50 years and counting for BCC

Thursday, Oct. 29


It began as a notion that some Boston politicians thought was silly: Building the state's first community college in remote Western Massachusetts.

But that notion morphed into a plan that became the blueprint for a statewide community college system that began in Pittsfield.

Berkshire Community College -- the state's first community college -- continues to strive and thrive in its 50th year by building collaborative relationships and embracing new opportunities to meet the needs of its students.

As the two-year college nestled in Pittsfield's western hills settles into mid-life -- and as fall enrollment reaches its highest point in at least 18 years -- campus officials are enthusiastic about BCC's future.

And its past.

After all, the West Street school was the trailblazer of the state's community college system, which grew to include campuses from Cape Cod to Greenfield.

"We are Berkshire County's community college. They could have called it Pittsfield Community College," BCC President Paul E. Raverta said, noting that the college's founders had the foresight to pick a regional title.

But it isn't easy being the first child of 15 in the community college family. That's why BCC's trajectory for the future includes embracing new technology, expanding opportunities, and building strong partnerships to bolster the school's reputation and broaden its reach.

Although BCC opened its current campus on West Street in 1972, the school's humble origins date to September 1960, when the college officially opened in the old Central Annex building on Second Street. (The building now houses low-income residents.)

That year, the college occupied only the top portion of the downtown building, and later filled the rest of the space. But that experiment in higher learning proved successful as BCC grew in popularity, with many blue-collar county residents using the school to launch careers.

A dozen years later, BCC said goodbye to the crowded downtown location and moved to the more rural setting on West Street, which remains the college's main campus.

The new facility elicited praise from The Berkshire Eagle, which described the campus in a 1973 review as a "handsome complex" that evoked architect Ben Thompson's "conscious image of an Italian hilltown with courtyard hub, covered galleries, bell tower, accessible terraces and continually unfolding vistas of the Berkshires, framed in angular and curvilinear concrete forms."

BCC expanded into Great Barrington in 1984, and that pioneering spirit still exists today, with BCC offering classes on the second floor of Pittsfield's Intermodal Transportation Center -- dubbed the Intermodal Educational Center -- and running a public art gallery on the bus station's first floor.

The college also offers workshops at Charles H. McCann Technical School in North Adams, Monument Mountain Regional High in Great Barrington, and Pittsfield and Taconic highs in Pittsfield.

College officials said these geographic partnerships are designed to increase access to educational opportunities, while BCC's community workforce development relationships are intended to improve students' prospects in the job market.

"We're looking to link up with folks that have what we don't have and create a situation where we can both share our resources," said William Mulholland, BCC's dean of lifelong learning and workforce development.

The college has joined forces with the county's health, science and technology sectors and regional business and workforce development programs to provide more specific training to students, which may give them a competitive edge.

" ‘Community' is our middle name," said Raverta, who says networking with the larger county community is a key part of being president.

The college also continues to expand into cyberspace. BCC offers online courses and utilizes technology to give students an education similar to what they'd get in a classroom, but without having to leave home.

BCC's "distance learning" option, which allows students to use the Web, interactive video or a combination of technologies, has proved to be popular with many working and older students.

BCC has seen its enrollment rise from 150 in its first year to the 2,601 who now study everything from nursing to criminal justice to computer science.

For some students, BCC is a place to get direct job training, whether those students are eyeing careers in nursing, health care or law enforcement. For others, the college provides a solid liberal arts foundation before they transfer to a four-year school.

With 35 associate-degree programs, BCC has something for nearly everyone. The college caters to full- and part-time students, 94 percent of whom hail from the Berkshires. The student body is 60 percent female, and students range in age from 13 to 74.

As the county's business community looks toward the burgeoning green economy for jobs, BCC is jumping into the mix. Biotechnology, green manufacturing and energy efficiency are areas BCC plans to explore.

The "green technology movement" could provide job opportunities for many Berkshire residents, Raverta said.

"We're working on putting together a program in thin-film technology, which provides the skills needed in chip fabrication and photovoltaic production," he said, noting that a high-tech facility planned in Malta, N.Y., is expected to create jobs for Berkshire residents.

Looking toward the "green" horizon, BCC recently developed a certificate program in weatherization -- or the process of making homes more energy-efficient -- and in the coming years hopes to add more green-energy programs, including solar panel installation.

The goal, officials say, is to produce highly skilled workers who are ready and able to step into green jobs, whether it's working in the renewable energy field or constructing eco-friendly homes.

"I think that's going to be a very big area for us going forward," Raverta said.

He said that "growing relationships in the community with elected officials, business leaders and residents" will be a key part of developing new job opportunities. While BCC already has established "meaningful collaborations and partnerships" with various Berkshire organizations, Raverta said, the college is always looking to establish new relationships.

