New MCLA President James F. Birge settles into new campus, community

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NORTH ADAMS — In true Trailblazer fashion, James F. "Jaimie" Birge is swiftly moving through his first two weeks in office as president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

Birge was tapped for the leadership role on Dec. 10 by the college's board of trustees, and that decision was confirmed on Jan. 19 by vote of the state Board of Higher Education.

As of March 1, he has officially been serving as the institution's 12th president, succeeding Mary K. Grant.

Since then, President Birge has been engaged in an intensive tour of campus facilities, meeting with students, faculty and staff, and community leaders along way. So far, this has included learning about student research projects, attending an exhibit opening at MCLA's Gallery 51, and seeing the Fine and Performing Arts Department's recent production of "A Doll's House," and meeting North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright, the MCLA Foundation board of directors, and with faculty groups and department chairs.

Birge said meeting with the latter representatives will continue to be an integral part of his transition into leadership. "I'm hoping to get a sense of place through the eyes of the people who have been here for a really long time."

In a previous interview with The Eagle, Birge noted that among his priorities is to increase MCLA's enrollment by touting its resources and strengthening academic and enrichment programs to help retain students and sustain revenues.

"We're a tuition-driven institution and have to pay close attention to our enrollment," he told The Eagle in a Thursday afternoon interview on campus.

He said that with the college's recent multimillion dollar facilities upgrades — including Bowman Hall and the Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation — and emphasis on a hands-on research-based liberal arts curriculum, the college is poised to offer an affordable, high-quality investment for students wishing to access a "deep and broad level of education."

"The quality of liberal arts education offered here is what compelled me to pursue MCLA," said Birge.

The president is new to the MCLA campus but not to the area. He has Lee roots; his family moved there in 1972 and Birge is a 1979 graduate of Lee High School.

Birge, 54, is temporarily situated in a North Adams apartment until his family, which includes his wife, Lisa Schuler Birge, and their youngest daughter, Siobhan, a high school student, can join them. The couple also have two older daughters, Caitlin and Maggie.

Birge's wife and youngest daughter are still based in New Hampshire, where Birge spent six years serving as the fourth president of Franklin Pierce University in Rindge. He left the post in 2015 "to seek new challenges and opportunities," according to an August 2014 interview with the SentinelSource.com announcing his resignation from the institution.

The SentinelSource reported that it was a "tumultuous" time for the university, which had been experiencing for various reasons turnover in its senior administration as well as a decline in tuition revenue. But during Birge's tenure there, Franklin Pierce also reduced its long-term debt by $6 million, increased admissions applications by 40 percent, and oversaw several campus improvement projects.

When, back in December, Birge was appointed to the MCLA post, he had been serving as interim president of Detroit's Marygrove College, a role he had filled since July 15.

He was selected as the result of MCLA's second search for a new leader. It started when Grant was tapped in August 2014 to become chancellor at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. An initial search was completed in March 2015. Greg Summers initially accepted the position with state approval, but then had to withdraw due to family medical issues.

MCLA then launched the second search. MCLA Executive Vice President Denise Richardello said it yielded a national return of 178 applications. Korn Ferry, a consulting firm, helped narrow the list to 17 candidates, which, after a first round of interviews, was narrowed to 11 candidates whose names were forwarded to the 14-member Presidential Search Committee.

After a series of off-campus interviews, five semifinalists were brought to MCLA for interviews. Birge emerged as one of two semifinalists before the college voted to offer him the position.

His starting annual salary is $243,000. According to state data, Grant in 2013 earned $227,411.

Birge has spent more than 30 years working in higher education, having previously served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Wheeling Jesuit University, and spending his early career years working in student life operations.

As president of MCLA, he now oversees the well-being of some 1,650 undergraduates and graduate students from 20 states.

Among dozens of faculty and staff members, he'll also be working with some other new college administrators, including Catherine Holbrook, who last July was named vice president of student affairs and dean of students, filling the position previously held by Charlotte Degen, who retired in the fall of 2014 after 40 years of service.

Lawrence Behan back in the fall was named MCLA's vice president of administration and finance, replacing James Stakenas, who retired after 15 years of service.

At the helm, Birge said he knows that as many opportunities public higher education can afford its students, it also faces challenges, including securing funding and keeping up in a field that's highly competitive for students and resources. But he said he remains committed to his role, and also committed to working with the community and other area colleges to ensure students access to a quality education system.

"American higher education is the most important social institution for our country," he said.

Birge himself holds a doctorate degree in leadership studies from Gonzaga University, a master of education degree in guidance and counseling from Plymouth State University, and a bachelor of science degree in elementary education from Westfield State University.

"Personally, I had a really great education at Westfield that helped me advance my own life," he said. "I hope to be a role model for how a good strong education can elevate you in many ways in life, and I hope we can push the policies that will give students the good life they aspire to."

Jenn Smith can be reached at 413-496-6239.


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