President Birge's remarks, presented during opening breakfast, January 22, 2019

Good Morning, Happy New Year, and welcome to the start of the spring 2019 semester.

Let’s start this morning by thanking our friends in Aramark for today’s breakfast.

I hope you have returned to campus as excited about a new semester as I am.  This morning I will share with you some of the reasons why I am excited and what is on the horizon for MCLA.

(After welcoming trustees, elected representatives, and union representatives to speak at the podium, President Birge plays a video of students describing their experiences of their first visits to MCLA.)

“Great. Cool.  Enthusiastic.  Welcoming.  I don’t feel like a number.  Great Choice.”  These perspectives of students about MCLA don’t surprise me.  I am certain many of you have heard students make such statements, as have I.  These internal assessments of our students’ experiences should help us feel confident we are exercising our mission.

We started the 2018-2019 academic year with external organizations also praising our work.  US News and World Report ranked MCLA #9 in the country among public liberal arts institutions. 

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. And more recently, the Eos Foundation examining gender equality in Massachusetts colleges and universities has identified MCLA as one of only 18 colleges out of 93 to achieve gender parity, and the only public, four year institution on that list. 

Although it is gratifying to have these internal and external affirmations of the work we are doing to be a better college, there remain far too many instances when we have not lived up to these rankings.  All the more reason for us to continue the hard work, and to be frank, there is much more work to be accomplished, that positions MCLA as THE institution where the sharing and acquisition of knowledge occurs for anyone without the presence of bias, oppression, marginalization, and exclusion.  That day is on the horizon for us.  And I know we are fully capable of being that institution. 

We can see examples of our capacity to be a great institution in the achievements of our graduates and among our colleagues. 

Let me offer a few examples from our Web Site News Page:

New Prof Specializes in Transnational Studies

Alumna to Work with Teach for America in Atlanta

New Prof Brings Experience from Chinese Journalism Outlets

‘My Chance to Advance’: Head Start Exec Director Lauds MCLA Degree Completion Program

Poli Sci Prof’s Research Attracts International Audience

Alumna Finds Dream Job in NYC

Business Prof Shares Theory with International Audience

Arts Management Alumna Lands Position at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I encourage you to go to the MCLA website and click on the MCLA NEWS link and read the stories about us! 

If you have not read these stories in a while, or ever, I think you will be pleasantly surprised to read about the accomplishments we have made as an institution.  And these stories only capture a fraction of our success.


One of the upcoming stories for the web site is the grand opening of MCLA—Pittsfield located at 66 Allen Street.  A grand opening and ribbon cutting event will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 12, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the location, and the campus’s commitment to offering courses in Pittsfield.  MCLA’s Division of Gradate and Continuing Education plays an increasingly critical role in responding to the needs of employers in the region to grow an educated workforce.  I hope you can join us on the 12th to celebrate our new location in Pittsfield.

Mellon Foundation:

Returning to the category of external organizations affirming our work, I am happy to share with you that in early December the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded MCLA a $360,000 grant to establish an “Institute on the Arts and Humanities.”  Professor Lisa Donovan will be the principal investigator for the grant which will explore the connections between arts and cultural organizations and the teaching and learning of the humanities in order to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion.  As part of the grant, MCLA will host a summer 2019 conference on DEI.  Vice President Emily Williams has already secured Nikki Giovanni as the keynote speaker. 

The Mellon grant and the conference will help to make MCLA a state-wide leader emphasizing diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of our institutional mission. 

Earlier this month, Commissioner of Higher Education, Carlos Santiago, announced that the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education has decided to make equity the “top statewide policy and performance priority” for public higher education; and so the on-going work to enhance our commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion aligns well with the Commonwealth’s priorities.

External Pressures on Higher Education Institutions:

Making MCLA more visible to prospective students and providing evidence that an MCLA education makes a difference in peoples’ lives is critically important work for us today.  The pressures on colleges and universities to reduce time to degree, to offer academic programs that prepare students for emerging job opportunities, to provide alternative delivery methods and credentials all while controlling for the cost of education compels us to think differently about what we do. 

When we embrace the idea of changing the status quo of our work, we will better position MCLA as the college of choice for students and, as a result, thrive academically and financially. 

For a decade, higher education leaders have been talking about the disruption that is coming to our campuses.  One only needs to read recent news reports to see that a correction in higher education is here.  Many colleges have closed, merged, or are on the brink of either.  Although our finances are stronger than most of these institutions, we struggle under the competition to recruit and to retain students.  Each of us has a responsibility to create an environment where students can thrive and achieve their academic goals as well as to offer academic programs and credentials that respond to the changing world of work and that prepare graduates to have meaningful careers. 

