Birge takes the oath of his office from Susan Gold, chairman of the board of trustees. See more photos here.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — James F. "Jamie" Birge hadn't intended to become a college president.
After interviewing dozens of presidents of colleges large and small, private and public, for his dissertation in leadership studies, he came away with the impression it was too difficult, too demanding and fraught with financial pressures.
"Why would anyone want to do that job?" he joked on Friday afternoon as he gave his inaugural address as the 12th president of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. "After finishing my dissertation I decided there was no way in hell I wanted to be a college president. ...
"Alas, life has an odd way of directing us to an outcome we don't anticipate or want," he continued. It was opportunity that set him on the path to North Adams when he stepped in as interim president at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia in 2006.
"I discovered that the role of president is much more life giving than anyone who hasn't been a president can realize
... although at times challenging and discouraging, provides multiple opportunities for contributing to the common purpose of educating women and men for a changing world."
A third of MCLA students come from families making less than $30,000 a year, and about the same number qualify for Pell Grants. The college is among the highest nationally in graduating Pell students at the same rate as other students, making the institution a significant player in breaking the cycle of poverty and a stepping stone a high-wage, high-quality jobs.
Birge used the example of Amber Coombe, who did not want to make the poor choices her older sisters had and who became the first in her family to attend college. Her hard work and help through scholarships has set her on a different path and a larger goal — after teaching history and pursuing a master's, she envisions a future run for the U.S. Senate to work on education policy reform.
"Although this is Amber's story, it's our story, too, in many ways," he said. "The part of Amber's story we own, and should own, is the sense of commitment we bring to students at MCLA — donors, staff, trustees — are uniformly focused on creating an environment where students can succeed."
Birge was selected as successor to Mary Grant in late 2015 in a second search after the trustees' initial choice bowed out months earlier. He stepped into the leadership post of the 120-year-old college a year ago after nearly seven years as president of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.
A graduate of Lee High School, he received his degrees from Westfield State University, Plymouth (N.H.) State University and Gonzaga Unversity in Washington and has worked in various capacities at both public and private institutions over his 30-year career.
Friday's event in MCLA's Church Street Center featured representatives from colleges and universities around New England, including neighboring Berkshire colleges Williams (about twice as old as MCLA) and Berkshire Community College (half as old), trustees of the college and local and state elected officials.
Birge's wife of 30 years, Lisa, was in attendance with two of their daughters, Caitlin and Siobhan, while the third, Margaret, watched the livestream from her studies in Greece. Both of his sisters participated in the ceremony, with his twin, Elizabeth Birge, an associate professor at William Paterson University, giving the invocation and Mary Katherine Birge, associate professor at Mount St. Mary's University, giving the benediction.
Elizabeth Birge recalled how they grew up as Wildcats, often taking on the Blue Devils in sports, and marching in the Fall Foliage Festival Parade.
"Education is our family business," she said, as both their parents were educators and seven cousins are teachers. "In our eyes, education is the highest and most noble profession one can aspire to."
She wanted to the crowd to know her brother as she did, "a warm and genuine man who's quick to laugh at himself, who's motivated by justice and eager to add to the excellence for which your institution is known."
Mary Birge asked the college community to join her in blessing her brother: "May the gift of leadership awaken in you as a vocation, keep you mindful of the providence that calls you to serve, as high over the mountain the eagle spreads it wings, may your perspective be larger than the view of the foothills."
Also speaking were were Lloyd Astmann, former trustee chairman of Franklin Pierce University, who gave the inaugural address; state Sen. Adam Hinds and state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi; Jondavid "JD" Chesloff, vice chairman of the trustees; public union leaders Charles Cianfarini (APA), Elizabeth Manns (AFSCME) and professor Michael Birch (MSCA) and Cheryl Boillat, president of the Alumni Association;
Student trustee Brianne O'Rourke said Birge's support of students was "evident on a daily basis." Mayor Richard Alcombright said he had expressed to Birge how important the relationship was between city and college and was "thrilled to call Jamie a true partner in this most valued campus community relationship, but most importantly, however, I am able to call Jamie my friend."
Trustee Mohan Boodram gave the welcome and introduced the speakers and Chair Susan Gold gave the investiture. Both had chaired the search that selected Birge as a candidate. Daniel Trombley, chairman of the MCLA Foundation board, and Student Government Association President Timothy Williams presented the presidential medallion, although Williams had some trouble affixing the piece.
"It probably should be hard to put on, it's heavy in many ways," Birge laughed afterwards.
Grant, a popular president during her dozen years at the college, returned for the investiture from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where she is chancellor. She spoke of the history and mission of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, on which both she and Birge are board members.
"Students are at the heart of everything in COPLAC schools, and they're the heart of MCLA," she said. "Let the students be your true north and you will never go wrong."
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