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MCLA Starts Off Semester With New Leader, More Students & $2M Grant
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
12:29AM / Wednesday, September 07, 2016
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MCLA President Jaimie Birge presides over his first convocation breakfast.

Birge lays out areas of focus for moving the college forward.

Trustee Buffy Lord sports her new MCLA bow tie pin.

The Amsler Campus Center hosted a crowd of staff and faculty for the event.

SGA President Timothy Williams addresses the group.

Birge presents Lord and Jackie Kelly with pins.

Birge, Dean of Academic Affairs Monica Joslin, VP of Finance and Administration Lawrence Behan and Executive Vice President Denise Richardello.

MCLA bow tie pins will be presented to individuals who exemplify the college's ideals and their names will be listed at the president's office.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is starting of the 2016 fall semester in a good place.

For the first time in two years, it has a permanent president at the helm, enrollment is up and it was just awarded $2 million to help it keep doing what it's been doing so well: retaining and graduating its low-income and students of color.

President James F. "Jaimie" Birge announced at Tuesday's traditional convocation breakfast that the college was told last week it would receive a $2.177 million federal "Strengthening Institutions Program" grant.

"Last week, the U.S. Department of Education recognized MCLA as one of only 13 public institutions nationally that graduated Pell recipients at a similar rate to other students. This is something we should be very proud of," he said.

The five-year grant will provide support for new technology and resources for student academic use, software for academic planning and advising, online undergraduate courses for summer enrollment, redesign of the First Year Experience to support student transition, supplemental instruction, and curriculum development to incorporate undergrad research.

More than 5 million undergraduate students from low-income families are eligible for Federal Pell Grants, considered a building block in financial aid. The maximum amount is about $5,800 a semester this year.

Birge said some 46 percent of students who receive Pell Grants are under the $60,000 mark in income - MCLA has 40 percent of students coming from families earning less than $40,000.

"We need to raise the scholarship money to lower costs for students," he said.

That was one of the topics covered by Birge in his first breakfast as the college's 12th president. Before a packed crowd in the Amsler Campus Center cafeteria, noted the changes MCLA's leadership that included his own replacement of Mary Grant, who left for the University of North Carolina more than a year ago, and a few retirements.

"Since December of 2014, MCLA has had four presidents, three vice presidents of student affairs, two vice presidents of administration and finance, and two vice presidents of institutional advancement," he said. "That's a lot of change at a college."

But don't expect any sweeping changes dictated from the president's office, he cautioned, at least not without a great deal of consensus of the college community.

"Frankly, I think that is an indictment of leadership not an endorsement of it," he said. "Although in the past I've made the difficult decision to make strategic changes in administrative positions, I've never done so simply because I could or because others thought I should."

Rather, he said, a president should "bring new energy and direction to an institution" and felt he had the experience and capacity to do that.

Birge said the college will take on several areas, including a strategic plan with broad input he hopes to implement next fall. Two task forces will look at diversity and inclusion and how to redesign the core curriculum to better fit the college's mission.

A climate survey on diversity and inclusion will inform recommendations on

Students of color have come to comprise a quarter or more of the college's enrollment and, anecdotally at least, the number of students identifying as LGBTQ has also increased.

"We should acknowledge the accomplishment of attracting such a diverse student population," said Birge. "But I am concerned that despite the increasing diversity of our students, we may not be as welcoming or as thoughtful of these multiethnic, multicultural, multieconomic needs of the community."

Enrollment is up 20 percent this year with 331 first-time, full-time students enrolled. And retention efforts are paying off with a record 79.3 percent of freshman returning as sophomores this year. Birge credited the work of faculty and staff in creating a stable and supportive environment that students want to return to.

Still, the college needs to better market itself both within its traditional borders (some 85 percent of students are from Massachusetts) and outside. At 1,400, enrollment is not optimal, he said, believing a number closer to 2,000 would be the right size.

He also spoke of building alumni relations to get past graduates on the campus attending events and inspiring students; new academic and athletic programs to increase retention and enrollment; responding to the changing skills and leadership needed for student success; and advocating for better theater and residence facilities.

"The vision for MCLA will not be mine, it will be ours," he said.

But he did provide a new tradition for the college, from an idea by Trustee Buffy Lord and based on his signature bow tie.

It's a neck-wear style he adopted after earning his doctorate as a reminder he'd accomplished something important. And you have to be confident and committed to wear, he said.

"Those ideals of commitment, confidence, and effort also describe really great people," he said, so on Lord's suggestion, he had made up small bowtie pins in the college's blue and gold. They will be given to those who show commitment to the college, promote its ideals and do "great deeds of kindness."

The first were presented to Lord and to Jackie Kelly, a student worker in his office who found a company that could design and manufacture the pin.

Also speaking were Charles Cianfarini, president of the local Association of Professional Administrators; Elizabeth Manns, steward of the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Faculty Association Graziana Ramsden; student trustee Brianne O'Rourke and SGA President Timothy Williams. Mayor Richard Alcombright brought greetings, as did state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing and state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi.

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