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

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

POWER demands immediate removal of musical theater head

Freshman Cindy Tsai wrote “The Nuances of Racism in Theatre School.” Photo courtesy of Tsai.

Musical Theatre Program Head Scott LaFeber maintains his position despite a petition released by Protesting Oppression With Educational Reform on April 21 calling for his immediate removal.

Incoming Performing Arts Chair Robert Colby said the department plans to rotate leadership positions to give more faculty the opportunity to manage a department. Colby said this plan is still in the preliminary stages and may change as the department discusses other potential solutions.

“We’re looking at this as an opportunity to engage more deeply in the questions that Cindy [Tsai] raised,” Colby said.

The petition references a student essay which detailed alleged instances of bias and racism in the college’s theater program.

Freshman performing arts major Tsai published “The Nuances of Racism in Theatre School” on April 10 on POWER’s website. In the essay, Tsai described interactions where she claimed LaFeber dismissed her concerns of microaggressions within the program. Instead, Tsai said in an interview, he spoke of typecasting—casting a person based on their ethnicity—as an opportunity for her because she identifies as Asian-American.

LaFeber responded to the allegations in a letter on April 25 to the Performing Arts community, which the Beacon acquired. LaFeber said over the course of the last several days, the faculty met to discuss and reflect on Tsai’s allegations.

LaFeber said he recollects the conversation with Tsai. In an attempt to encourage Tsai, LaFeber wrote, he mentioned the musical Hamilton as an illustration of growing opportunities for people of color in musical theater.

“I understand now that I minimized her deeply-felt concerns about how racism may affect her future career in her chosen field,” LaFeber wrote. “As a teacher, it has always been my goal to empower and encourage my students to pursue their ambitions. Even though I am a teacher, I am learning too. I hope to grow from this experience to be able to provide the appropriate support for student in the future.”

The POWER petition calls LaFeber’s alleged actions “inexcusable and a violation of Emerson’s inclusive excellence values.” The petition garnered 203 signatures as of April 25.

“We recognize that his removal will not solve this problem, but we believe that it is a start,” the petition read.

The petition also asks the administration to create a plan of action detailing a specific response to the bias and microaggressions described in Tsai’s essay. On April 11, President M. Lee Pelton sent an email to the community in response to Tsai’s essay. Pelton wrote that Provost Michaele Whelan and himself spoke with the leadership of the School of the Arts to implement a plan of action.

The plan, according to the email, focuses on four areas—diversifying the curriculum, promoting inclusive methods of teaching, recruiting a more diverse student body, and hiring more faculty of color. Pelton said in the 2018-2019 academic year, the Performing Arts Department will host a series of workshops and conversations on cultural competency for both students and faculty.

The email does not state whether the workshops or conversations are mandatory or optional for students or faculty.

POWER wrote in the petition that the steps offered by Pelton and Whelan are ineffective, do not present a solution to the problem, and offer no timeline of when the college plans to implement changes.  

“We fail to see how the college plans to move beyond conversation to create the change that is critically needed,” the petition read.

Tsai said she was happy Pelton acknowledged her experiences with strong words such as “heartbreak, erasure, and bigotry.” After talking to members of POWER and fellow students of color, Tsai believes the action presented in Pelton’s email may not change much at the college.

“Obviously, it’s hard to see those four points and think anything is going to change,” Tsai said.

The Beacon obtained an email sent from current Performing Arts Chair Melia Bensussen to undergraduate performing arts students on April 11 that described additional steps the department is taking in response to the essay.

“With the help of the Dean, [we] will be looking comprehensively at our department curriculum, instruction, and recruiting/hiring practices to ensure that our goal of a more inclusive community will become a reality,” Bensussen wrote.

Tsai said she thinks Emerson can change, but not fast enough. She decided to transfer to Pace University’s BFA Musical Theatre program for the fall 2018 semester.

“It came to me that it’s a good decision for me to leave,” Tsai said.

In her discussions with administrators, Tsai said they seemed honest in saying change to the curriculum or behavior may not happen during her time at Emerson.

“I do think, in time, Emerson is going to get better and I really hope because of my memoir and the momentum that it is receiving, I hope it happens faster for all of my friends and classmates here,” she said.

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About the Contributor
Chris Van Buskirk
Chris Van Buskirk, Former Editor-in-Chief/Emerson ‘21
Chris Van Buskirk graduated in 2021. He worked for the State House News Service and MassLive before moving on to the Boston Herald as a state house reporter in May 2023.

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