Now that the divisiveness caused by Emerson’s near-relocation to Lawrence, Mass. has finally ended, newly appointed president John C. Zacharis hopes to rejuvenate and lead the college through the 1990s.
But he doesn’t have an easy task. The recessionary winds that buffet the country and the communications media in particular have not spared academic institutions. In particularly hard-hit New England, Zacharis acknowledges inherent difficulties as he pursues a two-pronged plan to strengthen the college’s finances and facilities.
“With a sounder footing and financing made possible by selling and developing property, we should focus our resources on upgrading institutional facilities,” Zacharis told the faculty last month. “By expanding our affiliations, we can broaden enrollment, financial and academic resources.”
Emerson’s 10th president (and the first to be a school alumnus), Zacharis joined the faculty in 1966 and progressed through academic and administrative positions that included chair of the communication studies division, vice president, dean, senior vice president and interim president.
Amplifying his philosophy and plans for change in a private interview in his Back Bay office, Zacharis emphasized the urgency for physical plant improvements. “Emerson has a good image in terms of its traditions, its location, the brownstones and all of its Old World ambience, but what is needed is something new and modern. We have to take the opportunities as they come – it’s a buyer’s market.”
The corollary to the real estate downturn that so devalued Emerson’s holdings is that other properties have become more affordable. As prices have fallen substantially on much Back Bay property, Emerson is exploring numerous possibilities. The college is also negotiating with Boston’s cable franchise, Cablevision Systems, which seeks to wire the school’s student housing. With ample capacity in Cablevision’s dual 400-MHz cable system, Emerson would like an institutional channel system linking its buildings that allows for several origination points throughout the campus.
A new block recently designated by the city for development opposite the Emerson Majestic Theater would be ideal for performance and mass media space. “Although the site is much larger in scope than Emerson would want to deal with in totality,” said Harry Morgan, vice president for campus development, “to participate in a piece of it makes sense.”
Undergoing an estimated $7 million renovation, the historic 800-seat theater has so far received a $2.8 million infusion which has helped in construction of a new stage floor, a new counterweight rigging system along with the original hemp-and-sandbag version, an enlarged orchestra pit and many other features. Future work will involve facade, roofing, marquee and stained glass improvements.
With rates considerably lower than those of the city’s unionized theaters, the Majestic has attracted several area performing groups like the Boston Lyric Opera, Dance Umbrella and New England Conservatory. Their productions have joined the college’s own ambitious slate of student projects including “George M!,” “Three Sisters” and “Into the Woods.”
If the Majestic represents Emerson’s renewed presence in the performance arts, its recent acquisition of Ploughshares illustrates a similar commitment to the literary arts. The prestigious, award-winning journal provides new opportunities for both students and faculty to contribute to a nationally renowned magazine.
“If we had been Harvard, we would have looked for a journal that wrote academic or scholarly articles on, say, Hawthorne or Melville,” said Zacharis. “But as the type of institution we are, we looked for a journal that was more of a creative publication – something people could contribute to. As with all of our disciplines, we recognize creativity and scholarship as being hand-maidens.”
The Ploughshares affiliation reinforces Emerson’s move to include a stronger emphasis on writing in its curriculum. The division of writing, literature and publishing offers both bachelor and master’s degree programs. Additional faculty expertise comes from writers-in-residence like author/screenwriter Christopher Keane (“The Hunter”).
“We came to the conclusion that we needed to change the English department to a writing, literature and publishing department so that we prepared students not only for the oral and visual side of communication but for the written side as well,” said Zacharis. “It’s both a creative and pre-professional writing program, and a natural extension of the work we had already begun in journalism, broadcast journalism and other fields.”
In September the college initiated a doctoral program in communication disorders, while future plans could include new M.F.A. programs in visual arts and theater as Emerson prepares for a re-accreditation visit by the New England Assn. of Schools and Colleges in 1992.
Emerson augments its academic schedule via an extensive internship program offering practical, real-world experience in a variety of media professions. Its programs in Los Angeles and the Netherlands town of Well offer unique opportunities in television, film and international media.
“The European program is geared toward completion of college requirements like Western civilization and fine arts,” said Zacharis, “and also at the theoretical end in the areas of international communications and journalism. The L.A. program, although courses are offered, is for the most part driven by its internship program.”
Vin DiBona, producer of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “America’s Funniest People,” amplified the program’s merit. “I was able to hire several Emerson students from the L.A. program when the show took off,” he said. “It was a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time.”
Which also encapsulates the position of a college poised to offer its undergrad and graduate students a cutting-edge education in the ever-changing media world. “Emerson wants to convey the image of an institution that encompasses both communications and performing arts,” said Zacharis, “a college that looks at the whole spectrum of the communications industry.”