I think MCLA has more to offer than the institutions I just listed.  We have the capacity to respond to the disruption occurring around us—and we must respond.  As a public institution, the Legislature provides MCLA with an appropriation that supports our mission, but it doesn’t cover our expenses.  In fact, our appropriation covers a third of our operating expenses leaving the balance for us to cover with tuition and fee revenue, donor support, grants, and summer conference and event revenue.  The MCLA Foundation also is an important source of revenue for us with funds that grow out of the endowment.  But our endowment, at approximately $13 million, is relatively small compared to Hampshire College’s endowment of $52 million, for example.

This period of disruption in higher education presents us with an opportunity to further distinguish MCLA’s mission of providing a high quality, liberal arts education while responding to the needs and demands of society, today.

Strategic Plan:

All the more reason, then, for us to pay attention to the goals of the strategic plan.  Last May we met as a community to formalize the work of the Strategic Planning process and to discuss next steps for implementation.  The first phase of our work responded to the Department of Higher Education’s feedback to assure the following as the plan moves forward:

  • To consider academic programs that respond to workforce/labor needs
  • To consider the cost structure of attending MCLA when implementing the Strategic Plan
  • To deepen corporate and philanthropic relations
  • To develop a 5-year financial model, and
  • To create metrics/benchmarking to compare with State U, private colleges, and COPLAC peers)

On the slide are major initiatives in progress this academic year. Work continues on these initiatives, and others, and we will recap the results at our end-of-year retreat tentatively scheduled for May 28.  This semester we will roll-out a process to fund year two initiatives. This will follow a similar divisional proposal process as last year and we will focus on alignment with Title 3 goals and planning.

Thank you for your continued efforts on this transformative work. It is a competitive time in higher education and this work allows us to continue to "Think Differently" as we plan for MCLA's future.  Succeeding in retaining students, offering academic programs that attract students, controlling our costs, responding to changes in the workforce into which our graduates will enter will allow us to continue to offer a high quality, liberal arts education that has meaning for students and employers and that produces outcomes that families want for their students.

Marketing/Brand Identity:

As part of our strategic planning goal of improving internal communications and enhancing our external reputation, MCLA engaged in a partnership with higher education marketing firm SimpsonScarborough in spring 2018. You may already know this important work is under way, and you may have even been one of the 3,000 respondents to the market research surveys.

Through brand assessment, group discussions with campus stakeholders, and quantitative research with prospective undergraduate students, high school and transfer counselors, current students, faculty, staff, and alumni, SimpsonScarborough helped us identify the current and aspirant positions of the MCLA brand for these key stakeholders.

With this data and information as a guide, SimpsonScarborough developed a brand strategy to help us increase awareness, reputation, and preference for MCLA, and to align the institution for a stronger future. Based on the brand strategy, two creative concepts were developed to frame and unify MCLA’s storytelling through a combination of messaging, tone, and graphic design.

After testing the concepts with internal and external audiences, it was clear there were strong preferences for both concepts.  As a result, SimpsonScarborough took the strongest elements from concept two and integrated them into concept one.  You will begin to see some of these new branding elements right away, and implementation of the new brand will continue through the next academic year and beyond.

Thank you all for participating in the market research project. Your feedback was integral to this process.

A special note of thanks to the Marketing and Communications team Bernadette Alden and Francesca Olsen for managing this project, and to the Brand Advisory Team: Kayla Hollins; Josh Mendel; Laura Mooney; Dale Osef; Steve Pesola; Graziana Ramsden; Ryan Senecal; Diane Scott; and Tom Whalen, for their valuable input and representation.  Finally, our deepest gratitude should be for Helen Sinderman ‘44, whose estate provided the resources for us to engage this important work.

Anyone who is interested in learning more about the new brand and ways that you can use it as a tool for your departments and projects, can participate in an upcoming brand training session February 13 or 14. There, SimpsonScarborough representatives will guide us through the new brand strategy and provide an overview of how the new brand will be used from college messaging to design.

Website Overhaul:

One of the most important tools MCLA has to position itself as a college of choice for families is our website.  And although our current site is adequate, we know there are elements of the site that are not accessible to all people and has limited functionality with mobile devices.  All the more reason, then, to overhaul the website that will include the new brand strategy and enhance its functionality. 

Over the last two months, the website development team: Bernadette Alden, Ian Bergeron, Jana Boyer, Francesca Olsen, Steve Pesola, and Gina Puc, has interviewed a number of firms that specialize in website development.  The team has selected iFactory out of Boston to perform this work which will commence in the next few weeks and progress throughout the year.  Our goal is to have the new website on-line by late fall 2019.

Cyber Security:

Speaking of technology, you may have recently noticed that our colleagues in Information Technology Services have tagged any external e-mail messages that come into the MCLA accounts.  The reason for this notice is to alert you to the possibility that the message could be an attempt to get data from you. 

MCLA has been a recipient of these attempted cyberattacks and so I urge you to be cautious about opening attachments in e-mails that originate from outside of MCLA.  If you receive e-mails that you suspect are fraudulent, please forward them to the Help Desk, immediately.

