Emerson College, the Back Bay institution that has placed thousands of its graduates throughout the entertainment business, was founded, appropriately enough, as a school of oratory.
That was 110 years ago. Charles Wesley Emerson, a noted preacher, orator and teacher, wanted to put his “evolution of expression” theory to the test within a practical study program emphasizing physical components of voice and gesture – along with understanding, imagination and clearness of vision.
Since then, Emerson has evolved into a nationally recognized center for study in mass communications, theater arts, communication studies and disorders, American culture and communication, writing, literature and publishing.
First and foremost
Along the way, Emerson’s history has been marked by a number of firsts. In 1919, Emerson became the first college in the U.S. to offer a program in children’s theater. The following year, it began conferring the nation’s first bachelor’s degree in literary interpretation.
In 1935, Emerson became the first college in the nation to offer professional training in speech pathology and audiology. It later opened a clinical center to serve people with speech, language and hearing impairments. (Today, the Samuel Robbins Speech and Hearing Center and several related facilities provide services to area families.)
In 1937, Emerson became the first New England college to offer an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism, and in 1949 launched WERS, the first college educational FM radio station in New England. Today, Emerson students operate both WERS (voted “Best of Boston” by Boston magazine in 1989), a non-commercial, 3,000-watt stereo station, and WECB, a commercial AM station serving its dining and residence halls.
Emerson was the first college in New England to operate a closed-circuit television broadcast station (1953), and similarly was the first N.E. school to offer a bachelor of fine arts degree in film, beginning in 1972. That program recognized the necessity to prepare student for careers in film and other visual media by balancing theory with practical work in areas like production techniques and screenwriting.
Anticipating the growing need for expertise in publishing, Emerson initiated in 1980 a comprehensive graduate program in professional writing. This program includes far-ranging study in areas such as advertising, magazine design and production, and literary-agency practice. A master of fine arts degree in creative writing was added in 1985.
The ’80s were a decade of unparalleled growth for Emerson in terms of both academic programs and physical facilities. Starting in 1979, the college registered a 66% growth rate in its student body through the decade to reach a record 2,002 undergraduate and 405 graduate students in the fall of 1989, its highest enrollment ever.
Major campus renovations included a new library, two new television studios and control rooms, new on-air studios for WERS radio and a new home for the humanities and social sciences division. Expansion also included additional academic, performance, office and student-housing space. The school’s most newsworthy addition was the 800-seat Majestic Theater in the heart of Boston’s theater district.
Despite these physical improvements, limited expansion possibilities and the increased equity of Emerson’s Back Bay holdings led the college to embark on an ill-fated decision to relocate.
In 1985, the board of trustees decided to purchase an 85-acre site along the Merrimack River in Lawrence, Mass. But political and legal opposition caused years of delay, and the ensuing recession that engulfed Massachusetts drastically lowered the value of Emerson’s Boston campus. In June 1990, the trustees abandoned the five-year-old plan.
“It was an economic turnaround – the real estate market, construction costs, the inability of Lawrence to provide the property free and clear because of legal issues – that brought us into a new era,” says new president John C. Zacharis. “The fact that we’re staying in Boston is, of course, very positive from the point of view of the alumni, students and faculty. The city itself also has a cultural dimension with which everybody identifies in terms of Emerson College.”