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Q&A With MCLA President James Birge
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:53AM / Tuesday, August 23, 2016
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MCLA President Jaime Birge presides over his first commencement earlier this year. Birge is MCLA's 12th president.


 
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Originally called the North Adams Normal School, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts was founded to train public school teachers.
 
True to that heritage, today's MCLA faculty members take seriously their role as educators. That is the message the college's 12th president received when he arrived on campus earlier this year.
 
"To a department, the faculty talked about their commitment to students achieving their academic goals, which isn't always the case," James F. "Jaime" Birge said recently. "Faculty aren't always as uniformly committed to that purpose as our faculty here. Literally, every department talked, in one way or another, about their commitment to helping students achieve their academic goals. I was really, really pleased about that.
 
"And the second thing … faculty talked about their recognition of or contribution to the importance of retention of students — getting students here and having them leave after they've earned their degree."
 
Birge, who grew up in Lee, returned to the Berkshires this year after a career that took him to Washington State, West Virginia and, most recently, New Hampshire's Franklin Pierce University.
 
He came to MCLA with a perspective on the role of public education in the 21st century but without a preconceived agenda of changes to make on the North Adams campus.
 
As he prepared for the start of his first full academic year at the school, Birge sat down with iBerkshires.com to talk about what he has learned about MCLA, what he wants other people to know about the school and the process the school is using to adapt to a changing world.
 
Question: How does the investment in the new science center and the concentration on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) and that sort of thing fit in with your vision for a liberal arts education?
 
Answer: Science has always been part of the foundation of a liberal arts education. So it fits in perfectly. The value of a liberal arts education is that students are educated broadly and deeply, so it should include the physical sciences among other disciplines. So I think it fits in very well.
 
I think the other piece is that, as I wrote a few months ago, the value of a liberal arts education is that it allows students to be agile in a changing labor force. So because they have the capacity to think well and write well and be critical in their thought and written word, they thrive in any career because of that foundation in the liberal arts.
 
So it's our obligation not just to offer solely traditional liberal arts majors but professional majors as well.
 
It doesn't feel like a change in focus or mission?
 
A: No, in fact all of the courses that occur in that building are courses and majors that we offered prior to that building. That curriculum has always been part of the foundation of a liberal arts education.
 
I think that building gives us the capacity to think about new academic programs to respond to some high-need fields that we haven't responded to, as well.
 
Such as?
 
A: Certainly, the health professions. Are we preparing our students to enter health profession fields? We aren't, frankly. So we need to think about that from a curricular point of view — what could we develop or how can we revise programs we have now to be more responsive to the needs for health professions.
 
This goes back to something people have heard me say before: The foundation of American higher education is on colleges and universities responding to the needs and demands of society. And we know from labor statistics that the health profession fields are the fastest growing and longest growing in society.
 
We're going to come to a point where — in fact in some of those fields, we have a lack of employees now. So how does American higher education respond to that need? And I'll say it more locally, how does MCLA respond to those needs? We have to be in tune to those things.
 
This might back up to a broader question, but what is your vision for where you want to see the college go? Did you come in with a five-year plan?
 
A: No. Lots of people ask me, what's my vision for the institution. I don't have one, nor will I, frankly. There will be a vision for the institution, but it will be a vision that we own collectively. So I came in and spent much of the spring meeting with all the academic departments and the administrative units to get a sense of the institution and where they think our strengths are and where they think we need to move.
 
And from that, we will develop a vision that is developing. Once that is more public, I think people will recognize it and they can own it because it's part of what they see as the vision for the institution.
 
I think it's arrogant and ineffective for one individual to say, 'I have a vision for this place,' — whether it's MCLA or General Dynamics or whatever. I think the most effective visions are those that are generated from stakeholders and have a resonance with a broad spectrum of people. That's what we'll have here.
 
Are you expecting something so formal as a statement to define that vision?
 
A: We will start, starting in a couple of weeks, to meet with the board to talk about beginning a strategic planning process we'll enter into later this year. So that vision will be articulated formally in that strategic plan.
 
I will start talking about my impressions and what I've cultivated from people later this summer with my colleagues when I talk with them collectively about what I've seen and gleaned from their input.
 
I know it's all still a little new for you, but what have you learned so far about MCLA? Has anything surprised you?
 
A: There are lots of surprises here. I was very excited about the institution when I was a candidate, as you might imagine, but since I've been here, to discover the things that I have that tell me more about this place … It is really a gem that I think many people don't know about.
 
