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Out of the Shadows

In a region of higher education giants, little Emerson College has quietly built an alumni list that's a who's who of Hollywood, invested millions in revitalizing Boston's Theater District, and emerged as a player on the national scene of performing arts schools.

Emerson College
(Photographs by Matt Kalinowski)

JACQUELINE LIEBERGOTT, THE president of Emerson College, is not happy with the glass-encased 2-foot-square model of the school that sits in her office. Meant to be a farewell gift for the college's vice president of administration and finance, the model showcases the buildings lining Boylston and Tremont streets in the southeast corner of Boston Common, where most of Emerson's campus is located. For Liebergott, the dissatisfaction stems from the fact that the Emerson buildings, done in a whitish, translucent plastic, are indistinguishable from the rest, done in basswood. "We have to give the Emerson buildings a tint," she says. "Otherwise, it's hard to spot them."

Surrounded by cafes and restaurants, dingy bars, stores selling old books, the Loews movie theaters, the Common, and the Theater District, the actual campus of Emerson does, indeed, hide in plain sight. It's something that Liebergott, as head of this performing arts and communications school, wrestles with often. Marshaling a physical presence is a tough task in this vibrant district where historic buildings are packed together like teeth, and Emerson isn't aided by any of the markers that other schools enjoy. There is, for instance, no T stop to its name, unlike Harvard, MIT, BU, and BC. No signs direct you to what the school calls its "Campus on the Common," and the Emerson buildings, purchased one by one, are no campus beacons.

But Liebergott, a trained speech pathologist who joined the faculty in 1971 and became president in 1993, is consoled by the knowledge that Emerson's existence in this neighborhood is itself a triumph of sorts, a testament to the college's ambitious climb toward more recognition and mind space. Signs are but bells and whistles she can do without for now. After all, people may ask where Emerson College is, but fewer people are asking what Emerson College is.

"I think we're better today than we were before," says Liebergott, a diminutive woman whose large, plush 14th-floor office on Tremont Street seems to swallow her.

It's an accurate, if simplistic, assessment by the person who has presided over Emerson's transformation from a small local performing arts school to an institution of growing national repute. Although administrators had recognized the need to alter Emerson's image in the early 1980s, it is Liebergott who realized the vision of building a campus in the Theater District, upgrading facilities, recruiting heavyweight names to the board of trustees, and restructuring the academic offerings. The result is an urban college that is rapidly distinguishing itself as a hip place where students can sharpen their performing arts skills, get the kind of training that Hollywood or New York demands, and, most important, interact with leaders of the entertainment industry, thanks to a growing list of successful alumni willing to get involved (Rescue Me's Denis Leary, Will & Grace co-creator Max Mutchnick, and America's Funniest Home Videos producer Vin Di Bona, to name a few). At a time when the business of pop culture is booming, the school is offering a type of education and experience you can't get from the collegiate titans along the Charles.

"I've watched Emerson from a distance with admiration," says Richard Freeland, a former Northeastern University president and a visiting professor of higher education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. "A number of things have come together. The move to the downtown area was absolutely brilliant, both for the city in terms of revitalizing the area and for Emerson." Diana Beaudoin, a senior associate at the New England Resource Center for Higher Education, a research institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, says Emerson "is a school that has strengthened, expanded its focus geographically, and gained a new confidence in a very competitive higher education market."

Today, four-fifths of Emerson's undergraduate students (the school has an overall enrollment of 3,900) come from outside Massachusetts, according to the school, compared with roughly two-thirds a decade ago. And as Emerson has broadened its appeal nationally, it has become more selective. In 1992, it accepted nearly seven out of 10 students who applied; last year, it accepted fewer than five out of every 10. (The average acceptance rate among undergraduate colleges last year was 70 percent.) Over the same period, the average GPA among incoming students has risen from 2.9 to 3.6 - the national average is 3.3 - and since 2000, the number of enrolled students at Emerson who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class has increased from 21 percent to 36 percent.