Please join me in welcoming Professors Elizabeth Hartung, Mathemetics; Matthew Silliman, Philosophy; and Ben Wood, Psychology, back from sabbatical.

During the past several weeks, VP Williams made adjustments to the organizational structure in Academic Affairs.  As part of these changes, Deborah Foss will now serve as Dean of Academic Operations and Theresa O’Bryant as Dean of Student Success and Engagement.  Both will report to VP Williams in their new roles.

In late December, we received a letter from NECHE, New England Commission of Higher Education, in response to MCLA’s fifth year report.  I am happy to report that NECHE has accepted interim report and a comprehensive evaluation was confirmed and has been scheduled for Fall 2023.  This evaluation will cover an intensive review of compliance with all of NECHE’s standards; however, the fall 2023 evaluation will give emphasis to our work in revising the core curriculum (general education), increasing student enrollment, retention and graduation, and developing a multi-year financial plan that is aligned with its recruitment, enrollment and retention plans.

I am happy to report that Sarah Smarsh has been confirmed as the speaker for our spring public policy lecture scheduled for April 4.  Ms. Smarsh is an author, educator, speaker, and journalist who focuses on socioeconomic class and rural America. Her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth examines historic economic inequality and tells the story of her upbringing among the working poor on a Kansas farm.

President’s Council:

In an organization of 400 employees with many different departments and divisions, communication is a challenge, at best.  Sometimes there is information that can’t be shared for legal reasons; at other times information shouldn’t be shared to preserve someone’s dignity, and still other times when information can’t be shared immediately because it is incomplete. 

Nonetheless, there are, indeed, times when information should be shared and it isn’t due to other pressing priorities.  It is my goal to improve upon the sharing of information around the college. One way to enhance communication of information might be to return to a model from a few years ago when there was a “President’s Council.”  The minutes and membership rosters that I have read suggest that a similar group could help with opening communication.

And to be clear, the President’s Council will not be for me solely to give information to the members but for all of the Council members to learn more about what is happening in departments and divisions that inform the decisions we all make. 

Shortly I will invite 30-40 of you to join the President’s Council. 

  • The President’s Council will meet five times a year for 90 minutes each.
  • Members will exchange information and discussion around challenges and opportunities for MCLA.
  • We will identify and examine policies and practices that enhance the learning and teaching environment.
  • We will all share data and information and address rumors and mis-information.
  • Each member will be responsible to report discussion content to colleagues.
  • President’s Office will post meeting notes on-line for everyone to read.
  • I will send out invitations to join the Council later this week.

I am under no illusion this Council will solve our communications inefficiencies, but it has the opportunity to expand the amount of information that we can share with one another. 

Honorary Degree Recipients and Speaker: 

It always seems to me that the spring semester of the academic year passes more quickly than the fall term.  If that holds true this year, then MCLA’s 120th Commencement Exercises will be upon us sooner than we might anticipate.  As has been our tradition, MCLA will confer honorary degrees on May 18 upon three worthy candidates.  The MCLA Board of Trustees has voted to recognize former North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright who will receive an honorary doctor of public service degree.

Mr. Alcombright’s support and advocacy on behalf of MCLA is without question, evidenced by his presence at admissions events where he urged parents to choose MCLA for their students. 

Additionally, the Board voted to recognize Ms. Shirley Edgerton, alumna of MCLA and a former Trustee of the College with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Ms. Edgerton has long served the people of Berkshire County and our students as an educator and community activist. 

Finally, the Board voted to recognize Congressman Richard Neal, the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts's 1st congressional district with an honorary doctor of public service degree.  Mr. Neal recently became the Chair of the US House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee—one of the most powerful posts in Washington DC.  Mr. Neal will also offer the Commencement Address.

125th Anniversary:

In 1894, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts established the Normal School in North Adams to educate teachers for the public schools.  Since then, our College has had numerous name changes which include State Teachers College in North Adams (1932), North Adams State College (1960), and, finally, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (1997).  Regardless of our name, MCLA over the years has reflected its historic public purpose to respond to the needs and demands of society.

MCLA will celebrate its 125th anniversary in 2019 and I have invited faculty, staff, students, and alumni to form an anniversary committee.  The members of the committee will help to guide activities, events, and visibility of the celebration of our 125th year including themed alumni events and signage on campus, to photo exhibitions, special events, and more.  Bob Ziomek ’89, Vice President of Institutional Advancement, has agreed to chair the committee. 

I will share more information about these activities once they are planned.

New Employees:

One of the factors that sets us apart from other institutions is the high quality of our faculty and staff.  There are some new faces among us since last fall including: 

  • Bernadette Dineen
  • Susannah McAllister
  • Robert Hungate
  • Brandon Lipka
  • Khalil Paul
  • Steven Stengel
  • Cindy MacDonald
  • Kate Gigliotti
  • Maria Moulton
  • Kate Flower


Colleagues, Thank you all for being here this morning and for your ongoing contributions to providing our students with a high quality liberal arts education.

Happy New Year!