Letter: False assumptions


By Christopher Stetson Wilson, Administrative Associate to Chair, Journalism Department

Christopher Stetson Wilson is the administrative associate to the chair of Emerson’s Journalism Department. Wilson is also an Emerson graduate student studying creative writing.

Claire Rodenbush’s opinion piece on June 16 (“Emerson should work for a more affordable hybrid experience”), while valid in its sentiment and its call to action, is written on a false assumption and contains some wild arithmetic.

First, I did not write this letter to invalidate Rodenbush’s frustration over the cost of attending Emerson, and it’s not in my job description to antagonize students, either. I work as an administrator, the only administrator in the Department of Journalism. I’m also a graduate student in the creative writing program. I agree that Emerson is too expensive for too many students, as do many of Emerson’s staff and faculty. While it’s not addressed in the piece, it bothers me especially that this burden falls disproportionately hard on students of color and international applicants, which contributes mightily to a lack of diversity on campus. And the difficulty dealing with how to continue the college experience during a global pandemic has only underscored this problem.

But Rodenbush’s piece is going by the false assumption that Emerson is a for-profit business. She says, “Emerson College, like all businesses, exists to make money.” That is false.

Emerson College is a non-profit. It is designated a 501(c)(3) by the IRS. It exists to educate students, not to “make money.” Unlike private, for-profit businesses, it is required by the federal government to show its work. You can download and scrutinize Emerson’s 990 tax form if you like. ProPublica has those forms going back to 2001. They are publicly available, and you can see for yourself the revenue Emerson takes in, the salaries it pays, and what it makes or loses on investments. It’s an 80-page document that is independently audited annually.

Rodenbush then says, “Should the Board want to continue to make money in the long term…” and furthermore says, “…the Board needs to be the ones who take a loss.” 

The Board of Trustees do not extract income from Emerson. If you look at Emerson’s Form 990, scroll down to Part VII, and you can see the compensation to our trustees. You’ll see nothing but zeroes. Obviously, President Pelton and the vice presidents draw their salary, but the Trustees make literally nothing from Emerson. Saying “the Board needs to be the ones to take a loss” is just an impossible suggestion. There’s nothing to take, unless Rodenbush is suggesting we take them hostage and sell their houses, cars, and stock portfolios.

Rodenbush also pitches some numbers, suggesting the college should drop tuition by $10,000 or $15,000 and cut housing costs in half. A back-of-the-envelope calculation with these numbers means she’s suggesting the college take a $40 to $70 million loss for the next fiscal year. Cutting a few VP salaries and halting construction on the sidewalk won’t even begin to make a dent in that. You’d have to cut staff and faculty salaries in half or lay off half the campus to reach that kind of savings. There is no Emerson College if that happens. I love Emerson, and I work here for a lot less than I could make doing other things, but I’m not going to work for Emerson and try to live in Boston on $20,000 a year.

And please, please don’t go calling people who work in the Finance office, which is linked in the story. Those are good people, hard-working people, facing their own challenges right now, both personally and professionally. I work with them. They do not set the direction of the college. The Director of Budget and Planning doesn’t set the budget or make the plans. The Director of Disbursements (April Jones—a really nice woman, and exceptionally competent, by the way) doesn’t choose who gets paid what.

The Trustees of the college determine the direction of the college and set the plans. If you feel Emerson’s main focus should be on making more financial aid available to more students (which I completely agree with), it is the Trustees who would set that priority. Rodenbush is correct that students can create change at the college if they organize; just make sure the change you’re advocating for is aimed at the right people. And check your assumptions carefully or they will undercut your argument, even when your emotion is justified.

One post-script: Emerson College exists in a massive ecosystem of colleges and universities in this country. The frustration over tuition at this college is also part of a broader national absence of leadership on the cost of higher education. Please remember to vote.

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