Dr. William (Bill) Gilligan, Interim President (2021–2023)

Dr. William (Bill) Gilligan, Professor Emeritus, returned to Emerson as Interim President of Emerson College, effective June 1, 2021.

Dr. Gilligan began his career at Emerson more than 36 years ago as an Assistant Professor in 1984 and most recently served as Vice President of Information Technology before retiring in December 2020.

Among his many achievements during his tenure, Dr. Gilligan facilitated the President’s Campus Task Force on Diversity in 2008, worked closely with other senior administrators, architectural firm Elkus Manfredi, engineers and technology vendors to design, build and equip two professional-quality television studios in the new Tufte Performance and Production Center, as well as collaborated with technology vendors to design, build, and equip professional-quality Journalism facilities.

Dr. Gilligan earned a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Boston College, a Master of Science in Teaching from the University of New Hampshire, and a Doctor of Education degree in Mathematics from Boston University. He was Treasurer of the ECC-AAUP union chapter from 1985-1987, a member of the Faculty Council for many years and chair of Faculty Assembly from 1992-1994, as well as the Faculty Athletics Representative to the NCAA on multiple occasions (1991-1994, 2005-2007).

M. Lee Pelton, 12th President (2011-2021)

Upon his arrival, M. Lee Pelton outlined a bold vision for Emerson as the global hub for arts, communication and liberal arts. Prior to joining Emerson, he had served as President at Willamette University in Oregon for 13 years and Dean of the college at Colgate University and Dartmouth College. He holds a BA degree from Wichita State University, and a PhD in English literature from Harvard University.

Under Pelton’s leadership, Emerson expanded its academic footprint beyond its campuses in Boston, Los Angeles and the Netherlands by establishing new global programs around the world. He also established an ambitious plan to strengthen Emerson’s sense of place and identity, as part of a redevelopment of downtown Boston, by animating the streetscape adjacent to the downtown Boston campus in order to inspire, embrace, and to celebrate the city’s emerging diversity. Among the projects completed was the historic renovation of the 13-story Little Building residence hall with ground-level retail spaces as the cornerstone.

Pelton oversaw the creation of several new initiatives, including the creation of a Business of Creative Enterprises major; the first of its kind Comedic Arts major in higher education; the Office of Research and Creative Scholarship, which has set successive annual records for the number of grants and grant funds awarded to the College for innovative scholarly pursuits; the Office of Internationalization and Global Engagement, which supports faculty and research exchanges and strategic partnerships with universities abroad; HowlRound, an international center of online communication and collaboration tools for developing new theatrical work; the Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Learning, and Research; the opening of Emerson College Los Angeles (2014) living and learning facility in the heart of Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard; and a partnership between the College and leading theatre producer Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), to operate the Emerson Colonial Theatre with a goal to restore the theatre’s status as a try-out stage for Broadway shows.

Pelton also spearheaded an alliance with Marlboro College in Vermont, finalized in 2020, which moved Marlboro’s academic program, known for its self-directed nature, to Emerson, renaming Emerson’s liberal arts and interdisciplinary studies program to the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Pelton is the current CEO & President of The Boston Foundation, one of the nation’s leading philanthropic organizations.

Jacqueline Weis Liebergott, 11th President (1992–2011)

Jacqueline Weis Liebergott earned BA degrees from the University of Maryland and MS and PhD degrees from the University of Pittsburgh. She came to Emerson in 1970 as an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders. In 1984, she was named dean of graduate studies and shortly thereafter became a vice president and academic dean. She became acting president in 1992 after the death of President Zacharis and was inaugurated in 1993. During her tenure, President Liebergott worked tirelessly to secure nine new buildings to create a new Boston campus. In 2008, the College purchased land in Los Angeles to build a new center, which would serve as a permanent base for Emerson’s Los Angeles program. Liebergott reorganized the academic departments and established a School of the Arts, a School of Communication, and an Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies. She doubled the size of the faculty and increased student enrollment, while also improving the College’s financial standing. During her tenure, the graduation rate increased by 28 percent. In 2003, the College completed a full restoration of the Majestic Theatre and in 2010 reopened the Paramount Theatre as a live performance venue. The restoration of these two theaters culminated in the creation of ArtsEmerson, which showcases first-class performances of theater, film, and music from all over the world. Liebergott revitalized the Athletics Department by building Emerson’s first gymnasium in the Piano Row residence hall in 2006 and partnering with the City of Boston to refurbish Rotch Playground.

