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MCLA Opening Breakfast Previews New Semester

Josh Landes
MCLA President Dr. James Birge delivers his remarks at its Spring 2019 Opening Breakfast.

On Tuesday, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams held its Spring Opening Breakfast. 

Local leaders, faculty, staff, and students gathered in MCLA’s Amsler Campus Center to kick off the school’s spring semester. The first speaker was State Senator Adam Hinds, who shared statehouse conversations about funding higher education in the commonwealth.

“Massachusetts has reduced its per student financing by $8,000. Now it’s $12,000 per student. That’s the wrong direction we should be heading in education financing.”

Hinds, who touted his own liberal arts education, reflected on a recent trip to Seattle as Senate chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development. The Democrat said companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing see funding liberal arts as a key investment.

“We think in 25 years, we’re going to have a large outsourcing to automation – we’re going to lose jobs to automation – but there are certain jobs that we will never automate. And those are the jobs that involve creativity, empathy, teamwork. And so it’s in our interest for our own workforce in the knowledge economy to make sure that this area of education is strong.”

State Representative John Barrett – a fellow Democrat and former longtime mayor of North Adams – holds three degrees from MCLA – his bachelors, masters, and an honorary doctorate. He said the legislative work he does today representing the state’s “smallest, most remote area” harkens back to his days at the college.

“It reminds me of the times when I was senate president here many moons ago, and we had to always fight for recognition. There were 11 state colleges at that time. We were the smallest, of course. We were the ones who got the least amount of money, we were the ones who got the least recognition for a lot of things.”

In 2017, MCLA had more than 2,200 undergraduate and graduate students.

“MCLA is the smallest institution in the Massachusetts state university system, and North Adams is the smallest city in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and it’s time that we look at small as a competitive advantage.”

North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard reaffirmed the bond between the college and the city.

“I look around the room and see people here serving on boards and commission for the city, serving in volunteer capacities. People who are parents in our public schools, people who serve in elected capacities on our school committee.”

Representing the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was MCLA Mailroom and Copy Center Clerk Elizabeth Manns. She detailed recent negotiations between the college and the union.

“I can finally say that we have a contract, and that the word has come down that the language is in effect. Hopefully the retro pay that each of us is owed will be here soon. And just think – we can all look forward to the process starting over again in January of 2020.”

Another college employee drew attention to the rising financial impediments to higher education in the state.

“Did you know that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is underfunding public colleges and universities by $574 million every year?”

Graziana Ramsden is MCLA’s Faculty Association President and a professor of Modern Languages.

“If public colleges and universities are underfunded, you know what goes up? Student debt. Who pays for the state’s intentional divestment in public education? Students and families. And you know what that reminds me of? Trump’s border wall.”

Finally, college president Dr. James Birge took the podium – first to praise the school’s positive student experiences and national attention it garnered in 2018.

“U.S. News and World Report ranked MCLA number nine in the country among public liberal arts colleges. A few weeks later, University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center identified MCLA as one of the top public institutions nationally for serving black students well.”

Birge acknowledged the rising challenges of public higher education – finding new means of delivering information to students, better marketing the college, and facing new pressures from the contemporary economy. Birge, who joined MCLA in 2016, also said that the school was on track for accreditation from the New England Commission of Higher Education by 2023. He also pledged to work on communication and transparency within MCLA by restoring a 30 to 40-member President’s Council.

“Members will exchange information around challenges and opportunities for MCLA. We will identify and examine policies and practices that enhance the learning and teaching environment. We will share data and information and address rumors and misinformation.”

Birge revealed that the college’s spring public policy talk would be delivered by journalist and author Sarah Smarsh in early April.

“Mrs. Smarsh is author of Heartland: Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.”

Birge also unveiled the trio of honorary doctorate recipients for 2019: former North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright, Community Activist and MCLA alumna Shirley Edgerton, and Democratic Congressman Richard Neal. Neal, a Democrat, will also give the college’s commencement address in May.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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