Mitchell Chapman: Year 125: A critical juncture for MCLA, Birge
PITTSFIELD — Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts presidents have either served the institution for less than five years or a decade and above, with its 10th president, Catherine Tisinger, being the only exception, having a seven-year tenure at what was then North Adams State College.
The standing president, James Birge, joined the college in 2016, but was formally inaugurated the year after, and we're at a point where we'll see what type of president he will be. Will he bow out after three or four years on the job, like NASC President President William Haas and President Andrew Flagg, or will his tenure exceed a decade like that of MCLA's first alumna president, Mary Grant?
If Birge's opening breakfast speech earlier this month is indicative of anything, he has a lot of work to do if he wants to be remembered as one of MCLA's best. In his speech, Birge started MCLA's 125th year as an academic institution with a call for collegiality, something that has been lacking on campus since he arrived, and has recently worsened.
I've worked with Birge in many capacities, and I've seen many shades of him and his administration, having been an editor at the college's student newspaper for three years, a brief member of the college's board of trustees, and now as a local member of and class agent for the college's alumni association. Two sagas stand out to me as prime examples of the type of president Birge is and can be.
Birge came to the college during a tumultuous time, as his first full semester on campus was the very same semester Donald Trump was elected, and the semester he was inaugurated was also the same semester Trump was inaugurated. The first saga came during the latter semester, spring 2017, when I was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper.
One snowy day in February of that year, students and faculty alike woke up to see key parts of campus covered in surveys — including one of the college's outdoor signs and the president's office — with words like "We exist, we matter" on them. It was the first major story I covered as editor, and was a response to the fact that the survey grouped in all nonwhite survey takers, who accounted for 15 percent of those that took it, into the same category, in effect erasing their racial identities. Tensions were already high and understandably so, considering that Trump had just taken office.
The college apologized for its mistake (this was apparently shorthand from the survey consultant it used), but what was most notable was how Birge handled it.
Despite the fact that this protest created an inconvenience, broke school policy, and was potentially compromising to the college's recruitment efforts, Birge allowed protest materials to stay up. He kept a level head, made genuine strides to understand why the students were upset and went about making corrective measures. He could've easily dismissed the students based off an administrative technicality, but he chose to cut through the red tape and get to the heart of the issue, showing compassion and understanding.
Birge earned my respect, and in my opinion, showed him at his best. However, it was not to last.
The second saga is more recent, and pertains to how Birge's administration handled the cancellation of the college's radio practicum class, which riled students and alumni alike and led to an effort last semester to reinstate the course.
That semester, the college had a new vice president of academic affairs and a new dean who wanted classes registered by the book and were not familiar with how the college had been allowing student to take classes like radio practicum, which was a course by arrangement. Rather than try to correct this for the following school year, they made a bizarre argument that the class didn't exist in the first place (this was a lie, as it existed in the college's course catalog for years), and decided to pull students from it at the last minute.
While the radio class is not alone in its cancellation — reporting from the student newspaper suggests that hybrid and online classes that commuter students rely upon might also be pulled this year because of administrative technicalities — it did get a large group of MCLA radio and journalism students and alumni to band together to do all that they could to overturn the decision, which I was a part of, as I saw the cancellation as not only an attack on the station, but student journalism in general.
It got professional media organizations involved, and it culminated in a face-to-face gathering with Birge, who had the ability to apologize for the mistakes of his subordinates and to diffuse the situation. He did neither.
I saw a very different Birge at this gathering. While he knew that journalism students and journalists would be there, he insisted that the meeting not be recorded. There were no apologies from him, or consolation. The conversation eventually took a turn for the worst, as he blamed the radio students for generating the bad press his administration had rightfully earned by reaching out to their peers, alumni networks and to media organizations for help. He also focused too heavily on the (rightfully) negative criticisms and tone of discourse that the college was receiving, especially online.
THE LOW POINT
The issue was eventually resolved, as the course was revived as an independent study, but the damage was already done. It is for this reason that I view it as the lowest point of his presidency, as it harmed his relationship with the college community, which is something he is trying to repair through his call for collegiality, something I hope he achieves, but he must realize that, like in spring 2017, it will start with him and his administration.
MCLA's Birge years have been a mixed bag, many elements of which have been out of his control, but others, like collegiality, have been within his grasp. Birge is at his best when he is able to cut through the red tape that binds so many administrators, dropping his charts and technical jargon, and talks to you like you're a human being. He's at his worst when something goes wrong internally and he's unable to be the statesman MCLA needs him to be.
MCLA is at a natural crossroads as it enters its 125th year, one in which it will reflect on how far it has come and decide where it wants to go next. So too, is Birge, who will decide what type of president he will be, and who, in my opinion, will define his legacy at the college this year.
Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and freelance writer. He is a member of the MCLA Class of 2018, is a class agent for the MCLA Alumni Association and has a bachelor's degree in English/Communications. While at the college, he was the editor of the student newspaper, The Beacon, and was a student trustee.
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