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Emerson prof emeritus declines graduation invitation

Town Meeting logoRoger House of Arlington, an Emerson College professor emeritus of journalism and history, wrote this letter, published by The Boston Globe, and republished with the author's permission. Photo by Jack Kaplan for Globe.

Re “New at Emerson, already in crisis: President faces heat over how protest ended” (Page A1, May 4): Having watched the hourslong live-streamed Emerson College town hall, I took an interest in the reporting on the testimony of students, staff, and faculty about protests and policing on campus and the leadership of the school’s new president, Jay Bernhardt.

I found the eyewitnesses genuine and passionate; the campus community should be proud of how it represented itself. An impression from the eyewitness accounts was that, in the matter of the encampment erected in a downtown alley to protest Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, Bernhardt’s actions were in response to concerns over antisemitic statements and public safety issues. Yet, his actions — or inactions — were seen by many to escalate tensions rather than defuse them.

Speakers raised questions about the proportionality of the police response, noting that unarmed campus security had the scene under control. In addition, by relying on city and state police, officials exposed a significant number of staff, faculty and students of color to rough handling. The exposure was detailed in eyewitness testimony and supported in the demand of the Emerson staff union for an independent and thorough inquiry. In taking a vote of “no confidence,” students reached the conclusion that Bernhardt has shown a failure of presidential leadership that cannot be rehabilitated.

Defining image of presidency

A most telling moment during the assembly was the hostile language of Eric Alexander, chair of the Emerson board. It involved a Black student speaking about the experience of policing in Boston. When the student pulled a can of spray paint out of his backpack, Alexander, seated next to Bernhardt a few rows away, yelled, “Back the [expletive] up,” as the young man approached. The image of an older white man shouting down a Black student is a defining image of the Bernhardt presidency.

I was invited to attend commencement as a retiring professor with 25 years of teaching and research; in fact, I am believed to be the first Black professor emeritus first Black professor emeritussince the founding of Emerson in 1880. I declined with regrets because I fear that Sunday’s scheduled ceremony will be yet another ostensible forum for peaceful protest that is likely to devolve into an extreme security response.

I ask for the understanding of the graduating class. I would be proud to represent Emerson at commencement when an enlightened president is in office. 


This viewpoint was published Thursday, May 9, 2024.  

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Comments

Guest - Estelle Ticktin on Monday, 13 May 2024 17:09
Emerson president

Hello,

As an Emerson College staff union member I have supported the students for the last few months and I agree with most of what Professor House has written. President Bernhardt has done an awful job handling the protests and relations with students, and they have bravely brought attention to the horror in Gaza. There are just two points that I disagree with. First, the order to send in BPD was made by Mayor Wu - I think because it would have been bad optics for her to have cleared out tents from Mass and Cass, but then let a group of students keep their tents up. The alley is not Emerson property - it is shared by Emerson and the city of Boston. President Bernhardt did warn the students that BPD was going to be sent in, and offered to have them stay overnight in Emerson buildings but they refused. However, having Emerson police lock the doors once BPD arrived was a horrendous decision and prevented students and staff from finding shelter there. It was not a surprise that BPD moved in and it was not President Bernhardt's decision. BPD arrived in riot gear and were amped up for the violence that followed. Secondly, as for the student who pulled out a spray can from his backpack - it was not just the fact that he pulled something out of his backpack and he was black. He was screaming the entire time, and charged aggressively at President Bernhardt, screaming about a foot or less in front of his face. Any young man - black or otherwise - acting like this comes off as a threat. My son is black, and if he had done something like this to anyone I would have been furious. And if my 22-year-old son were white and had been screaming in someone's face, I would also have been furious. The student's fury is justified, but his behavior wasn't. The other students spoke passionately without overstepping a line. All that said, we have a long way to go to move past this. It has been a distressing time, both within Emerson and in the world.

Hello, As an Emerson College staff union member I have supported the students for the last few months and I agree with most of what Professor House has written. President Bernhardt has done an awful job handling the protests and relations with students, and they have bravely brought attention to the horror in Gaza. There are just two points that I disagree with. First, the order to send in BPD was made by Mayor Wu - I think because it would have been bad optics for her to have cleared out tents from Mass and Cass, but then let a group of students keep their tents up. The alley is not Emerson property - it is shared by Emerson and the city of Boston. President Bernhardt did warn the students that BPD was going to be sent in, and offered to have them stay overnight in Emerson buildings but they refused. However, having Emerson police lock the doors once BPD arrived was a horrendous decision and prevented students and staff from finding shelter there. It was not a surprise that BPD moved in and it was not President Bernhardt's decision. BPD arrived in riot gear and were amped up for the violence that followed. Secondly, as for the student who pulled out a spray can from his backpack - it was not just the fact that he pulled something out of his backpack and he was black. He was screaming the entire time, and charged aggressively at President Bernhardt, screaming about a foot or less in front of his face. Any young man - black or otherwise - acting like this comes off as a threat. My son is black, and if he had done something like this to anyone I would have been furious. And if my 22-year-old son were white and had been screaming in someone's face, I would also have been furious. The student's fury is justified, but his behavior wasn't. The other students spoke passionately without overstepping a line. All that said, we have a long way to go to move past this. It has been a distressing time, both within Emerson and in the world.
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