I'll give you a few examples.
 
Four out of five years, MCLA has been identified by 'U.S. News & World Report' as a top 10 public liberal arts institution nationally. Kiplinger's Personal Finance listed us last year as a top 100 best value institution. Last spring, the U.S. Department of Education identified us as one of 13 public institutions nationally that graduates Pell recipients at the same rate as non-Pell recipients.
 
So, clearly, the work that we do here is recognized and validated by external organizations. That is tremendously reassuring to me, and I hope to the people we tell.
 
But we don't tell a lot of people. In fact, that's one of the areas that I think we have to work much harder on: getting information like that out. Those are really important accolades for an institution so we become more visible.
 
There are more things that are more internal that I see. Other than Mass Maritime, MCLA has the highest percentage of STEM degrees in the state university system. We're a liberal arts institution, but going back to what I said before, sciences have always been part of a liberal arts education. We have a higher percentage of STEM degrees of the degrees we award than any school in the state university system — other than Mass Maritime, which is mostly STEM degrees. That surprised me.
 
The performing arts we have here. I came here, and after two weeks, I went to see Ibsen's ‘The Doll House,' which is a notoriously complicated performance. Our students were masterful with it. I was really impressed by it. They were just absolutely incredible. Between that and seeing this dance company performance that was so big we couldn't even have it on campus. It was at Mass MoCA. The night that I was there, I'm going to guess 350 to 400 people were in the audience — really, really incredible.
 
One of my favorite stories is the student I met on my second day here who was in the science center working on an augmented reality program. I didn't know what augmented reality was; most people didn't until recently when this Pokemon Go thing came up. Daniel was working on this program, and I asked him, 'Is this a project for class?' And he said, 'No, I'm just trying to design a mobile application for students to be able to study better,' just because that's what he wants to do. We have the capacity to give students the research space and the equipment to do those sorts of things.
 
For being a smallish state university tucked into the hills of Western Massachusetts, I think we do some pretty impressive things.
 
You mentioned that you need to get the word out on that better. Why? I guess what I'm asking is are you concerned about enrollment and attracting more students?
 
A: Certainly. We're a tuition-driven institution. We depend on tuition revenue and fee revenue to come in, so we're always focused on that.
 
But it's also about stepping into our own reality. We want to be recognized for who we are, which is a high quality, affordable institution. We want to get some of those more salient points about our identity out so people can see the kind of institution we are.
 
Now, enrollment is something that we always talk about because, as I said, we're a smallish institution. But this year, our incoming class is about 20 percent higher than the previous year. I think we will be if not the highest, among the highest increases on a percentage basis in the state. That's a tremendous jump, to have a 20 percent increase in an incoming class.
 
Our retention rate is up this year. It's hovering right now just around 80 percent. It will probably drop a little bit between now and the beginning of the semester. But it's still going to be among the highest retention rates we've ever had, if not the highest.
 
So we're starting to find our stride after a couple of years of seeing lackluster enrollment. I think that's directly related to the staff in admissions, some new leadership there. They've done a really wonderful job of telling students the story about MCLA and then our financial aid office being able to package students.
 
They've done a good job helping students find ways to pay?
 
A: Yes. Forty-six percent of our students are Pell-eligible, meaning they come from families making less than $40,000 per year. Forty-six percent is the highest in the state university system. It's probably the highest in four-year public education in the state. The community colleges are usually higher, but among four-year publics, I'm sure we have the highest Pell recipient rate.
 
Do you have numbers on first-generation college students?
 
A: About 30 percent of our students are first generation.
 
How does that compare to the state university system?
 
A: I don't know how that relates to other institutions. Community colleges would be higher because that's typically an entry point for first-generation students. But I don't know what that data is. That's typically not captured in the data that I look at.
 
You talked about retention and recruitment of students. I was also wondering about recruitment of faculty. Up the road at Williams College, they've talked quite a bit about the problem of the local economy and the 'trailing spouse' problem for potential faculty. Is that something you're worried about here?
 
A: We certainly think about that here. I don't know that it rises to the level of 'worry' for me. We have almost a dozen new faculty coming in this year. I don't think we've missed out on the faculty we've wanted because of trailing spouse issues. It may be the case, but I haven't seen it. I've only been here a couple of months.
 
But to be able to see that number of new faculty tells me that we're doing OK.
 
