Incoming MCLA President James Birge, a Lee native, aims to strengthen enrollment
NORTH ADAMS —James "Jamie" Birge will feel at home when he takes the top post at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in March.
Birge, a native of Lee, was tapped to become MCLA's 12th president by its board of trustees in December and was confirmed by the state Board of Higher Education last week. He takes over as the college's new president on March 1.
"It's nice to come home," Birge said. "I still have a good number of friends and extended family in Western Massachusetts."
Birge spoke with The Eagle on Friday to discuss his appointment and plans for the college.
Birge graduated from Lee High School in 1979, where he was an avid soccer player and enjoyed the outdoors.
"In Lee, there are always places to hike," he said.
Though a native of the Berkshires, Birge has developed his career outside the area. He served as Franklin Pierce University's President in New Hampshire from 2009 to 2015.
At the time of his appointment was serving as the interim president of Marygrove College in Detroit.
"What I saw with MCLA is an emphasis on the foundation of a liberal arts education along with the opportunity for students to get a degree in a professional area," Birge said. "The importance of that balance can't be understated today."
Birge hopes to position MCLA's students with a foundation in the liberal arts combined along with a degree in a professional area that will allow him or her flexibility in the job market.
His first priority will be to forge relationships with the college's faculty and staff to learn more about the school.
"There's a lot I have to learn about MCLA," he said. "I want to meet people at the institution [and] get a sense of what has been that has kept them at MCLA."
Among the issues Birge hopes to take on is enrollment, which he hopes to strengthen. In the fall of 2010, some 351 full-time, first-time degree-seeking students attended the college. By 2013, the most recent year available on the state's website, there were 271 such students.
Birge said those numbers may be partly because of the recession, but also possibly because the school could better position academic programs to make a case for enrollment.
The college has to be able to convince prospective students it will "broadly and deeply educate them" in a way that will help them not just in looking for their first out-of-college job, but their fifth or sixth as well.
While many prospective students are looking twice at the cost of a higher education in the wake of the recession and in the face of often rising tuition. Birge defends the value of a liberal arts education.
"They don't look at the deeper issues. When you look at the data, you see the people that remained employed during the recession, by and large, were people who had at least an undergraduate degree," Birge said.
As a state college, MCLA also offers a relatively affordable education, Birge noted.
"Certainly an education is expensive, I understand that," he said. "But also you've got to look at the opportunity that an education provides."
A quick Web search of Birge's name and history at Franklin Pierce brings up news articles of the cuts he made to liberal arts programs there, but he points out that the college also expanded other courses.
The board of trustees at Franklin Pierce tasked Birge with finding programs with declining interest and adjust accordingly, he said. Though cuts were instituted, he said no full-time faculty lost their positions.
At no time during the interview process with MCLA, Birge said, was he asked to make cuts.
Birge also looks forward to fostering a positive, mutually beneficial relationship between the college and the city it resides in — something he worked toward at Franklin Pierce, as well.
"I think that one of the best accomplishments that I made at Franklin Pierce is redevelopment the relationship the university and the town," Birge said.
"I'm really very excited to get there."
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