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New MCLA President Meets With State Higher Education Head

Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago, on the right, speaks with reporters following a meeting with MCLA President Jaimie Birge.
Jim Levulis
Massachusetts Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago, on the right, speaks with reporters following a meeting with MCLA President Jaimie Birge.

The state’s Higher Education Commissioner visited Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Thursday to meet with the school’s new president and others at the North Adams campus.Commissioner Carlos Santiago met with MCLA trustees, staff and students to learn more about the school, which for the past five weeks has been under the leadership of its 12th president, Jaimie Birge. Santiago, who was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker in July 2015, discussed a range of topics including what he paints as the growing importance of public colleges now that more students are choosing them over private schools.

“Here I think you’re in a challenging environment,” Santiago said. “You’ve got demographic pressures with population going down and changing quite dramatically. But, what I see is the foundations of a revitalized local economy. As to what’s going to be the niche that drives that I think is still a work in progress. But I think you really have the key elements that will be essential if that economic development is to occur.”

In addressing the rising costs of college, Santiago says Massachusetts’ 29 public higher education institutions need to act as more of a system than as individual entities.

“We are still in a very decentralized, fragmented system of public higher education,” he said. “If you can believe it, we’ve been pushing for the last three years to build a seamless system of transfer so that any student or community college can transfer their credits in the foundational courses within the major and general education credits to any four-year institution. Do you believe that we have never had that in the commonwealth? We’ve never had the conversations across the three segments. We’ve never had community college faculty sit around the table in a discipline talk to their state university and UMass counterparts. We’ve finished six disciplines and we’ve got 10 more to go.”

Santiago says he is not advocating for restructuring how public education is governed in the state, but rather wants the 29 schools to speak with one voice on common issues such as affordability. Birge supports the collective force, but realizes that each school has its own characteristics. He says MCLA has shown a strong ability — recognized by the U.S. Department of Education — for graduating students who receive federal Pell Grants. According to U.S. News and World Report, MCLA’s four-year graduation rate is 34 percent and 46 percent of its students receive Pell Grants, according to Birge.

“So what can we do to help the other institutions elevate their Pell recipient graduation rate,” Birge said. “I think we can make contributions along that based on our distinct strengths that are part of a collective strength for the system.”

Santiago says demographics are driving soft enrollment numbers across the state as it becomes more difficult to pay for college. He says it’s not just tuition and fees, but also books and everyday living expenses.

“All of our campuses have opened food pantries,” Santiago said. “We are seeing hunger among students at levels that I am not familiar with. When I was a college student we didn’t think about hunger on a college campus. We’re seeing homelessness among a number of students. Largely in the community colleges, but it is occurring across the board. These are troubling signs.”

Birge says he’s spent the past several weeks learning more about MCLA, home to some 2,300 undergraduate and graduate students directed by an academic staff of less than 200. A graduate of nearby Lee High School, Birge says it’s exciting to see the transformation of North Adams.  

“The greater balance between manufacturing and business and the creative economy has been very good for the city and the institution,” Birge said. “I think MCLA has been one of the anchor institutions for that transition.”

Birge says he has spoken with North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright about long-talked about plans to renovate the Mohawk Theater and expects MCLA to play a role in that.

Birge’s presidency ends a year and a half search for the next MCLA leader after Mary Grant announced in August 2014 that she was leaving to become chancellor of University of North Carolina at Asheville. Following a nationwide search, MCLA picked Greg Summers, who later withdrew, citing family health concerns that made him unable to relocate. In August 2015, former trustee James Clemmer took over for interim president Cynthia Brown when she decided to seek the full-time post.

Junior Harmony Birch writes for the college newspaper, The Beacon, and says the leadership changes did lower student morale.

“When Mary Grant was here the morale was definitely a little bit just because we had a very public figure and leader and there was more stability,” Birch said. “When Jim Clemmer was interim president he did a lot to help students and faculty in interacting with them by going to events. I think that helped the morale a little bit. Since Birge has become permanent, I think the general student population feels a little bit more stable and secure.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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