'He wants to hear everyone': MCLA colleagues pleased with Birge so far

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NORTH ADAMS — After more than a year on the job, MCLA President James "Jaimie" Birge has developed a reputation as an outgoing administrator who works hard to be visible and accessible to all sectors of the college community.

Reports from faculty and students show that Birge is intent on hearing all aspects of an issue and welcomes input, even in the form of student demonstrations of dissatisfaction. He has also become known as an advocate for diversity and inclusiveness on campus.

Birge is set to be formally inaugurated Friday as the 12th president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

But he already has made a significant mark on campus.

"Birge changed the strategic planning cycle and the process," said psychology professor Deborah Foss.

The changes were designed to make planning a living process that evolves with the needs of the school. Birge has opened up the process, implementing protocols that encourage input from the entire campus community.

"Now it starts in September, and it was his idea to involve a lot more people and lots of follow-up," Foss said. "It's very transparent; it's a continuing, evolving effort and it involves a lot of people. I really appreciate the process he set up."

Birge, a native of Lee and 1979 graduate of Lee High School, fills the post left vacant in December 2014 when former MCLA President Mary Grant left after 12 years to take a job as president of the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

A national search turned up a new president in March 2015, but after accepting the position, that candidate backed out for family reasons and the search was started anew.

Birge was hired in December 2015, less than a year after he left his previous job as president of Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., in June 2015.

An early test for Birge came in when a Strategic Planning and Student Survey sparked an outcry on campus from students who took offense when the results were issued because the data did not reflect the various student communities of color or sexual preference.

In protest, students papered the campus — including the front door of the president's office building — with copies of the survey containing messages to the college. Some of the posted messages were taken down by officials and reposted elsewhere in keeping with school policy.

But Birge insisted on leaving the surveys on his office door for days until exposure to the weather had deteriorated the paper.

"I was a student protester," he told The Eagle. "I think protest is a form of expression that we should cultivate. Think about this: We have students who believe we don't hear them, whether it's true or not. This is their way of telling us about it."

He said the students' reactions were correct, and that their posted messages were "compelling." The MCLA student newspaper, The Beacon, printed two examples of the messages: "We exist, we matter," and "Respect existence or expect resistance."

"They're learning ways to exercise their voice, which is a really good thing," Birge said. "We shouldn't discourage that; we should be cultivating it. The flyers here were up for a little more than a week and I think that was a healthy form of expression, even though it was uncomfortable for many of us. I'm proud of them for doing that. It was healthy for the students and I think healthy for us as a college to say this is a place where people can disagree, even with the president."

Timothy Williams, president of the MCLA Student Government Association, welcomed Birge's approach and interest in engaging the students.

"I've seen a lot more of [Birge] that any of the other [presidents] in past years," Williams said. "He's not just sitting in his office; he's out and about."

Williams noted that when Birge understood that many students felt their voices were not being heard regarding diversity, "he said we need to hire and campus diversity officer right away."

Williams said Birge has done "a good job so far, but he has to follow up and really reinforce the message of diversity and inclusivity."

Several faculty members have also been impressed with the new president's efforts to reach out to various sectors of the college community.

Foss, the psychology professor, said Birge wasted no time getting involved in the "flow of the college."

Following the November election, she noted, there was a great deal of anxiety among the students, especially regarding diversity. Birge set up several open forums to talk about those anxieties — and students directed some "very pointed questions" at Birge.

"He brought together people from different parts of the school to hash out some of these issues," Foss said. "I think he's learned a lot and one of the results is that the college is going to hire a chief diversity and inclusion officer, which is in line with who we want to be."

She found Birge's overhaul of the strategic planning process illuminating, because in the past it had consisted of a meeting toward the end of the school year, which achieved little as the summer break drew focus away from the effort. The new process seems much more effective, she said.

Foss also was impressed by Birge's approach to the budgeting process. In the past, it was largely isolated to administration personnel. But Birge opened up the process to the faculty, allowing them input on the process and access to the proposed budget as it evolves. He also set up a budget committee that includes faculty and staff.

"In all my years here, I've never seen someone put out the budget," Foss said. "He came out, met with faculty and answered questions about the budget for academic affairs. It's a much more inclusive process now."

Lisa Donovan, professor of arts management, also welcomed Birge's collaborative style.

"He shows a real interest in regional connections, and high-impact experiences for our students," she said. "He came to our department and took a lot of time listening to the faculty's interests and desires, and that's been very helpful. I think that's very important, especially on a small campus, that we can have these important, open conversations."

Jennifer Auger, who is about to retire after serving as assistant professor of English/communications for 13 years and faculty adviser for The Beacon for 12 years, said Birge has become known for his accessibility. She mentioned his open-door office hours, during which anyone is welcome to come in and meet with him.

"He has been very open to meeting with students," she said. "They find him very accessible. He doesn't just listen to everyone, he wants to hear everyone. He wants campus decisions to be community-based."

Michael Birch, professor of broadcast media and acting president of the MCLA chapter of the faculty union Massachusetts State College Association, said Birge has brought a spirit of "healthy dialogue" to the college.

"I think he's brought a positive energy to the campus and engages with all walks of college life," he said. "He's been open and constructive in the discussions we've had with him. It's very refreshing."

In his former position as president of Franklin Pierce University, Birge faced a very different set of challenges, largely budget-related.

He started there in 2009 and presided over difficult financial times.

Tuition revenue dropped from $24.3 million in 2008 to $18.3 million in 2012, according to a report from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and the college's credit rating was downgraded by Standard and Poor's and Moody's Investor Services.

In his resignation letter submitted in August 2014, Birge said he had been working under a directive to cut more than $2 million from the school's budget, according to an article in the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel.

Citing low class enrollments, officials cut six academic programs, including American studies, theater and dance, graphic communications, fine arts, math and arts management. And in the summer of 2014, 12 full-time staff positions were cut.

Nevertheless, the Sentinel reports, during his tenure at Pierce, the school cut long-term debt by $6 million and grew admissions applications by 40 percent. The school also launched several new academic programs in the business and health fields.

Current Franklin Pierce President Kim Mooney, who worked under Birge for several years as provost, declined to comment on his tenure.

"We send our congratulations to Dr. Birge on this important day and wish him much success and happiness at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts," she said through a spokesperson.

After leaving Pierce, Birge served briefly as interim president at Marygrove College in Detroit until joining MCLA.

North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright said he has every confidence that MCLA is in good hands.

"President Birge made it clear from the start that the relationship between the city and the college is a priority," he said. "He came to see me on his second day in town. And I'm constantly seeing him at community events. So he's really continuing the great relationship we've had with MCLA. He has kept that door wide open."

Susan Gold, chairwoman of the MCLA board, said the trustees are pleased with Birge's direction thus far, including his work on adding academic programs, diversity, inclusivity and the strategic plan.

"He's a great leader and his vision aligns with the MCLA mission quite well," she said.

Reach staff writer Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.


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