Emerson College busy diversifying its staff

Kenneth J. Cooper | 9/19/2011, 11:55 a.m.

“When I arrived here with my daughter some years ago, I was very impressed with Emerson College,” he says. “The facilities were, and still are, magnificent. I got a very close-up view of both the faculty and how the curriculum was organized. The students are bright and infectious and enthusiastic about just about everything.”

After that parental visit, a search firm contacted him about other college presidencies, overtures he rejected. “I did say, ‘You know, Emerson is an interesting place. Should that ever come open, give me a call,’ ” Pelton recalls.

When that call finally came, the diversity controversy was under way. Pelton says that did not give him pause.

“These diversity issues are complex and highly nuanced. There’s not a single institute of higher learning that’s not seeking to deal with those very complex, nuanced issues,” he says.

After the panel reported its findings, Emerson hired Walker from Bridgewater State University as a tenured associate professor of writing. Jabari Asim, editor of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine and then a scholar-in-residence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also arrived last fall as an associate professor of writing on the tenure track. Both are African American. Last month, Walker was named interim chairman of the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing.

Two Hispanics, Christina Marín, assistant professor of performing arts; and Pablo Muchnik, associate professor of communications; also were hired in the fall. Mariko Morimoto, who is Asian, was also hired as assistant professor of marketing communication.

The hiring of Walker last year and the promotion this year of House, a journalism professor, brought the number of tenured African Americans to five out of a total of about 80 tenured professors. Paul Niwa, an associate professor of journalism who is Japanese-American, was tenured this year.

Smith, Emerson’s former diversity director, and Brown, its first tenured black professor, say additional steps need to be taken to diversify the college’s academic officers — vice presidents, deans and department chairs.

Pelton says an effective diversity effort requires leadership, strategy and resources. He envisions graduate fellowships to give minority scholars two years to complete their dissertations while at Emerson and expanding outreach programs to the city’s communities of color, including nearby Chinatown.

 He is also mulling the creation of a summer academy on campus for local students from the 7th to the 12th grade to inspire and prepare them to go to college. He established a similar program at Willamette.

 “The most important thing that we can do overall is to send a clear signal and message in not only our rhetoric, but in what we do, that this is a place that values diversity,” Pelton says. “There really is no substitute for doing that in increasing and sustaining a diverse place of learning.”

From his participation in the external review, Landsmark says he thinks leadership on diversity extends all the way to Emerson’s board of trustees.

“The board indicated a real commitment to trying to address this. In bringing in an African American as president, it’s clear they were willing to fulfill that commitment,” Landsmark says. “Obviously, we have to see how it all works out.”