A Q&A with MCLA President James Birge

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MCLA President James Birge started work in March 2016. On Friday he will be officially inaugurated into his leadership role as the school's 12th president during a 2 p.m. ceremony in the Eleanor Furst Roberts Auditorium in the MCLA Church Street Center. Prior to his inauguration, President Birge sat down with The Berkshire Eagle to talk about the school, its challenges and its opportunities.

Q. What is your academic philosophy?

A. We want to create a learning and teaching environment that allows students to identify, recognize and achieve the goals that they have. I think that's something we do very well here. One of the things that surprised me, pleasantly so, when I first got here was meeting with all the academic departments and finding they were all focused on helping the students achieve their academic goals. And that's not typical at a college or university — to have every department talk about their primary focus being to help students reach their academic goals. Lots of faculty departments are focused on their own research or their disciplinary association. But here it was all about the student's success.

The other piece that's important to me: When you look at the population that was least affected by the most recent recession, the population that had the lowest unemployment rate was people with an undergraduate degree. So when we think about outcomes of education, what is it we're contributing for students to realize an elevated life. And I think my colleagues recognize that.

And the third piece for me is just purely economics. A third of our students who are coming from families earning less than $30,000 a year and last year the U.S. Department of Education recognized us as one of 26 low-cost schools that graduates students into high-wage earning fields. Think about that for a minute. For some students, we're ending the cycle of poverty. If there's a more important, powerful mission than that, I don't know what it is.

Q. Enrollment figures have been declining in recent years, with 2016 figures showing 1,337 full-time equivalent undergraduate students, which compares with 1,573 students in 2011. What does that mean for the school?

A. Our focus is helping students who are here achieve the goals that they have. We don't take our eye off that ball whether we have 1,300 students or 1,800 students. That's the defining characteristic of what we do. It changes things for us when we have to decide, if we have fewer students, how we maintain the operations that support that mission. So sometimes we have to be creative: "Where do we squeeze a budget so we don't have as much expense in one area as in another?" We try not to pass those things on to the backs of our students.

But I think we've found the bottom (of enrollment). Last fall the incoming class was 20 percent higher than the incoming class the previous year. And for next fall we're at the same level as we were this past fall. So we're starting to come out of this valley and moving our way towards the summit.

Q. What are you doing to grow the enrollment at MCLA?

A. I think we're probably at about 80 percent capacity, so we can grow another 20 percent. I don't think the goal is to get so large that people don't recognize who we are. And we do a really good job with that smaller class size. How are we going to do that? There is a variety of things. We have two new academic majors that are in front of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education we hope they will approve in June.

In addition to that we've created new academic programs already this year that don't require state approval, including the first three-year business degree in the state system, and an electrical engineering as a concentration in our computer science department. We've launched five new academic programs — concentration, minor or major — just this year, which is extraordinary on a college campus.

Q. What are you hearing from local employers about the skills they need from MCLA grads?

A. I've spent a good deal of time speaking with CEOs of various organizations to ask what are we doing well for you and what do you need from us? Where can we be more helpful? So some of those new academic programs came directly out of conversations I had with a number of people. And those conversations are not over. I think we have a new posture that says we've always got to think what else can we be doing?

Q. What budget challenges are you facing at MCLA right now?

A. Our payroll alone is about $22 million a year. Our (state) appropriation is about $16.3 million a year. So the state isn't even covering payroll. We make up the difference in a variety of ways. We have campus fee revenue, room and board revenue, and tuition revenue for out-of-state students and graduate students. We have a growing endowment of about $13 million that helps us cover some costs related to student scholarships and things like that. We have annual fund contributors who provide resources for us to keep operations going. So when our expenses outpace our revenue we try to let the [Legislature] understand that we could use a little more attention from the state — tell them that if you want us to be successful with our public mission, we need you to be more helpful.

Sometimes we do come up short and some students can't pay the bill and wind up not going to school. Which is hard because we know that for the kids who need the financial resources to be here, it's here that they should be. So when we can't help a student get here, that's hard.

Q. How has the college advancement office been performing since the sudden departure of the advancement vice president last year?

A. That did have an impact for us being able to recruit a strong candidate for that area. We weren't able to. I think people were turned off by the MassLive article [about the departure] and very concerned, so it hurt us that way and we didn't secure a VP, and because of that, there wasn't much direction on a daily basis to achieve the goals we've set forward. However, they are producing money for us, getting gifts. I think it's going to be tough for them to get to the $3 million goal, but I think they're already past the halfway point. And we do have a new interim vice president coming in next week through June 2018, which I think gives us some distance from this history and get into the market to develop a stronger candidate pool.

Q. What role should MCLA play in Berkshire County?

A. We are the access point for families to have their children get one of the best liberal arts educations they can get. We're that school they can afford to come and still get a really good education.

The other piece is we are an economic driver — just in the form of direct cash expenditures in the county is like $15 million a year, and if you think of indirect (cash expenditures) it balloons. So we're an economic driver — one of the largest employers in the region, the largest in North Adams. While we are dependent on our host community, in some ways our host community is dependent on us. And I think there is a really healthy relationship between our community and the college.

I think it's also about helping the Berkshires regain population. I grew up in Lee, and when I was a kid, the Berkshires was a place people wanted to live and raise a family. This is where people came because this is a great place. Fast forward 30 years: My career has taken me across the country and back to find that population loss here was a significant concern. It really surprised me because even as a kid I thought this was the place to be. So I think we have a role in helping to regain population — three-quarters of our students come from outside Berkshire County, so we're attracting them.

Q. How would you describe the student experience the college should impart?

A. Some think that because so many people graduate college, then it must be easy. It's not easy. It's anything but easy. So I hope that when those students walk across that (commencement) stage, they know that they've just accomplished one of the most important things in their lives - they've gotten through testing, challenge, uncertainty, ambiguity. They've confronted all of those things successfully. So I hope they understand as they're coming up to get their degree and shake my hand, they've accomplished something really big and they should be proud of themselves for it.

Q.What do you see as the biggest challenges facing MCLA?

A. What's happening down in Boston. We've got to help the Legislature understand just how important an MCLA education or state public four-year education is to people and that they should be helping us provide more of it. I think that one of our biggest challenges.

The other piece is we have to become much more diverse, equitable and inclusive. Following the election in November, campuses all around the country have become much more focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. We've got to think about how do we engage all of our students, especially those who have been historically marginalized, how do we bring them more closely into decision making processes? How to we make this a better experience for students that are from communities of color or the LGBT community, that this is a place they can come here to learn, and how do we make that more effective for them? I think we're on the right path, but we haven't gotten there yet.

Q. What opportunities are there for MCLA?

A. One of our greatest assets at MCLA is our faculty. They've demonstrated to me, whether they wanted to or not, that when they see that something needs to get done, they get it done. So to have these various new academic programs, they move on it, and I really haven't had that experience with any other institution I've worked at. They've been agile, nimble and creative. I think some of them have been energized by that. And we have faculty saying "I wonder what's next for us?" And that's a really good thing.

We're also going to see more partnerships with more organizations in the Berkshires around a variety of things, like affordability issues, and new programs.


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