"I'm an Emerson fan," says Robert Franek, author and vice president of publishing at The Princeton Review, which includes Emerson in its annual list of the 361 best colleges, or the top 12 percent of all four-year schools. "It's a school in transition, from being a regionally sound school to a nationally known school." (US News & World Report ranks the school 15th in the country in the category of Northern regional colleges offering master's degrees, down one spot from a year ago.)

Fueling that growth has been the college's endowment. While still relatively small, it's risen from $4 million in 1992 to $87 million in 2005, which has helped Emerson build more studios and digital editing labs, buy sound and lighting equipment, and install new computer systems, all of which are state of the art. By 2009, when Emerson completes its renovation of the Paramount Theater on nearby Washington Street, it will have invested close to $400 million in the Theater District.

As Emerson's endowment has risen, so has the stature of some of its alumni, who have secured jobs in nearly every top company in the entertainment field, including 20th Century Fox, Time Warner, and E! Entertainment Network. The school's board of trustees - which includes Kevin Bright, a producer of TV's Friends, Doug Herzog, the president of Comedy Central, and Terry Semel, the chief executive of Yahoo! - increasingly reads like a who's who of the entertainment industry.

Having penetrated the industry, alumni in the Los Angeles area have taken to calling themselves the "Emerson mafia," an apropos nickname for a group rising to power from a small, tightknit family.

. . .

THE GRAND AND HISTORIC PLAYHOUSES IN Boston's Theater District seem like the perfect environment for a performing arts school. Yet this wasn't where Emerson began its journey in 1880, when a Protestant minister, Charles Wesley Emerson, decided the city needed a school of oratory after Boston University shut its down. For several decades, the school moved its campus all over Boston, gradually settling into about two dozen brownstones in the Back Bay beginning in the 1930s. Many of the school's famous alumni, like Jay Leno and Denis Leary, honed their craft in this part of town.

In 1985, the need for more space and the desire for a traditional college campus nearly led Emerson to relocate to Lawrence. Although the college began constructing a new campus there, escalating costs forced the administration to put it on hold. Four years later, the plan was abandoned. "We knew we had to do something different," says Robert Silverman, the retired vice president of administration and finance who was hired in 1992 to implement the ideas that eventually brought the college to its current location. "Emerson was in a lot of financial trouble, and ordinary solutions wouldn't have worked." Silverman, 58, holds a PhD in history from Harvard and has spent 30 years at the "intersection of real estate, construction, and higher education." Around Emerson, the trim, soft-spoken Silverman was known as a fiscal disciplinarian, not given to excesses of speech or spending. Trustees say his quiet manner and persuasive pitch led them to move the school near the Common.

The Theater District seemed like a natural fit, especially because Emerson had bought the Cutler Majestic Theatre in 1983 and undertaken its restoration in phases. The area was languishing in the late 1980s, and Silverman says the school was able to take advantage of a depressed real estate market. In 1992, the school bought the Ansin, a 14-story building on Tremont Street once owned by the Boston Edison Co., for $25 a square foot, says Silverman. As other properties on nearby Boylston Street became available, Emerson bought them up, financing the purchases largely by selling its Back Bay real estate. "It was a tough area for Emerson to say, 'We want to be a part of this and turn this around.' But it was the right decision," says Robert Allison, a professor of history at Suffolk University and a city historian.

Today the school owns eight buildings along Boylston and Tremont. In addition to the Ansin, which houses WERS-FM (the nation's best college radio station, according to The Princeton Review), and the 1,200-seat Cutler Majestic Theatre, there's the Union Bank building, which contains the school's department of communication sciences and disorders; the recently purchased Colonial Building, home of the Colonial Theatre, part of which will be converted into dorms; the Little Building, which has student residences; and the Walker Building, which has offices, studios, and computer labs. "Eventually, we'll probably control the retail on the street, or at least the quality of the retail," says board of trustees chairman Ted Cutler.

Tucked between the latter two buildings and the Cutler Majestic - named after Cutler and his wife, whose $2 million gift enabled much of the restoration - is Emerson's first entirely new building, the 11-story Tufte Performance and Production Center at 10 Boylston Place. Home to the school's performing arts program, the Tufte Center (opened in 2003) houses theaters, television studios, makeup rooms, and faculty offices. Emerson's second all-new building, the 14-story Piano Row Residence and Max Mutchnick Campus Center at 150 Boylston Street, opened its doors this fall. (In April, a scaffolding accident killed two workers and a motorist at this site; a federal investigation found fault with a contractor, and civil lawsuits, which do not involve the school, are pending.)