Today, many BCC graduates enter the local job market through workforce development programs that involve alliances forged with various companies and organizations. Take, for example, the college's ongoing collaboration with Berkshire Health Systems, the county's largest employer. BHS participates in a college nurse-training program with a track record of producing highly competent nurses, according to Betty Kirby, BHS' educational director.

Kirby said BHS pays the training expenses for its nursing candidates and lets them choose the nursing program that suits their needs.

"They can choose to go to any school," she said, "but 98 percent go to BCC."

Berkshire Community College has come a long way over the past 50 years, weathering financial problems and personnel issues.

Raverta succeeded Bryan Blanchard, who was fired as president in May 2005 because of disagreements over his management style. Only two years earlier, Blanchard had replaced Barbara Viniar, who stepped down in 2003 after being the target of no-confidence votes by the unions representing BCC employees. Viniar's tenure began in 1994.

Before Viniar, BCC President Jonathan Daube also was the subject of a no-confidence vote by faculty members. He resigned in 1987 after nine years in the post.

Management issues aside, BCC literally got off to a stormy start in September of 1960 when a hurricane forced the delay of the college's inaugural convocation.

Since then, BCC has endured the upheaval of the 1960s, the social change of the ‘70s, the conspicuous consumption of the ‘80s, the technological revolution of the ‘90s, and ... budget cuts.

While BCC's future appears bright, the college, like most other state institutions, is prone to cuts. Nothing is forever, however, and as the national and regional economies improve, so, too, will BCC's.

But with this fall's enrollment up by 14 percent over last fall, and with the constraints of the fiscal crisis looming large, BCC will have to do more with less.

The school's operating budget is just over $18 million, which includes $7.8 million in direct appropriations from the state. The remainder of the budget is funded by a mix of federal stimulus money; the college's general-purpose trust fund; tuition and student fees; and BCC's lifelong learning and workforce development programs, among other sources.

Meanwhile, the state appropriation portion of the budget is expected to tumble further, according to Raverta, who said the fiscal 2010 budget is expected to be approved in November.

From July 1, 2008, to the present, state appropriations to BCC fell from $9.5 million to $7.8 million.

"We hope to back-fill with more stimulus money, which is not going to be available next fiscal year, creating a budgetary cliff for [fiscal 2011]," Raverta said.

That's the situation facing many public institutions these days.

"The road ahead is hard," Thomas Wojtkowski, a former state representative who helped pioneer the community college system in Massachusetts, conceded during the September kickoff for BCC's yearlong golden anniversary celebration. "The most important thing is to remain flexible."

Besides Wojtkowski, former Gov. Foster Furcolo and former BCC President Thomas O'Connell are credited as early champions of the state's community college system.

In March 1958, a report by the Massachusetts Commission on Audit of State Needs recommended the establishment of a community college system to address the demand for more diversity and access to higher education. The goal was to look beyond Eastern Massachusetts, where the bulk of the state's academic resources were based.

The commission's recommendation was adopted by the legislature on Aug. 1 and signed into law by the governor on Oct. 3 of that year. A board of regional community colleges was formed, and Pittsfield emerged as the prime location for the state's first such school.

The powerbrokers in Boston initially were skeptical about launching a community college in the far-off Berkshires.

"A college in Pittsfield?" Wojtkowski said in a May 1973 Eagle article, recalling the naysayers' reaction to the idea. "Is there anyone who would go or teach there?"

The simple answer is yes: Today, BCC employs 350 people and teaches 2,601 students, including 32 from as far away as India and the Congo.

Despite the tough economic climate, BCC has kept tuition fees for full-year, full-time Bay State students to less than $3,800. Against a backdrop of layoffs and lingering economic woes, BCC is an affordable destination for people looking to reinvent themselves in preparation for a new career, according to school officials.

"It's ideal for anyone looking to enhance their skills or change their skill set," Raverta said.

Of course, he said, BCC still provides the staples of a well-rounded liberal arts education, including reading, writing, computation, critical thinking and working in groups.

"These key, core competencies will always be there," said Raverta, who was named BCC's interim president in September 2005.

By January 2008, the "interim" label had been dropped as Raverta officially became BCC's sixth president, providing stable leadership after some rough patches in the main office.

During Raverta's tenure, enrollment and donations have gone up, and the college's nursing and online programs have grown. BCC also has seen an increase in collaborative efforts, from becoming an active partner with the Berkshire Compact for Higher Education and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute to working to create more educational opportunities for students in area high schools.

"We're a place where a large number of people have found themselves," Raverta said.


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