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For Emerson, a quiet departure

It takes a climb up the winding, rotunda staircase in the KINSC to find Stephen Emerson’s narrow, third-floor office – a far cry from his former airy, corner room in Founders. Hanging above his desk are two framed issues of the Bi-College News, the headline on one reading, “Pleased to Meet You, Mr. President.”

After five years of serving the College, as a professor of Biology and the 13th President, this Tuesday Emerson will assume his new role as the Director of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University Medical Center. He will also have the title as a Professor of Immunology. Emerson brings with him nearly two decades of experience as the chief of Hematology/Oncology for the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Currently on research sabbatical, Emerson originally planned on returning to teaching full-time, and even toyed with the idea of writing a textbook. This semester he is advising senior research and teaches a popular senior seminar on stem cell research. “But then I got calls from two universities that were looking for directors for a new program, and I ended up being seduced by one of them,” Emerson said.

Emerson has mixed feelings about his departure. “I feel very wistful on some senses,” said Emerson, a member of the Class of ’74. “The college was in great shape when I got here, and it has made strides in the last five years, despite the incredibly difficult economic circumstances.”

During his term, Emerson implemented a no-loan, grant-only financial aid policy and advanced the college’s plan to fill 27 new faculty positions, “both of these things at a time when the college endowment fell by a third, and we did so without firing anybody,” Emerson said. He also points to the construction of two new student dorms, and “healing a rift between the Board of Managers and the Corporation” Committee  as key accomplishments of his presidency.

Reflecting on his own experience, Emerson believes the next president must understand the importance of Haverford’s Quaker roots and the Honor Code in shaping an increasingly reputable college. “Our Quaker heritage..tells us everybody is all the same but also different,” Emerson said. “And so classrooms are not hierarchical, students can do theses that are important for themselves and the world – it’s really powerful.”

“I think the world knows what we have to offer. I hope the next administration will see some version of that,” he said.

But he also believes that both in and out of the classroom, the College still lacks an open dialogue.

“I think that in the classroom, we need more active voices,” Emerson said. “I do think we still have to work against the notion that the Honor Code means no disagreement. Or if you have a disagreement, keep quiet. Socrates said knowledge is dialectic, but you can’t have dialectic without dialogue. and that dialogue has to be real, kind, considerate and deep and meaningful.”

Citing a desire to return to teaching, Emerson stepped down July of last year, just as he was due to start the fifth and final year of his term.

Last April, according to an email petition circulated among the faculty and obtained by this reporter, 27 tenured faculty signed a petition asking the Board of Managers to conduct “an external and confidential review of the College President in anticipation of the conclusion of his first term of service.” Although the board would normally conduct a review at this point in the President’s term, the petition requested a “broad and inclusive” inquiry, reflecting “serious, and numerous, faculty concerns about the workplace environment created by the President.”

According to one petition signee, the board then hired Green Leadership Consulting, LLC. to conduct an independent review of Emerson’s presidency. The consultants conducted a number of confidential interviews with administration, faculty, staff and students. The completed review, whose findings remain confidential, was submitted to the board’s Presidential Review Committee.

“You make decisions for the best of the college, for the future and for the values of the college….If those don’t ring true with others or get misinterpreted, you can’t always fix that,” Emerson said, when asked whether these circumstances complicated his return to campus as a member of the faculty. “But I’ve been very gratified about how good a tremendous number of faculty have been, and how gracious and collegiate they have been.”

He regrets having not been able to do more to settle arguments within the faculty.

“I do wish that somehow the arguments between different factions of the faculty…could have been calmed down and gotten different groups to cede to the other,” Emerson said. “I had no interpersonal problems with anybody – the only problem I had was people thought I should take sides, and I wouldn’t do it.”


  1. Guest April 3, 2012

    Thy Vo, asking the hard questions.  You go girl.

  2. A Prof April 5, 2012

    Thanks for bringing some substance to this coverage, esp after the bi co news just booted it and paraphrased all the official statements.

  3. havstudent44 May 18, 2012

    It’s rather depressing that the Haverford administration and Student Council has not allowed student journalists at Haverford to publish an accurate and detailed account of Emerson’s departure. It’s also sad that professors and students with information about this subject fear they will be reprimanded if they share anything with this publication and others. Censorship isn’t Haverfordian.

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