John Zacharis, 10th President (1989–1992)

John Zacharis earned BS and MS degrees from Emerson College. After receiving a PhD from Indiana University, Zacharis returned to Emerson to teach in the Speech Department. He later took on the roles of dean of academic affairs and senior vice president before assuming the office of president. President Zacharis worked to reunite the Emerson community following the failed bid to move the campus to Lawrence, Massachusetts. His plan included improving Emerson’s facilities by purchasing buildings that would be more appropriate for classrooms, studios, and offices than the Back Bay brownstones. He also made a commitment to academic depth by adding diverse academic programs and highly qualified staff and faculty. In addition to the improvements on the Boston campus, Zacharis opened the European Institute of International Communication in Maastricht, the Netherlands, in the fall of 1991. Unfortunately, President Zacharis was stricken with leukemia early in his presidency and passed away February 20, 1992.

Allen Koenig, 9th President (1979–1989)

Allen Koenig received a BA degree from the University of Southern California, an MA degree from Stanford University, and a PhD in speech communication from Northwestern University. He came to Emerson from the University of Southern California’s Idyllwild campus, where he served as executive director. President Koenig turned an eye toward academic excellence by increasing the percentage of faculty with terminal degrees from 46 percent to 72 percent. In addition, the student body grew by 66 percent during his presidency. Koenig continued to expand the Boston campus to meet the needs of faculty and students with the purchase of the Majestic Theatre in 1983, as well as several other buildings in the Back Bay area. The Majestic Theatre was restored over a period of several years and in 1989 reopened as a live performance theater with the student musical "George M!" During his presidency, Koenig worked to secure land in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in a bid to build an entirely new and unified campus. But by 1989, a move to Lawrence was deemed unfeasible, due to financial constraints and dissent from the Emerson community. Despite the failed bid to move Emerson out of Boston, Koenig was still able to expand the College’s reach. In 1985, a formal overseas program began in the Netherlands at Kasteel Well, purchased by Emerson in 1988. In 1986, Emerson began its Los Angeles program for students seeking internships and networking opportunities on the West Coast; the program continues to this day.

Gus Turbeville, 8th President (1975–1977)

Gus Turbeville was a graduate of Vanderbilt University and earned an AM degree from Louisiana State University and a PhD in social psychology from Michigan State University. He came to Emerson in the fall of 1975 from Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina. President Turbeville consolidated various departments into divisions so they would operate more efficiently and effectively. The chairs of these divisions were elected by their departments, a first at Emerson. Turbeville felt a genuine concern for his students and faculty and was well liked by the students. He was able to connect with students on a daily basis because he lived on the 10th floor of the 100 Beacon Street dormitory and often dined in the student dining hall. Turbeville’s short presidency was marked by accomplishment, most notably bringing national visibility to the College through various public events that emphasized and increased its positive image.

Richard Chapin, 7th President (1967–1975)

Richard Chapin was a graduate of Harvard College and received an MBA from Harvard as well. He served as assistant dean for educational planning at Harvard’s Graduate School of Business Administration before arriving at Emerson in the midst of a socially turbulent time. Despite social unrest on campus and around the world, President Chapin was able to promote the College’s academic advancement as well as continue the expansion of its campus and its finances. Chapin addressed the problem of hiring and retaining faculty members with PhDs to continue the College’s accreditation by NEASC. To give the faculty a voice and provide a more democratic governance of the College, he approved the creation of a Faculty Assembly in 1969. He also helped enhance the College’s curriculum by reorganizing departments and revising the general requirements for an undergraduate degree.

Samuel Justus McKinley, 6th President (1952–1967)

S. Justus McKinley graduated from Franklin and Marshall College and earned AM and PhD degrees from Harvard. He was recruited by Emerson College in 1934 to head the History and Social Sciences Department. In 1946, he left Emerson for a professorship at Springfield College, citing differences of opinion with the administration of Boylston Green. After a nearly three-year period of turmoil following Green’s resignation, which included two failed interim presidencies, S. Justus McKinley was asked to return to Emerson to become its next president. McKinley returned to Emerson at a time when the College was in financial crisis and on the brink of collapse. Student morale was terrible and plagiarism was rampant. To combat these problems, he boosted student morale by attending every student production and making himself more visible and available to the student body. He also stressed the importance of academics over social clubs and extracurricular activities. He created two new departments, Broadcasting and Speech Therapy, both outgrowths of the Speech Department. In 1953, the College created the Samuel D. Robbins Speech Clinic in honor of the Emerson faculty member who started the Speech Department in 1935. That same year, the Broadcasting Department began offering courses in television production, and in 1954 the College built a state-of-the-art television studio. McKinley embarked on several successful fundraising campaigns throughout his term in office, which allowed the College to become financially stable and purchase several buildings. In 1965, Emerson acquired the Deertrees Theatre in Harrison, Maine, which served as a summer theater for Emerson students as well as students from other institutions.