The final piece of this campus - sewn together with luck and foresight - is taking shape on Washington Street at the site of the old Paramount Theater. In partnership with the city and real estate developers Millennium Partners, Emerson is constructing a three-building complex called the Paramount Center. When it opens in the spring of 2009, it will include a restored Paramount Theater, student residences, rehearsal studios, and faculty offices.

All this real estate activity has spearheaded a revitalization of the neighboring areas. Recent years have seen the arrival of the Loews Boston Common multiplex, the 2001 opening of Boston's second Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Avery Street, with residential towers overlooking the Common, and the reopening of the historic Opera House. "Emerson saw the opportunity here [downtown] long before anyone else," says Anthony Pangaro, who manages the Boston office of M illennium Partners.

Emerson's growth, however, has not come without pain. Robert Colby, associate professor in the performing arts department and a faculty union leader, says the pace and nature of change at the school - cuts in department budgets, heavy teaching loads and managerial responsibilities for professors, and a feeling that the college is changing from an institution to a business - have disturbed many of his colleagues. Two years ago, faculty members repeatedly passed votes of no-confidence against the administration and the board, and Colby says the atmosphere has been "rancorous." But recent efforts by Emerson officials to respond to faculty concerns have helped patch relations, and in September, the administration and the union agreed on a contract. "I wish the administration had done a lot worse in the last three years," Colby jokes.

Some students also wonder if the emphasis on the amenities of the Piano Row complex, which includes a gleaming new gymnasium, might come at the cost of more equipment and performance space. "Emerson has so many extracurricular things going on," says Patrick Di Nicola, a senior with a double major in theater and film who turns 22 tomorrow. "The problem is, there isn't enough space, and we end up fighting for the same rehearsal space." He says he hopes the college doesn't sacrifice such space for the sake of prestige. But Emerson is seeking exactly that.

. . .

EMERSON RECENTLY SOLD THE LAST OF ITS four remaining Back Bay properties, and with the opening of the Piano Row complex, the process of relocation is complete. But Liebergott continues working on another goal: providing students with a residential campus. Currently, the school houses less than half of the undergraduate community. She hopes to provide residences for three-quarters by 2009, partly through the Paramount Center and the renovations to the Colonial Building. Still, Piano Row represents a big step.

"Isn't it gorgeous?" asks Liebergott, running her manicured hands along the deep-red walls with silver detailing inside the Piano Row complex. Her black kitten heels click smartly on the tile floor of the Mutchnick Campus Center - named after the Emerson trustee and alumnus whose donation enabled its construction - as Liebergott, excited as a child with a new toy, shows off the rows of rehearsal rooms, offices for student organizations, the shiny basketball court. Every wall brings a comment to her lips, and every surface is a source of joy. "I love texture," she says, delighting in the ridged interiors of the elevator.

For Liebergott and Silverman, this property represents the culmination of a dream - to fashion a cohesive campus where students can live, work, and learn in a cultural district while remaining in the city. In fact, Silverman says he retired from his post over the summer (though he remains a consultant) because he felt the job he'd been hired to do was complete. The model of the campus sitting in Liebergott's office is therefore a fitting tribute.

Many students love their cobbled-together campus, where it's possible to bump into their professors on the sidewalk and soak up some sun on the Common before rushing across the street to learn about magazine publishing or the aesthetics of contemporary theater. Elisha Yaffe, a 23-year-old senior majoring in political communication, says Emerson's nontraditional urban campus is attractive to creative students. "The mix of buildings, students, the intersection of city life and student life - this campus represents what Emerson is about."

But students mostly come for other reasons - its small size and dedication to the arts, its growing reputation and famous alumni, a curriculum that integrates the liberal arts with practical training, and the appeal of Boston. Yaffe, for instance, chose Emerson "because I wanted to have some context to my art." As a budding comedian with his own stand-up act, he loves that he can take courses in media theory, history, and politics, which he hopes will sharpen his jabs. He wants, of course, to be a writer for The Daily Show.

