Emerson owes students permanent chairs

by Beacon Staff • February 6, 2008

The lack of permanent department chairs

Our View:

Permanent chairs are critical to ensuring Emerson's excellence,The storyline is familiar: Emerson College is expanding, and has been for years. The move from Beacon Street to the centralized and sterilized downtown reflects our evolving persona. The college is building new dorms, recruiting more athletes and toughening up admissions standards, all with a clear goal: our little Campus on the Common wants to go head-to-head with the more well-known institutions throughout Boston.

But in order to ramp up the college's reputation, Emerson must focus on its chief mission: providing quality academics, not just stunning architecture. This requires strong and stable curricular leadership in the form of long-term department chairs.

In some departments, the search for leaders has been going on for over a year. The hunt for a chair is an endeavor that requires deliberate and thorough review; to its credit, Emerson has shown some energy throughout the ordeal. But there should also be a sense of urgency, and this is noticeably lacking.

The slow-going scavenge for lasting chairs reflects a fundamental truth about Emerson academics. Vice President for Public Affairs David Rosen has said that high-level leadership openings do not affect the quality of education students receive. This claim is suspect, but we must take Rosen at his word.

However, the lingering vacancies suggest difficult truths about this school and its attitude towards learning.

It's just too easy to find Emersonians who will attest that classrooms are not central to their college experience. This isn't all bad, of course. Free of 50-page calculus assignments, Lions can pursue a wealth of creative endeavors and rewarding co-curriculars.

But as Emerson beefs up its campus, its sports programs and its admissions standards, the college must mind its academic dimensions. The administration is obligated to complete these searches as soon as possible. Permanent leaders mean stable departments, and stable departments mean healthy classrooms and enriching courses.

At the end of the day, the interim chairs are sufficient, but not truly satisfactory. Their temporary status can lead to limited investment in the future. This college deserves leaders who have far-reaching visions.

Beyond that, the practicalities of permanent chairs cannot be overstated. Many students want to create directed studies or long-term projects. These depend upon the approval and guidance of the department chair. An Emersonian who works with one department chair in the spring may return in the fall to find a stranger in the office.

And it's not just academics that would benefit from permanent chairs. The recently-announced D.C. internship semester, modeled after the L.A. program, bounced around the Organization and Political Communication department for years before finally being enacted, passing from one interim chair to another.

This administration has overseen sweeping changes in recent years; these achievements should be applauded. That said, these academic questions remain unanswered. The departments' rotating door policies do not inspire a great deal of confidence. They are a hindrance, and until they are addressed Emerson will not be able to compete with Boston's big-name colleges.