On September 27th the Emerson Prison Initiative held a historic celebration: the first Emerson College BA ceremony at MCI Concord and the first BA ceremony ever held at the facility. These amended remarks were given that day by Amy Ansell, Dean of the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College. EPI is a sister program to BPI in more ways than one! Dean Ansell was previously a professor of Sociology at Bard College and EPI founding director Mneesha Gellman ‘03 was involved in BPI as a Bard undergraduate in BPI’s founding years. The Emerson Prison Initiative launched as a partner of BPI’s Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison in 2017.
By contrast to technical or vocational education, a liberal arts degree is a uniquely American approach to higher education that believes in the transformative power of learning. It’s transformative for individuals in providing a framework to understand the world and their own lives. For democratic society, too, liberal education is a powerful tool in making us cognizant that addressing the problems that afflict any part of our society means caring for the whole.
All graduating EPI students have earned a degree in Media, Literature and Culture, a degree program created specifically for EPI that brings together three important divisions of Emerson College: the Marlboro Institute, Visual and Media Arts, and Writing, Literature and Publishing.
In an era when colleges and universities – even before COVID – have had to face daunting demographic and economic realities, many have transformed, adopting a business-like approach to ensure their survival. And that of course makes sense, as the sad experience of recently failed institutions pointedly show. In this context, we regularly read of higher education institutions retrenching faculty and staff and dropping departments and curricula – most often in the arts and humanities – that just a generation ago were considered to be at the core of what it meant to be an educated citizen.
So it is particularly impressive that a small institution like Emerson with limited resources, at a truly challenging moment for higher education, would embark on such an initiative, not because it is quick, easy or lucrative – EPI is certainly none of those things – but rather because it speaks to and affirms the vision and core values of liberal education in a democratic society.
Yes, EPI is costly, complex, and sometimes involves discomfort and risk. But we can take pride in knowing that at this difficult moment – a time that calls for social justice and demands a difficult reckoning with the past and its ongoing structural consequences – Emerson College has heard the call, stepped up, and done the right thing.
To make change happen always requires champions. And so we must acknowledge and salute the courageous leadership of Lee Pelton; the redemptive vision and dogged determination of Mneesha Gellman; and the righteous dedication and administrative acumen of Cara Moyer-Duncan, without whom EPI could never have arrived at this celebratory moment. They well and truly have earned our deepest appreciation and gratitude.
To the graduates: We know it hasn’t been easy, we haven’t cut corners for you guys and we know you had to work really hard to reach this moment. My heartfelt congratulations. We join your friends and families in taking great pride in your success.
I expect that the road ahead will not always be an easy one, and that we will have occasion to renew and redouble our commitment to ensure a second EPI graduating class and more to come.
But that hard work can start tomorrow. At this moment let us raise a toast to EPI and to us all for a job well done at a time when it truly needed doing. Cheers! Salud! L’Chaim!
Learn more about EPI here.
For more on the Emerson Prison Initiative commencement, check out: With First Graduates, EPI Celebrates Six Years of Transformative Education and From Incarcerated Person to College Graduate: The Emerson Prison Initiative’s First Graduation by founder Mneesha Gellman ’03!