James F. Birge: MCLA's role in Berkshire renaissance

NORTH ADAMS — The Berkshires? You bet!I read with interest the recent article in The New York Times Real Estate Section about the western-most region of Massachusetts ("Betting on the Berkshires," April 13). It is exciting that new residents will bring new growth and economic development to the area. As the reporter points out in the article, there is more to the Berkshires than a good real estate deal to be had. Courtney Burns, the restaurateur and chef mentioned in the article, captures the sentiment well, describing her move from San Francisco to North Adams as being "one of those open doors that I felt like I would be a fool to not walk through."

In 2016, following a 30-year absence, I returned to the Berkshires where I grew up, awed by its development and inspired by its persisting value of community collaboration. In many ways, my return reminds me of the quote attributed to T.S. Eliot, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

Drawn back to the Berkshires to become the 12th president of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), the Commonwealth's designated public liberal arts institution, I was reminded of the importance of our cultural organizations, our surrounding natural beauty, and the role of higher education institutions in the region. It seems that during the past three decades, despite periods of economic hardship, Berkshire communities have emerged vibrant and strong.

MCLA's deep roots

One contributing factor to the re-emergence of the Berkshires is the role that MCLA plays supporting the economic base, educating students for emerging labor markets, and providing thoughtful and provocative educational programs for the academic and local communities. MCLA employs more than 400 people— full-time and part-time — making it the largest employer in North Adams and one of the largest in the county. Employee spending in the local economy exceeds $10 million annually; adding student and visitor spending increases the total annual impact to $15 million. These figures do not include the spending of our alumni who choose to remain in the Berkshires for employment after graduation. In fact, more than 50 percent of our alumni who make Massachusetts their home after graduation choose to live in Berkshire County. This population of graduates remains in the region for employment at many of the organizations highlighted in the April 13 article, among other organizations.

MCLA also contributes to a thriving labor force as we tailor our academic programs to educate students to fill jobs in demand. A liberal arts curriculum is the foundation upon which MCLA builds all its academic programs. Educating students to be curious and inquisitive; to be creative and innovative; to be thoughtful and probative; to be action-oriented — all outcomes of a liberal arts education — allow students to develop skills in specific career paths. MCLA alumni are health care professionals, educators, news reporters, attorneys, curators, accountants, social workers, software engineers, and entrepreneurs right here in Berkshire County. But all of society benefits from the work of these professionals when they have a four-year liberal arts education as the foundation to their professional work.

As a public liberal arts college, MCLA honors the historic public purpose of American Higher Education to respond to the needs and demands of society. MCLA's Berkshire Cultural Resource Center (BCRC) focuses on promoting economic development through the arts. BCRC provides training and resources to local artists, arts managers, and creative workers through programs that include MCLA Gallery 51, Berkshire Hills Internship Program (B-HIP), and DownStreet Art. These programs bring art to the community and support cultural organizations like MASS MoCA, the Clark Art Institute, and Greylock Works.

MCLA also exercises its public purpose by bringing notable speakers to North Adams including Cokie Roberts, Jeffrey Toobin, the Honorable John Lewis, Byron Pitts, Ambassador Andrew Young, Jose Antonio Vargas, and Joy Reid. This past weekend we hosted NASA astronaut (and Berkshire native) Stephanie Wilson and next fall we will host American author and national correspondent for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates. All of these addresses are free and open to the public.

Link with community

For the past two decades, North Adams has certainly been a city on the move, transforming itself from an industrial economy to a creative economy. The community has reinvented itself as a cultural destination and has worked to foster deeper connections among the college, cultural organizations, and the downtown business community. MCLA attends both to its critical economic role as a major employer in its host city, and to its direct interaction with the community. The college provides leadership in efforts to support the ongoing revitalization of the communities of North Adams and the surrounding region.

As others consider the possibility and opportunity of buying real estate in the Berkshires, know that those of us who have loved the Berkshires for a long time welcome you as aficionados of art and culture, as food lovers, as employers, and, most importantly, as neighbors. Let me and my colleagues introduce you to the richness of this area and share it with you. Attend one of our lectures, or come speak to a class about your passion or profession. Hire an intern. Mentor a student entrepreneur.

There is so much for you here. MCLA is a microcosm of what it takes to fuel the Berkshire economy and what it's going to take to fuel the global and national economy in the future.

James F. Birge, Ph.D., is the president of MCLA.


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