Mayor Thomas Bernard speaks at the MCLA breakfast.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is hoping to enter an era of "good feelings" this semester, with the goal that the college community should treat each other better.
"We're at a moment of opportunity that I hope you will choose to accept with me," said President James Birge at the college's opening breakfast Tuesday. "MCLA is a very good institution. I know that we are all each very good people. We are all at MCLA because we want to educate the next generation that will improve our world. And we are capable of doing that. Together."
He acknowledged that the close-knit college community has had a tense year and he believed that the "unhealthy" climate had affected the students they were charged to educate and mentor.
"The experience at MCLA is designed to elevate students as individual as leaders, as communicators, fully empowered to make lasting impression on people's lives," he said, but that hadn't been the case of students who filled out a student satisfaction inventory. "The overall results indicate that MCLA students are less satisfied with most of their student experiences than their national peers."
Perhaps it was the contract negotiations, or the national political dialogue or changes in leadership, he said. "I think it's all of these dynamics, as well as the way in which we treat one another as colleagues."
Birge thought, in his opinion, that the dialogue between faculty and staff had coarsened, and that colleagues had seen fit to mistreat each other and file grievances. And they'd brought students improperly into conversations about administrative and academic decision-making.
"What is not my opinion, but rather the fact, is that the climate we have created among each other as colleagues has had a negative impact on our students," he said. "So much so that some of our students who completed the SSI would not attend MCLA if they had to do over again."
About a third of the invited 1,137 students took the Ruffalo Noel Levitz survey and scored the college lower than other public colleges on it being an enjoyable experience to be a student on campus, or that the faculty was the fair and unbiased in treatment of individuals and that the institution shows concern for students.
They did, however, rank the college high in having quick response from security, having knowledgeable advisers, and having staff and faculty concerned about their success. Still, there are more unsatisfactory categories.
"The larger more discouraging criticisms of the experiences we offer students are not resolved by sealing leaky roofs or improving the food," Birge said. "The more important resolution is rooted in how we treat students and how we treat one another."
The president encouraged the college's employees to consider what they could do to create a more welcoming community for students. They'd worked well, he said, in coming to the aid of students left adrift by the abrupt closure of Southern Vermont College this past spring. Fully a third of the students who were eligible enrolled at MCLA for this fall as a collaborative effort worked to accommodate their needs.
And, he said, physics professor Adrienne Wootters and associate history professor Ely Janis had stepped up to fill in an unexpected opening in academic affairs with the departure of Emily Allen Williams. They will serve as interim vice president and interim dean, respectively.
"If we fail to see the value of one another as colleagues committed to a common goal," Birge said. "We will continue to fail one another and, ultimately, we will fail our students."
Other speakers also referred to collegiality, with Association of City, State and Municipal Employee Local 1067 Chief Steward Elizabeth "Liz" Manns saying the union would be addressing an issue "using the tool of education" rather than a confrontational path, and new Massachusetts State Colleges Association chapter President James Moriarty pledging a "drama free zone."
"I consider everyone in this room at this college and especially our students, as my teammates. I won't let you down," Moriarty said.
Seth Bean, president of the local chapter of the Association of Professional Administrators, encouraged the gathering to continue to fight for "Fund Our Future," a proposal to pump $1.5 billion into the state's K through college education system.
Manns also held back tears reading a letter to her from a student's grandmother for making the girl's three years from home a little easier. "You never know what little thing can make a difference in someone's life," Manns said.
The breakfast was held in the newly refurbished cafeteria in the Amsler Campus Center spearheaded by Aramark, the college's food service provider. It was one of the new renovations ongoing at the college, including a new fitness room being installed in the old pool that would be ready by spring and a cell tower to improve cell phone and data connections.
Birge touted the upcoming celebrations for the college's 125th year, the new arts and humanities and diversity initiatives, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the increase in student enrollment for this semester, with an incoming class of 292, up 25 from last year. More than half of the incoming freshmen are first-generation students and 51 percent are receiving Pell Grants. Some 63 percent are from Massachusetts and about a third are students of color. Counted with more than 160 transfers and re-admitted students, that's more than 450 new students coming on campus.
The college will also be launching its new marketing campaign with signage, advertising and billboards, and will include a new website later this fall.
Denise Marshall, chairman of the board of trustees and an alum of the college, welcomed the gathering and state Rep. John Barrett III said it was important that Boston understand the needs of the college and understand what is happening here. Student Government Association President Dean Little gave a shout-out to club advisers saying "you go above and beyond to help support our students strive to their goals as no university or college can."
The president handed out his bowtie pins, created to as a way to recognize outstanding work on behalf of the college, to members of the admissions staff and to Mayor Thomas Bernard, a former employee of the college.
Bernard, whose parents were both public school teachers, said he understand the impact an educator can have just from the interactions he's had with his former students of his parents.
"So my promise to you as you begin this semester is that the work you do, with the seeds you plant, will blossom in the future," he said. "You may never hear about it. But you are making a difference in somebody's life, and somebody's story. And in doing that, you're making the college, the world and the city of North Adams a stronger and a better place."
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