Photo Gallery | Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Carlos E. Santiago
NORTH ADAMS — Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago visited the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Thursday with a mission to listen and an unwavering request.
Yes, Santiago said, he understands that MCLA and the 28 other public higher education institutions in the commonwealth each have specific needs. But he added that those needs will only be met when the system speaks out in a unified voice.
"We have to act as one system," the commissioner told members of the media after a morning itinerary of meetings with college faculty and staff and area educators working in kindergarten through local Grade 12 public school systems.
He was later scheduled to meet with students and college trustees.
Santiago said this approach should not be mistaken for a system overhaul. "I'm not planning to restructure governance," he said.
But he said that the state's 15 community colleges and nine universities need to work together to address the key and chronic issues that every institution faces, including the matters of "accessibility, affordability, quality and K-12 integration."
To the latter matter, Santiago said, "Early childhood is fundamental. If you think it's different than higher education, you're wrong."
That said, the commissioner lauded MCLA and its K-12 partners for being ahead of the game in terms of fostering such collaborations in the community.
Prior to the press conference, Santiago met with some of these partners, including MCLA Education Department professors Nicholas Stroud, and Christopher Himes. Both instructors are working on grant-funded initiatives to engage local K-12 students and teachers with the college, connecting students to resources such as dual enrollment credited college classes, and offering schools workshops and access to college counselors and staff.
Santiago also heard from school district superintendents Jim Brosnan of McCann Technical School and Jason "Jake" McCandless of Pittsfield Public Schools, whose districts, among others, work with the college to help raise student aspirations to want to obtain a college education and advanced careers.
MCLA Dean of Graduate and Continuing Education Howard "Jake" Eberwein III, also talked about how the college works with other community agencies, businesses and stakeholders under the Berkshire Compact for Education.
The evidence of working models of partnerships made an impression on Santiago, who told reporters, "I don't know if I've seen better collaborations between an institution of higher education and K-12 schools."
In terms of addressing the other key matters Santiago highlighted — accessibility, affordability and quality — the commissioner acknowledged that this is where the hardest work needs to take place.
"There's a sense that public higher education is doing just fine," said Santiago, referring to public perception, but he said that this is not the case.
The commissioner noted that he's "an economist and an optimist," and said that's not an oxymoron, and that he believes fiscally responsible solutions can be found.
Santiago holds a doctorate in economics from Cornell University, taught the subject at two public universities, including the state University at Albany, State University at New York, where he previously served as provost and chief operating officer.
"The demography is changing rapidly across the commonwealth, and there are new populations emerging that need more and expensive support structures," he said.
Santiago said, for example, there are more first-generation college students in public higher education systems than ever, and they require more guidance in classes, on campus, and through the financial aid process.
MCLA President James F. "Jaimie" Birge, now in his fifth week of leading the campus, said he hopes the college can serve as a model for other campuses in supporting students in the areas MCLA excels. He gave as an example that the college has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for being one of the top colleges in the nation for graduating students who are need-based federal Pell grant recipients.
Santiago said that beyond tuition and fees, legislators and members of communities also have to be aware of the other barriers for students enrolling in and graduating from college.
MCLA is the 18th institution he's visited on his state college tour. He said that time after time, students are expressing their concerns, not only with tuition and fees and pricey textbooks, but with meeting other basic needs in their lives, such as food, housing, and reliable public transportation.
While a growing number of students are bringing these issues to college with them, the commissioner said that college faculty and staff "are not well-prepared to do that, they're not trained for this in school."
By necessity, however, state higher education campuses are increasing the amount of social structures in place to addresses these issues. Most notably, the commissioner over the winter announced the opening of campus food pantries across the state.
Still, Santiago says he has hope that state campuses can be leaders of change through educating and supporting students, and graduating them better prepared for the workforce and the real world.
"MCLA is not only a center for teaching and learning, but is a hub of economic development," he said.
To a group of stakeholders and local education leaders, the commissioner said, "I think this region has got all the elements working in the right way, and we'll try to get more funding forward."
Jenn Smith can be reached at 413-496-6239.
Who: Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos E. Santiago.
Appointment: Santiago joined the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education in April 2013 as the senior deputy commissioner for academic affairs. He was appointed as commissioner, effective July 1, 2015, by Gov. Charlie Baker, after being unanimously approved by the Board of Higher Education. He succeeded Richard Freeland.
Actions in office: After one college official cashed in for a giant payment, Santiago in March, called for the Department of Higher Education to review decades-old sick leave and vacation time policies for top college officials, as well as travel policies. Recommendations, including proposed policy changes, are expected to be presented to the Board of Higher Education's Fiscal Affairs and Administrative Policy Committee on April 26. The department, under his lead, is also convening a Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Task Force to look at how colleges should address active shooter situations, campus sexual violence and cultural sensitivity and inclusion.
Experience: Santiago has worked in the field of public higher education for more than 30 years. He has served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee; provost and chief operating officer at the University at Albany, N.Y.; professor of economics at UWM and SUNY-Albany. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from Cornell University.
Distinctions: The 63-year-old is a native of Puerto Rico who now lives in Massachusetts. He was twice named one of 100 most influential Hispanics in the United States by Hispanic Business magazine. Santiago has authored or co-authored six books and has published dozens of articles and book reviews, of which many focus on economic development and the changing socioeconomic status of Latinos in the United States. He has also been appointed as chief executive officer of the Hispanic College Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit scholarship granting organization.