Q&A: Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President Birge

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NORTH ADAMS >> James F. "Jaimie" Birge is now serving as the 12th president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and brings more than 30 years of higher education experience with him, as well as the experience of raising his own three daughters who are college-bound, in college and recently graduated.

Here's what he has to say about some of the issues he'll be working with in his new role:

Q: What do you think of campus?

A: The academic facilities are really professional and impressive, from the classrooms to the meeting space students have available to them. I visited with biology faculty and students and met one, Daniel Heinen, who has developed a mobile app for augmented reality and research — I can't even describe it. I've never seen anything like that and have never heard of anything like that, and the amazing thing is, he's only a sophomore. I love that we have the opportunity for student research at that level, and these facilities are some of the best I've seen in my career for teaching and learning.

Q: How do you see yourself settling into and working with the community?

A: There's so much going on in North Adams and my wife and I want to be a part of a vibrant community. I've already been invited to join a strategic planning group. We do want to be actively engaged in the life of the community.

Q: MCLA and your predecessor, Mary Grant, are champions of the Berkshire Compact for Education and its community partners. How do you seek to work with that initiative?

A: I'm familiar with the Compact but still learning. As a kid growing up in Lee, I was aware of the then North Adams State College and the role that it played in providing access to higher education. I know that MCLA has a really important role to play in education, in that an educated citizenry is what we need globally to advance society.

Q: In addition to yourself, there are several other new leaders installed over the past couple of years at other higher education institutions in the Western Massachusetts region. How do you hope to work with them to advance public higher ed?

A: This is a newer dimension for me and a newer dimension for the other state colleges, I've got a primer next week with the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges and looking forward to learning more.

Q: What do you think about the current presidential candidates for this country and how they're talking about higher ed?

A: I'm tremendously disappointed in the lack of civic discourse ... We need our young people to be engaged by these processes and I think the way they're talking is a disservice to our nation. We're losing the opportunity to get a sense of what political policy positions they're actually in ... College students are watching this and maybe think "If they can behave like that maybe I can behave like that" and that's just now how society works.

Q: Public higher education has its shares of challenges, from staying competitive to enrolling students to having limited funding and resources from state and federal sources. Despite all that, what keeps you motivated to be a public higher education administrator?

A: My parents really valued education. My mother was a teacher and early in his career, my father was trained as a teacher but then ended up working for the federal government. Between the three of us children — I have two sisters — we have nine academic degrees and I think it's because it was impressed on us the importance of education. I also had a mentor at Westfield State, Curt Robie, and he inspired me to get into higher ed.

Q: Anything else you're looking forward to learning about MCLA?

A: I haven't yet been exposed to many alumni so I'm interested in hearing about their stories of how MCLA affected them. It helps me to share their stories of MCLA. I'm also looking forward to spring sports and working with the local legislators.


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