It's not exactly idle dreaming; at alumni weekend this year, Yaffe got to perform for trustee and alum Herzog, the president of Comedy Central, which airs the show hosted by Jon Stewart. "Things like that make you want to work harder," Yaffe says, adding that the school not only trains students but helps them establish connections to people in the arts and communication industry.

Pakshalika Jayaprakash, 27, who is pursuing a master's degree in writing and publishing, loves the creative energy that envelops her at Emerson. "It's the kind of place where, if you're passionate about the arts and communications, Emerson will reciprocate that passion."

It does so by providing students with access to the latest technology, an innovative curriculum that blends core liberal arts education with the more hands-on practical training the school has always been known for, and active engagements between alumni and students through mentoring programs, classroom visits, and internships.

Liebergott says she recognized early that the growing convergence of technology, entertainment, and communications required Emerson to invest in state-of-the-art equipment, so students' training could be put to use in the industry immediately upon graduation. The decision to have industry stalwarts on the board, who could point Emerson in the right direction, was a consequence of this understanding.

In 1997, Emerson also restructured its academic offerings, incorporating its liberal arts curriculum within each department and giving students greater flexibility in taking interdisciplinary courses that would enrich their performing arts or communications training. It became easier, for instance, to dip into the insights of a sociology class while reporting a story for the student paper, or put gender theory into practice in a class on theater education. Colby says that conversations within the college to make those changes weren't easy. "But the fact that we wrestled with that and decided to be closer together was one of those things along the road to - suddenly, we're a different institution than we used to be."

Edward Fiske, a former education reporter who publishes the Fiske Guide to Colleges, agrees. "They are very clear about their educational mission and have crafted their focus to give them the best of both worlds - learning practical trades within the framework of liberal arts." It is this "thoughtful academic strategy" that Fiske believes distinguishes Emerson, much more than swelling applicant pools or indicators of selectivity.

All of these changes - Emerson's new campus and facilities, its growing reputation, its financial turnaround, and the administration's tireless campaigning - have got alumni excited. Television producer Bright, best known for Friends, is back at his alma mater this fall to teach a course, Directing Comedy for Television. Like many other alums, he says he bought into the Emerson dream because of Liebergott. Her vision, he says, has helped turn Emerson into "so much more than those little colleges I used to pass by" when he studied in Boston. "Emerson is a known commodity," he says. "It's known that a bunch of well-known people in Hollywood come from Emerson, so it rings a bell."

Another alumnus, Leary, stops by every semester to chat with undergraduates interested in careers in comedy, and Mutchnick has donated the set of Will & Grace to the school. And those are just a couple of the famous names. Barbara Rutberg, the college's director of alumni relations, says that in the past two years, the number of alumni volunteering to mentor students and share industry knowledge has increased 85 percent.

. . .

THE WINDOW IN LIEBERGOTT'S 14TH-FLOOR office on Tremont Street facing the Common offers an unobstructed view of the campus. From there, the purple and yellow banners that proclaim the school's name are easily visible. Far above the din and downtown bustle, Liebergott and "Teddy," as she calls Ted Cutler, often stand at this window and talk about how far they've come. "It's been a lot of fun," Liebergott says. "To watch a campus build and the demand from students grow and their talents blossom, that's all very exciting."

And Emerson isn't done yet. Its next step is to buy property in Los Angeles, where the school runs a semester-cum-internship program for about 250 students every year. "We want to turn out leaders for the communications industry," says Liebergott when asked about her vision for the school. "And how far are we?" She dwells on this question for a moment, then departs from her usual understated stance and talks about Emerson as a formidable rival to New York University's celebrated Tisch School of the Arts.

Cutler is just as enthusiastic. "We've had angels on our shoulders," he says. "We built a college in the heart of the city and changed the whole personality of the college. And now we're in everybody's face." It's hard to deny them a measure of bravado. After all, what's a performing arts school without a little hubris?

Anupreeta Das, a former intern for the Globe Magazine, is a freelance writer in Boston. E-mail her at

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