A Piece of the Puzzle

The way forward for Mills involves stronger partnerships with the Oakland communities surrounding campus.

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In a time when the Bay Area is undergoing exponential change, Mills is situated to grow in new ways right along with it. It’s Renee Jadushlever’s job to figure out what that looks like.

IN THE TWO AND A HALF DECADES SHE’S WORKED AT MILLS, Renee Jadushlever has held a number of positions, including library director and the chief of staff for two presidents. These days, her title is vice president for strategic partnerships, a phrase that doesn’t necessarily describe the full breadth of what she does.

It’s a job that involves maintaining relationships with the various entities that partner with Mills in some way, whether that’s a small one-day conference on campus (such as the Pathways to Four-Year Universities held this past fall) or this spring’s collaboration with Google for its 10-week Applied Machine Learning Program. The College’s centuries-long relationship with the City of Oakland is one of the most important she oversees, especially as Oakland has grown and matured since Mills moved to its current campus in 1871. What used to be a sleepy farming community has transformed into a bustling anchor city in the Bay Area that—for better or worse—is shouldering the tech boom along with San Francisco and the Silicon Valley.

What does that new reality mean for Mills? In the midst of a busy spring, Jadushlever sat down with the Quarterly to talk about the path she sees for the College going forward—and how that path is dependent upon the rapidly changing community around campus.

Quarterly: How does Mills currently interact with Oakland and the neighborhoods just beyond our campus?

Renee Jadushlever: Over the decades, Mills has had many successful community outreach projects, but it has not been as top of mind in the community or as present as it could be. Many driving by the campus have not known what is behind the gates, with some even thinking it’s a cemetery! However, once inside the gates, you see the beauty of our 135- acre campus. We are in a part of Oakland and the East Bay that has built up around us, and this is a community that has been and continues to be affected by substantial change. Especially as real estate prices have skyrocketed in this area, we have to think about how we’re using this land in a way that’s sensitive to what’s happening around us.

We are surrounded by seven neighborhoods, and we have different relationships with each one. A few years ago, the leadership of the Redwood Heights homeowners’ association came to visit, and they asked how Mills could partner with their neighborhood. They also asked that we report regularly to their email listserv on events or opportunities that might be of interest. In addition to creating awareness about our programs, we’ve also kept neighbors informed of unexpected activities on campus, such as a recent Climate Strike Day march by some very vocal students from the Julia Morgan School for Girls, which occupies a building on campus. After a year or so of connecting to those neighbors, and also posting on NextDoor, we have seen some positive results from that outreach with increased neighbor interaction and event attendance.

To keep the Mills campus informed about what’s happening in Oakland, I send out a monthly “Oakland Matters” email, compiled from the numerous city agency newsletters I subscribe to. I cannot tell you how many people have said, “You know, I live in Oakland and I didn’t know any of that!” Keeping an eye out for city projects that fit the curricular and co-curricular needs of our students is important as well. I recently brought forward an opportunity that led to a student being hired to do the qualitative analysis on a City Equity Indicators project. It’s been a great way to connect what we’re doing with this busy, thriving community.

Each person in Oakland I have met at a meeting has led to introductions to many others, and provided more opportunities for getting the Mills name out in the community.

What kinds of partnerships does Mills have at the moment, and how do they fit into our mission?

Right now, we’re partnering with organizations like the Girl Scouts of Northern California. Not only is their mission aligned with ours, but they could serve as a potential pipeline to the College. On April 6, we hosted a “Think Like a Citizen Scientist” creek cleanup for Leona Creek. Mills faculty, students, and staff were involved, and 30 girls and 15 troop leaders came. Earlier this year, campus librarians conducted a research workshop to serve Girl Scouts seeking a Gold Award.

We are also working with Techbridge Girls, which is partnering with the cleaning product company Method Products to work with middle- and high-school girls on STEM subjects. The executive director wanted access to a science lab, which we can provide, for these students who have never been exposed to a space like that. GE Girls, Girls Leadership, and Go Girls! are other STEM-based and/ or leadership camps that make use of our campus and facilities. For each of these partnerships, we make an effort to involve Mills students as project leaders and mentors so they too benefit; they learn from the girls and can share their own knowledge.

We’re already sharing resources and facilities with a number of institutions, such as the Julia Morgan School for Girls, as well as Holy Names High School, which uses our pool for its swim team. Oakland’s Ubuntu Theater Project is using Lisser Hall as its home theater. Google brought its Applied Machine Learning Program to Ege Hall this spring. And Middlebury College has held its language immersion program at Mills for the past decade. It takes some time to cultivate good relationships that are mission-aligned, and we continue to make progress in that area.