I think it becomes easier, frankly, as we increase our visibility and people get to know that we're a high-quality liberal arts institution. That helps us recruit faculty.
 
I'm really excited about what's happening in North Adams. For me to look at North Adams now compared to 30 years ago when I was in the Berkshires, it's a very different place. North Adams was an industrial economy. Now, it's the creative economy. There are lots of things that are happening here, whether it's the development of the Greylock Mill or the Blackinton Mill or the Redwood Motel, some plans that are on the books for some new museums among other things. I think there's an energy that is happening in North Adams in particular and Northern Berkshire County in general that tells me that in as few as two years this will be a very different place than it is now — a much more vibrant and vital place than it is right now.
 
Along with that, do you see more opportunities for the college to be involved with cultural institutions, other educational institutions to create more of a synergy?
 
A: I think we're limited only by our imagination.
 
Yesterday, I met with the new superintendent of schools, Barb Malkas, and I'm hoping we can have more engagement. I think if we can collaborate with the school district, we can improve the things we do and hopefully can contribute to improving the things that they do. But I was really struck by her comments. She said, there's a perception about a lack of quality in the North Adams schools, but there really is a high quality there. I was delighted to hear that. But like MCLA, it may be a matter of them promoting that a little more. I think we can do more things together, which I would like to do.
 
I think we can do more with Williams. We're two very different institutions. We don't compete for the same students. We don't compete for the same faculty. But we have common missions in terms of being liberal arts institutions. [Williams President] Adam Falk has been very welcoming to me. We've had a couple of lunches together. I think there are things we can do. Our students can take classes together. It's a nice partnership.
 
I think there a lot of things we can do with other educational institutions, K-12 and higher ed, as well as with the local cultural organizations with internships. I want us to cultivate those things.
 
One of the things I really want us to work on is — as I said earlier — our historic public purpose has been to respond to the needs and demands of society. What do the Berkshires need? What kinds of employees do they need. I've met with the leadership at General Dynamics, the leadership at a number of banks, the leadership at Berkshire Health Systems to say, 'What is it you need that we can respond to?' We're starting to think about what are our new academic majors or how can we revise some of our current majors to be more responsive to what their needs are.
 
We draw about 60 percent of our students from outside the Berkshires. If we can draw those students here and maintain them for employment, that just adds to the vitality of Berkshire County. And I think we have a role to play with that.
 
The other area of cooperation is among the schools in the state university system. Have you had a chance to engage them?
 
A: Oh yeah. We actually meet pretty regularly, at least monthly. I know the other presidents well. I'm a product of the state university system, so I probably lean a little closer to Ramon Torrecilha at Westfield. But he also happens to be the closest to here. I've gotten to know some of the others pretty well.
 
At the state level, in terms of state support, are there concerns about the level of support the system is getting from Beacon Hill?
 
A: We always worry about that. This year, we were grateful to the Legislature for approving a number of important programs for funding. The governor vetoed a number of those things. The Legislature overrode those vetoes.
 
I think we can probably do a better job at MCLA advocating for ourselves, saying, 'These are the things that we're contributing to life in the Berkshires and it's important for us to have that kind of funding.' So the governor and the Legislature have a better understanding why that type of funding is so important for us.
 
That will be my role as the advocate of MCLA to get that message out.
 
The July revenues for the commonwealth were positive. We're hoping that continues, certainly. It makes it less likely that we'll be seeing future legislative sessions like we did last year.
 
But for our part, what we can control is to raise the visibility level of MCLA so that policy makers understand just how important this place is to the Berkshires and how important they are to us.
 
So it all circles back to telling the story?
 
A: I think so, to a certain degree.
 
A little earlier, we touched on what you've learned about MCLA since you've been here. How about life in general? How has it been readjusting to life in the Berkshires?
 
A: It's been great.
 
I had forgotten just how enjoyable life is in the summer in the Berkshires. It is really a special place. I've lived all over the country, literally from Rhode Island to Washington State. And there's something distinct about the Berkshires — in general but especially in the summer. There's an energy here. My wife and I have been able to attend a couple of different cultural events. Being downtown when they put sand on Eagle Street was a lot of fun. It was fun to be out there the other night for [the Downtown Celebration], it was packed, absolutely packed.
 
You couldn't find a parking spot. I think I parked over by Planet Fitness just to be able to walk down to Main Street. There are lots of fun things that are going on. I think there are more better days on the horizon for North Adams than not. It's just fun to be here.
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