Boylston Green, 5th President (1946–1949)

Boylston Green received AB and AM degrees from the University of South Carolina and a PhD in English from Yale University. He came to Emerson College from Middlebury College in Vermont and was the first president to have a doctoral degree. President Green established a Student Activities Committee, which aided in the creation of the student newspaper, "The Berkeley Beacon," and WECB, the first college radio station. Shortly after the creation of WECB, a new radio station, WERS, received the first educational broadcasting license on the East Coast in 1949. After three years as president, Boylston Green left Emerson to become vice chancellor of the University of the South.

Harry Seymour Ross, 4th President (1932–1945)

Harry Seymour Ross was born in East Haddam, Connecticut, in 1868 and attended Oberlin College before transferring to and completing his degree at Emerson College of Oratory. After graduation, he was hired by Worcester Academy as an instructor in elocution, English, and history. In 1908, President Southwick chose Ross to become the academic dean at Emerson, and they spent the next 24 years working closely together. Immediately following the death of President Southwick, Ross was elected acting president for the remainder of the 1932–33 academic year. Despite the Depression, President Ross was able to purchase 130 Beacon Street for classroom and administrative offices, and the property became the flagship building of Emerson’s Back Bay campus. With the decline of Chautauqua circuits, courses and degrees related to oratory fell out of favor. To keep the College curriculum relevant, Ross expanded it beyond oratory and dramatic arts to include courses in radio broadcasting and speech pathology, while strengthening the liberal arts curriculum by adding history, modern languages, philosophy, and religion courses. In 1937, the College awarded its first Bachelor of Arts degree, and by 1939, “of Oratory” was dropped from the College’s name. Ross created the College’s first theater in the Carriage House, located behind 128 and 130 Beacon Street. He resigned in May 1945, citing age and poor health.

Henry Lawrence Southwick, 3rd President (1908–1932)

A student of Charles Wesley Emerson from 1895 to 1897, Henry Lawrence Southwick was a pioneer in educational dramatics. He introduced drama into the curriculum and created the Southwick Recital series, which still continues more than a hundred years later. Upon becoming president, Southwick recognized that administrative changes were necessary and spent most of his tenure strengthening academic standards and setting the institution on firm financial ground. During his term, the school year increased from 28 weeks to 32 weeks and the College became a four-year institution. Emerson College also purchased its first building in 1928, the former Ericson Hotel, which became the Emerson College Residence and housed all the College’s female students. Southwick also started the first endowment for the College as a way to secure its financial future. He developed the first Emerson study trips abroad, which continue today at Kasteel Well. In 1932, Southwick became ill in Roanoke, Virginia, during his annual tour of the South. He returned to Boston, where he suffered a fatal heart attack shortly before Thanksgiving. Southwick served as president of Emerson for 24 years, and remains the longest-serving College president.

William James Rolfe, 2nd President (1903–1908)

William James Rolfe was born in 1827 in Massachusetts. He attended Amherst College and Kirkwood Academy in Maryland before becoming an instructor at Day’s Academy in Wrentham, Massachusetts. By the time Rolfe assumed the presidency of Emerson College in 1903, he was 75 years old and was an internationally famous scholar. He worked mainly to advise the students and serve as a role model. According to Henry Lawrence Southwick, Rolfe was the “pioneer in introducing the study of English into the curriculum of American schools.” Rolfe’s greatest accomplishment was his work on the plays of William Shakespeare. In 1904, he published "Shakespeare the Boy," a 550-page book on Shakespeare's life.

Charles Wesley Emerson, Founder and 1st President (1880–1903)

Charles Wesley Emerson was born in 1837 and raised in Vermont. He began preaching at age 19 at the Congregationalist Church in West Halifax, Vermont, and continued to preach at the Unitarian Church in Chelsea, Massachusetts, while attending the school of oratory at Boston University. Although he carried the title of “Dr.,” Emerson did not earn a doctoral degree, but earned several honorary degrees that provided him with the title. Emerson founded the Boston Conservatory of Elocution, Oratory, and Dramatic Art in 1880 with 10 students at 13 Pemberton Square. Emerson’s school opened one year after Boston University’s school of oratory closed, following the death of Lewis B. Monroe, Emerson’s mentor and former professor. The College’s curriculum was rooted in the theories and writings of Delsarte and Swedenborg, which Emerson studied under Professor Monroe. In 1881, Emerson changed the name of the school to the Monroe Conservatory of Oratory; the school was renamed the Emerson College of Oratory in 1891 after several students and alumni demanded the name be changed to honor its founder. By 1902, Dr. Emerson was in ill health and officially resigned his position as president of the College by the end of the year.