can say that, in general, we want to ensure that all students affected by this are able to continue their educational, spiritual, and mental health needs. So, we are going to do what we can to ensure that they can continue to have all their needs met on campus.

Beacon: You recently released a statement saying that charges would not be pressed against students. What were the factors of this decision, and how is it playing out now?

Bernhardt: While we believe that the behavior of the protesters was a concern and a safety concern at the moment, it’s our desire to process and manage any continued follow-up internally and not through the criminal justice system. So, we intend to bring in a third-party independent hearing leader to ensure that there’s fairness and lack of perceived bias in our process, to oversee an upcoming review of the allegations against these students.

Beacon: A lot of students are hurting right now and fear what this means for the college. What do you feel will be the impact of these arrests? 

Bernhardt: We know, and I know, that campus is hurting, and especially students are hurting from this experience. And it’s made much more difficult because there’s so much misinformation going around, and rumors and accusations, many of which are not true. That’s contributing to this divisiveness and fracturing that seems to be occurring on campus. So, as the president of Emerson, I care deeply for all of our students, and I care deeply for the students who [were] arrested. My job as president is to help protect and keep our community safe. And that includes everybody so that they can have the best possible experience as students at an educational institution.

This is weighing heavy on me, and I’m very distraught with all the problems we’re facing and what the students are going through. We’re trying to get as much accurate information out as we can so people can form their own opinions based on the facts and not based on Instagram posts that don’t describe the facts. So, that’s why I’m doing this interview with you, and why I think The Beacon is an important channel for people to turn to in this case, to try to separate the facts from the misinformation.

Going forward, the most important thing we all need to do is talk. We need to talk to each other respectfully, create dialogue, and listen to each other, actively listen to each other, so we know where we’re all coming from. I know that the students who are protesting, I know that they’re hurting, that they feel very strongly about issues, and they feel they haven’t been heard. And we, as leaders of the college, need to make sure that they feel heard, and that they are heard. 

But we also need to ask everyone in our community to continue to communicate in a respectful way that allows us to ensure the safety and the continued operation of the campus. I don’t think that’s asking a lot, that’s saying, “Be Emersonian: Communicate passionately and respectfully.” That’s all we’re asking for. And I think through these dialogues, and through this discussion that I will have with students and with faculty and staff, that my leadership team will have all across campus, I think that’s how we will come back together as one community and be better as a result of it.

Beacon: A couple of times in your response, you mentioned that misinformation is being spread across campus. Can you give any details on what that misinformation may be? 

Bernhardt: There’s extensive misinformation being given out on all platforms. Some of it has to do with me, and terrible things being said to me and about me, some of it has to do with information about the facts of the arrests, some of it has to do with information about my background as a scholar and researcher, and health communication expert. It has to do with all kinds of issues and it’s very troubling. A college like ours that focuses on communication as one of our areas should have a commitment and a desire for truth. And we should have a commitment and a desire not to intentionally spread misinformation. I hope that may be one of the lessons we can all learn from this is for all Emersonians to be media literate, and think hard about the information they’re receiving before they believe it to be true.

Beacon: What happens now? Are there any plans or conversations happening behind the scenes you can tell us about? 

Bernhardt: In the immediate term, we’re doing everything we can to get out information as quickly as we can so people understand the facts and the truth of what happened. Beyond that, we are reaching out, and I’m reaching out, to have conversations with everyone I can, and everyone we can, to begin and expand our dialogue of listening, hearing, and understanding better people’s concerns. This is an opportunity for all of us to get better as a college. Students with diverse voices and diverse concerns will be heard, and we’ll listen. We’ll do everything we can to address them and make sure that we are an engaged community of listening to each other and taking action.

We’re going to be having office hours that will be announced soon with college leadership, myself included. I’m reaching out to student organizations and others to begin an increased dialogue around all of these concerns we have. We’ll keep doing this until we feel that we’ve moved to a place where people are comfortable. If it takes us days, weeks, months, or years, I’m personally committed as the leader of this college to take us to the place where we can all be proud to be Emersonian.

Beacon: Officially stepping into the presidency on the heels of an event like this, how do you feel?

Bernhardt: I’ve been president of Emerson for almost 10 months now, and I’ve been listening and learning a lot. The events of the last few days have contributed to my listening and learning as well. I’m committed to learning from this, and I’m committed that our community will learn from this. We will work as hard as we can to become better leaders and a more engaged community.

There are many great challenges that we face, and I intend to lead Emerson through those periods and moments. Despite this challenge and other challenges that we will face, I remain very optimistic about the future of Emerson and our potential to make an enormous impact on the world through our work, communication, and the arts.

Beacon: If you could give a message to the campus community right now, what would it be? 

Bernhardt: My main message would be [you’re] heard. I hear what people are saying, I hear that people are hurting. We’re hurting too. Our entire community is hurting from this. And the best way to heal is going to be through dialogue, discussion, listening, learning, and more communication to bring us together as a community.

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About the Contributor
Sophia Pargas
Sophia Pargas, Editor-in-Chief
Sophia Pargas (she/her) is a senior Journalism and Marketing Communications double major from Miami, Florida. She has served on the Beacon since her sophomore year, using it as an opportunity to grow professionally and cover the things that matter to her—personal narratives, culture, ethics, arts, and much more. Outside of the paper, Sophia is a member of Alpha Epsilon Phi, an Engagement Lab student fellow, and has held several journalism and marketing internships at NBCUniversal, NBC South Florida, NBC Boston, and WCVB. To learn more about Sophia, her passions, and her experience, visit her personal portfolio "The SCP Journal." 

Comments (5)

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  • M

    Mitchell / Mar 29, 2024 at 9:01 pm

    Thank you President Bernhardt for your leadership during this turbulent time. It is unfortunate that a small number of protestors attempted to interfere with your investiture ceremony and failed to comply with direct orders from the police intended to protect public safety, leading to their arrest. I hope that this will be a learning experience for all students that while peaceful protest is tolerated, even encouraged, protest that endangers the safety of others is a crime.

    • A

      Anonymous human / Mar 30, 2024 at 12:00 pm

      No one’s safety was in danger. How dare you attempt to criminalize these students.

      You are making an assumption without proof.

      Also, you should know that the students have a constitutional right to protest. In Massachusetts, Articles 16 and 19 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, protects our rights to protest.

      The people inside of the Cutler Majestic Theater were never in any danger. That’s a straw man fallacy.

      Meanwhile, people who are in danger of genocide are wondering why the world doesn’t seem to care. https://news.un.org/en/story/2024/03/1147976

      Maybe you need to rethink your reactionary, 1950s mentality, Mitchell.

    • D

      david bloom / Mar 31, 2024 at 9:08 am

      Did the president’s crisis management team thought it was a good idea to infiltrate the comments section?

  • A

    Anonymous / Mar 28, 2024 at 4:50 pm

    I agree with Leo. The president of Emerson College handled this in a way that screams fascism. He could’ve said no arrests right away. Instead, those students were stuck in an actual JAIL cell for hours, some as long as 7 to 8 hours. He claims he didn’t know it was happening but learned about it as 12 pm. Yet he did not go to see the students or even send anyone there.

    The ONLY reason he’s doing a 180 is because of the pushback he’s gotten from students, staff and faculty.

    No one trusts him. You can’t fix this.

    He needs to go back to Texas. We don’t want him.

  • L

    Leo Kagan / Mar 28, 2024 at 10:06 am

    This president is garbage. Leave Emerson. You don’t understand the student body and you don’t really care about us. You’re laughably obsessed with your image. Go somewhere else. Clown.