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Emerson College names UT Austin dean Jay Bernhardt as next president

Jay Bernhardt, currently dean of the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin, has been named the next president of Emerson College.Moody College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin

Emerson College named Jay Bernhardt, a dean from the University of Texas at Austin, as its next president from a pool of about 100 candidates.

Bernhardt, a scholar of public health communication, will assume the top role on June 1, succeeding interim president William Gilligan. Gilligan stepped in after Lee Pelton left the college in 2021 to lead the Boston Foundation.

Increasing institutional financial aid will be a top priority for Bernhardt, who is currently dean of the Moody College of Communication at UT Austin and founding director of its Center for Health Communication. In an interview with the Globe, Bernhardt said it’s important for people of all backgrounds to be able to afford a private college education.

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“Education was stressed in my family as the tool to getting ahead and creating new opportunities, and so I believe firmly in that as far as making Emerson as accessible as possible,” Bernhardt said. “There is a crisis in higher education around affordability and we’re sensitive to that.”

Emerson students pay an average annual cost of $45,171, according to the US Department of Education.

Bernhardt’s appointment is the latest of a series of top leadership changes at Boston-area colleges. Harvard last month named Claudine Gay as the university’s first Black president to succeed Lawrence Bacow this summer, and former Duke University provost Sally Kornbluth became MIT’s president on Jan. 1, succeeding L. Rafael Reif. Tufts University named Sunil Kumar from Johns Hopkins University as its next leader. Kumar will succeed Anthony Monaco this summer. Boston University, meanwhile, is looking for a successor for president Robert Brown, who is retiring at the end of the academic year.

Higher education experts have said that the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many college leaders to step away sooner than previously planned after a couple of years of exhausting hours and difficult decisions around campus closures and illness mitigation.

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Before UT Austin, Bernhardt served as a professor, department chair, and founding center director at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He has also served on the faculty of Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Georgia. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a focus on health communication and his master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

From 2005 to 2010, Bernhardt was director of the National Center for Health Marketing at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bernhardt said he is looking forward to meeting the presidents of other colleges in the area.

“There’s a lot of new ones who I’m really excited to get to know and look for ways we might work together to make a difference for each other and with each other, as well as for the community,” Bernhardt said.

Eric Alexander, chair of the Emerson College Board of Trustees, told the Globe that Bernhardt stood apart from other candidates for his commitment to the field of communication.

“He is a communicator at heart and believes in the power of [communication,]” Alexander said. “That’s the essence of Emerson.”


Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Hilarysburns.