Birge, with his wife, Lisa, pulls raffle tickets for a good cause.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is welcoming just over 400 incoming students this year — but it wants more.
At the annual campus breakfast marking the start of the semester, college President James Birge detailed some of the priorities designed to "position MCLA to strengthen and enhance the college," including enrollment.
"This fall, we will welcome 415 new students to MCLA," Birge told the crowded cafeteria on Tuesday morning.. "This number is lower than last year at this time by about 25 students. Although we had budgeted for a smaller class than last year and we did not need to make any budget changes as a result, we must nonetheless increase this number in future years."
The school has seen a nearly 20 percent decrease since 2010 in the student body, according to an MCLA Beacon article last spring, although the numbers are still far higher than what the college was seeing in the early part of the century.
Of the 2,515 applications submitted by high school seniors, some 1,745 were accepted. The incoming class comes largely from Massachusetts, no surprise, and secondly from New York State although eight states will be represented on campus.
"I do not want to lose sight of the reality of these numbers," he said. "More than 400 families have chosen MCLA ... Think about it. More than 400 families have chosen us for the high-quality liberal arts education we provide. Clearly, we offer education that is recognized for its value."
To get that word out, the college hired a consultant and marketing firm SimpsonScarborough to develop a branding and marketing plan. The new concepts will be sent with a survey to the college community and alumni for feedback and the marketing built on their responses.
The concept is part of a strategic plan developed last year to "encourage MCLA to think differently" and teach for a changing world, Birge said. The priorities for this year were gleaned from the full plan approved this past spring.
They largely focus on strengthening and enhancing the college's culture, programming and inclusiveness. Some $1 million in programming will be available this year, with half funded through external sources and the balance split between the budget and reserve funds.
Birge said the strategic plan "will position MCLA to strengthen and enhance the education we offer our students. What has made the plan so strong in my opinion, is the method we engaged in to create it."
More than 100 faculty and staff came together to develop the plan and many submitted proposals on how to make it work. One aspect will be to acknowledge the growing diversity on campus — about 45 percent of incoming students are ALANA (African, Latino/Hispanic, Asian and Native American) — with a number of community dialogues, including one on Nov. 8.
The college will implement programs designed to increase inclusiveness in teaching and programming, as developed from a survey last year. It will also encourage more college community gatherings for staff and faculty, like the breakfasts, to give them a chance to know each other better.
Other changes this year include moving the classes provided in Pittsfield from the Conte Federal Building to 66 Allen St., the home of 1Berkshire. The courses are offered through MCLA and Berkshire Community College, neither of which were interested in continuing in the federal building. The limited hours and "extraordinary" security made it difficult to program late and weekend classes, Birge said.
Mayor Thomas Bernard, an alum and former employee of the college, gives a brief welcome before heading to the public school openings.
"We are a community, each of us comes to this place with a distinct and important set of skills, gifts and contributions," he said. "Individually we accomplish tasks, necessary tasks, but collectively we provide a foundation to a civil society. A liberal education that prepares students for achieving their goals and the greater goal of the common good. ...
"We provide an education for our students that allows them to live elevated lives, an education that helps them build communities that are just, inclusive and that compel all of us to do more and to be better."
Several elected officials also spoke at the event, with Mayor Thomas Bernard, an MCLA alum, giving a brief welcome before heading to the opening of the North Adams Public Schools. Both state Rep. John Barrett III, another alum, and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier also brought greetings.
Both commented on how every member of the staff and faculty can have an impact on the life of a student, with Farley-Bouvier taking the time to thank the college community in a way she can't at the colleges her own children attend "because they don't give me the microphone."
The two legislators also assured the public unions that they had their backs when it came to completing the three-year agreements that have been approved but held up the administration. Farley-Bouvier, wearing red for the moment in solidarity, said she heard their concerns about the contracts that wanted to make sure it was in the supplemental budget.
"When you make a deal, you honor the deal," Barrett said. "As long as I am there, I will advocate on your behalf."
Birge, with the help of his wife, Lisa, also raffled off $100 donations to a charity of the ticket holder's choice; everyone attending got one ticket and those bringing a child's book received an extra one.
The Growing Healthy Garden Program and the People's Fund of Franklin County will each receive $100, along with a third charity to be announced.
Birge also read off a lengthy list of honors and accomplishments of the faculty and staff and recognized Diane Scott, an assistant professor in arts management, and Erin Milne, a researcher in academic affairs, for writing and submitting the college's five-year accreditation plan to the New England Commission of Higher Education. Each received one of Birge's bowtie pins in recognition of outstanding work on behalf of the college.
Also speaking were Trustee Denise Marshall; Student Government Association President Declan Nolan; Association of Professional Administrators local President Seth Bean; Massachusetts State Colleges Association committee member Michele Ethier (speaking on behalf of President Graziana Ramsden); and Association of City, State and Municipal Employee Local 1067 Chief Steward Elizabeth Manns, who especially encouraged people to vote in these "tumultuous times."
"With the union, we bargain, without the union we beg," she said.
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Earlier this spring, I announced I was running for City Council while still a senior in college. Within just a few days of taking out my papers, I had surpassed the number of signatures needed to appear on the ballot. I want to thank everyone who lent me their signature, their support, or even just an encouraging word along the way.
Late last week, however, I wrote to the City Clerk and asked her to withdraw my name from the election. I accepted an offer to work for the New Hampshire State Senate that will, obviously, take me out of the city for the foreseeable future. This was an offer that I, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from the college known as New Hampshire's home for politics, could not turn down at this point in my young career. I am very thankful to everyone who supported my campaign along the way. I especially want to thank state Rep. John Barrett III, City Council President Keith Bona, and City Councilor Marie T. Harpin, who all gave me valuable insights and guided me along the way.
I hope to return to the city one day and give back to the great community that shaped me into who I am today and who inspired me to launch my campaign. I would not have withdrawn from the campaign if I did not think that the city would be in good hands while I am away. No matter where I live, I will always consider North Adams home.
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