Ten Minutes With Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President
Dr. James F. Birge hadn’t planned to return to the area where he was raised. But come back he did, in 2016, to take on the presidency of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) and to continue his more than three decades of serving in higher education. Birge has always loved the Berkshires. “Here was the opportunity to, as T.S. Eliott would say, learn about it for the first time,” he says. Recently, Birge has seen the opening of an MCLA office in Pittsfield to serve more residents in central and south county.
Why did you leave the helm of Franklin Pierce University for MCLA?
Franklin Pierce was a very good school, and we enjoyed our time there, but Ringe, New Hampshire, is really isolated. My wife, Lisa, and I decided we wanted something a little more energetic. MCLA was looking for a new president to do things that I had done at Franklin Pierce. A friend encouraged me to apply for the position. I was really intrigued by the academic rigor of the institution and its place as an important opportunity for students to lead a really good quality of life.
What’s the demographic mix at MCLA?
We have just a little over 1,300 undergrads, about 300 adult learners in our graduate and continuing ed program. Thirty percent of this year’s incoming class is from underrepresented populations, and we have the highest percentage of students of color in our history. Around 30 percent of our students are the first generation in their families to attain higher education. A third of our students come from families earning less than $30,000 a year, 18 percent from families earning less than $20,000 a year, so we have a fairly significant financial need. In fact, 46 percent of our students are Pell eligible, the highest eligibility percentage in public four-year education in Massachusetts, and while those things present their own challenges, they present real opportunities for us. That’s why a public liberal arts college exists, to be a place of access for people to lead an elevated life.
What have you accomplished these past three years at MCLA, and what more do you hope to do?
About 100 of my colleagues, students, and community members came together last year to craft a new strategic plan which really positions us to do what we do best: to offer a strong education that helps students achieve the goals they have for themselves. We’ve hired a chief diversity officer. We’re trying harder to do a better job of making this a place that is more inclusive.
What else have you done to help students academically and after graduation?
We’ve launched a couple of new academic majors in the last couple of years, but we have to explore what programs we should offer that are going to help not only Berkshire County employers fill their openings, but other employers around the region.
What makes it difficult for you to sleep?
I think about four students who were all students at institutions where I have been president. They have all died, for a variety of reasons. I knew them; I think of them. While I don’t think of our students as my children, they are young people who sometimes think they are invincible, and I worry that they might make decisions that put them in peril. There is nothing worse than having to tell a parent that their child has died. One other thing: We are going through a disruption in higher education now. People are questioning whether they should go to college, whether there is any benefit. I worry about how higher education is changing—and needs to change—in some places. We need to produce new academic majors at a faster pace to be more responsive to what employers need. There’s a pressing need for different kinds of majors, such as advanced manufacturing and healthcare.
Is a big part of your job raising money?
We have roughly a $50 million budget. Our state appropriation is a little more than $16 million. That’s a big difference, so we have to find a way to make up the difference. We’re grateful to the Commonwealth for the appropriation we get, but it’s a smaller percentage today than it was 20 years ago.
Yet the state benefits from educated people?
Yes. Educated people earn higher salaries, they pay more taxes. People who are educated make fewer demands on health care systems. People who are educated are more likely to participate in electoral politics. People who are educated participate more in public service programs.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Providing an opportunity to students to earn a degree that will elevate their lives. To be part of a staff and faculty that makes that happen, being part of a place that lives its mission. And they have really good soup. I’m a big soup fan.
Did I hear a rumor that you ride a motorcycle?
When I was a kid, I rode a motorcycle. I rode a couple of them. And when Lisa and I started a family, I decided I wouldn’t do that anymore. I wanted to be around. But in the last couple of years as I’ve been back here, while driving around, I’ve been remembering just how enjoyable it was to be on a bike in Berkshire County. Going up and over Greylock is a real treat. I mean, visually it’s beautiful, but also the smell of the woods and wildflowers and fresh air is great.