Junior and cinema and television arts major Caleb Martin completed about half of his CTA 3230: Branded Content and Commercial Production project before the original due date nearly a month ago. Since then, the date has been pushed three separate times, and the more it gets pushed back, the more confused and frustrated Martin said he became.
On the day of the third time the assignment date was pushed back, Martin’s professor, Jason “J” McMerty, also announced out of the blue that their class would take place at the Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
Martin is enrolled in Elon University’s Elon in Los Angeles program, where he has been completing communications internships and courses in LA during the spring 2023 semester. Though he said the museum was a cool place to hold class, Martin also said McMerty had been acting strangely all day.
“We go to a museum and he's acting off — really sentimental — and takes us to this exhibit,” Martin said. “He was basically just like, ‘Today's the last day I'll be your professor and the director of the Elon program.’ … He started tearing up and he said, ‘I'm really happy that you guys are my last Elon in LA class.’”
After graduating from Elon in 2000, McMerty immediately began his career at Elon. Though he has worked at the university for nearly 23 years, McMerty started the Elon in LA program in 2008 and has been director ever since.
Though Martin said McMerty made it very clear that he was choosing to step down, Martin and the other Elon in LA students said they had heard differing things around the circumstances in which McMerty left.
“It was really sad when he kind of just threw it at us at our museum trip,” Martin said. “I'm worried about the future of the Elon LA program. J was the one who started the program. He's been here for 22 years. … He's helped thousands of students get their start in LA. I appreciate the program because I'm getting literal, real world applications. I know how to do things in LA now and I'm not going to go there blind and be screwed over. I'm learning things because of this program.”
Elon News Network obtained a message from a member of a private Facebook group, written by McMerty and sent to alumni. Though McMerty did not provide the message, he referenced it as the most accurate depiction of his thoughts and feelings regarding the situation.
“I want to let you all know that I will be stepping away from Elon in the near future. No controversy or drama, just a fundamental difference about the direction of the staffing and structure for the future of the program,” McMerty wrote. “I don’t want to be associated with any negativity. To honor me and our time together, help these summer students (and all that follow) find internships, support each other in your creative, business and personal journeys. Be nice to the new director when that time comes, they will have good intentions and deserve our support, as fellow alumni.”
McMerty ended his message with “LONG LIVE THE ELON ENTERTAINMENT EMPIRE.”
When asked if he was still working for Elon, McMerty said he still was working through things with the university and declined to comment further.
McMerty’s latest Facebook page update said he “left job at Elon University.”
Junior and cinema and television arts major Savannah Howard is also currently enrolled in the Elon in LA program. Like Martin, Howard expressed confusion and frustration — particularly around the circumstances in which McMerty left.
“He gathered us all together to make the announcement,” Howard said.“And honestly, a lot of us thought it was like a weird joke at first or something because we're like, ‘There's no way. He built this program. He's been working here for like two decades. There's no way … he's going to be gone by the end of the day.”
Three days after McMerty told his students it would be his last day, Assistant Dean of Elon’s Global Education Center Mark Kurt sent an email to all Elon in LA students currently abroad.
In the email, Kurt said Director of Global Experiential Learning and on-campus Elon in LA Program Manager Monica Scovell would be in LA until April 22 and would be the primary point of contact for students who had any questions regarding the program. Kurt also wrote that professor of cinema and television arts and film director Amin Matalqa will be taking over the branded content course for the remainder of the semester and students should continue with assignments as outlined in the course syllabus.
Though Howard said she was able to speak with Scovell to get more closure regarding McMerty, Howard still said she is upset over the lack of communication on the university’s behalf.
“I primarily feel confused and frustrated, just because there was no communication about it,” Howard said. “I think it'd be easier to have an opinion — to have feelings about it — if I knew at all what was going on. I'm pretty sad about it because he was a great teacher. I enjoyed having him.”
Both Kurt and Dean of the GEC Nick Gozik were unavailable for interview, but Gozik provided comment over email on the future of the Elon in LA program and wrote that all programming, courses, internships and projects are to continue as scheduled this spring and summer. He also wrote that summer 2023 students are completing program registration and continuing their internship preparation and fall 2023 students have begun registering for courses and had their first orientations.
In response to McMerty stepping down, as well as Elon’s search for a new program director, Gozik wrote that he “cannot make any statements regarding personnel matters.”
Looking toward the future of the program, Howard said she was concerned that Elon won’t be able to replicate the standard in which she felt McMerty set for the program.
“He's like the nexus point for this program. He's got years of alumni that he's trained — that have gotten jobs because of him and his connections,” Howard said. “He's an extension of the campus. But out here, he's done everything basically. So I don't know how they're going to replicate that, even if they get somebody incredibly experienced in film or whatever to teach classes and stuff. They're not going to be able to replicate his connections, they're not going to be able to replicate J.”
Martin also said he was worried about a new director taking over because McMerty had personally established connections with most of the program’s resources and contacts in LA.
“Will the alumni still be willing or as willing to give internships out to students, when they have a really, really, really fresh relationship with the new director? How's that going to work out?” Martin said. “What scares me is the uncertainty of other Elon students who are literally going to come next semester, and for all the other future students, what is that going to look like?”
Junior and cinema and television arts and political science double major Quinn Hammond said he believes McMerty was a huge factor for the program’s success over the last two decades.
“We wish we knew more, we wish we knew why it was happening and we also have worries for Elon in LA in the future,” Hammond said. “J kind of built this program himself and all these connections that he has are kind of why this program is so successful. And we feel like, with the new director, that basically puts everyone who's coming to this program a step behind because now they don't have that central person to connect them to the whole experience.”
McMerty said he was glad to hear that his former students miss him, and continues to wish them the best in their collegiate and professional careers.
“It's very touching. This is a wonderful group of students I had there,” McMerty said. “Life happens and people leave jobs. I care for them very much. I really wish and root them on in success in their careers. Finish out the program strong and I'll be looking forward to seeing what they do.”
McMerty also emphasized his desire to remain in good standing with the university and its alumni network.
“I don't want to be surrounded by or involved with any sort of negativity. … As I move on, I want to wish the students and faculty and staff and the institution well. It's a great place and I was part of it for a long time, and I love it,” McMerty said. “I don't have anything bad to say about my faculty and staff and students and alumni, and now I'm a proud alumni, and I hope everybody roots for me like I've been rooting for them all these years.”
McMerty said he supports whoever the new director becomes and wishes the best for the future of the program.
“It's emotional. I've been at the university for 27 years,” McMerty said. “There's no controversy, there's no drama, and I want to make sure my alumni also don't think that. It's just I’m stepping away from the university, I'm moving on to some other things. … I hope it thrives and excels, and I wish the new team — whoever it is, or people or whatever they do with it — I wish them the best and they'll have my 100% support.”