How could our work with neighbors and outside organizations affect the Mills campus? Recently, an architect was looking at a map of our campus and said, “You are completely insular—everything is looking in.” He’s right! A number of our buildings have changed direction inwards, which could be a reflection of why many neighbors have not known what was happening inside our gates. For example, the art museum used to face out to a street served by streetcars, and now it faces in. The partnerships that we have with local organizations are one way we can open ourselves up, especially when they’re aligned with our mission and serve a need both in our community and external neighborhoods.

We recently met with Loren Taylor, the new Oakland city councilmember for District 6, and we talked about all of the vacant storefronts going down Seminary Avenue. The neighborhood is a food desert. If there were a grocery store nearby or on the edge of campus, for example, people from the different neighborhoods could walk there, possibly going through campus on the way. Mills could play a role in activating the edges of campus, a practice that utilizes the land at the fringe of a campus by hosting a partner like a grocery store, housing, or a restaurant to provide amenities and services to the community. If the edges are more active, the core is going to be more active, the neighborhood is going to be more active, and more people are going to come to us.

 The partnerships we form with organizations that come onto campus can also help us secure a predictable source of income, over and above tuition, and that will help stabilize the budget and pay the bills. We’ve been working with a company called U3 Advisors to help us make sense of how the spaces on our campus are being used, and it has been analyzing data collected from physical campus surveys and our administrative databases. U3 analyzed 10 years of data about our classes—what rooms they’re in, day of the week, times, etc.—to understand how our spaces are utilized and to identify times of underutilization.

What we found is that there are many times during the week, evenings, or weekends when our classrooms and other spaces are not utilized to their maximum potential, so we are examining how to boost that usage and optimize our campus, whether through Mills programs or usage by other academic institutions, events, and corporations.

How does a campus of Mills’s age and stature affect our work with our partnerships? How does it affect what we do going forward?

We’re looking at the historical value of our campus while keeping in mind that Mills is always evolving. Our buildings do have deferred maintenance and some infrastructure issues, whether those are seismic issues, the need for technological improvements, energy efficiencies, or general upkeep. We’re looking at the return on investment, i.e., are we going to invest in a building that maybe has served its purpose over the decades if it doesn’t meet our needs today?

Many alumnae will remember the trek up the hill to Founders Commons. For decades, students have been asking: “Why do we have to walk all the way up the hill to get to Founders?” There have previously been architectural plans to move all of the food to a centralized location in the Tea Shop area, so if we proceeded with that, the College would have to decide what to do with Founders. It could become a conference area or a community event center or something else. This is a good example of why there needs to be a comprehensive and strategic master plan; when a decision is made on one building, it may very well affect many others, and we have to constantly re-examine our needs.

The issue of an aging campus could also affect retention. When a student decides which college to attend, they examine many factors: faculty, academics, physical spaces and accessibility, and amenities. When other colleges are installing climbing walls or offering concierge food delivery, we need to always keep top of mind how our physical spaces stack up for a 21st-century student.

Why did we bring in an outside company to help us evaluate the Mills campus?

U3 is an organization whose whole purpose is to work with colleges, universities, and medical centers to help them optimize their land and find partners. We’re not in the business of real estate—we’re an educational institution—so we need help from people who have additional expertise. They’ve worked with schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Amherst College to help transform their communities by doing things such as buying vacant property around their campuses to improve services for their students and the neighborhood. We don’t want to become a real estate empire, but we do want financial security for Mills, additional opportunities for our students, and improvements for the neighborhood. It’s not something that can happen in five minutes—it takes years to do.

We also want to make sure we’re going in a direction that makes sense for Mills. We are exploring partnerships with other academic institutions and see potential in working collaboratively on projects in the tech and healthcare industries.

However, it isn’t just U3 doing the work. Associate Professor of Public Policy Mark Henderson teaches a land-planning class at Mills, and his students provided valuable assistance in producing data for the room assessment project as part of their classwork. Engaging students in the analysis has been another side benefit coming out of this partnership.

How will Mills ultimately benefit from this work?

The imperative behind doing this at all is to improve the College’s financial picture, to have a steady stream of income over and above tuition revenue. That would allow us to experiment and have some leeway in terms of the budget, specifically since we’re still under the Financial Stabilization Plan. Beyond that, we want to improve employment and learning opportunities for our own students and people in the neighborhood.

If you look at the neighborhoods directly surrounding Mills, there are a lot of things missing. There’s no grocery store, there’s no health clinic, there’s no library. I don’t think there are too many restaurants around. With the way real estate prices are skyrocketing in Oakland, a number of people in essential jobs for the area have been priced out. We are talking to neighbors and city officials about this and more, though lack of affordable housing in the area always rises to the top of dents to be critical thinkers and to adapt so they can handle those new possibilities whenever they come up. I used to travel to Silicon Valley with faculty and staff to talk with different alumnae who were working in tech—even if their position wasn’t technical—and one consistent theme that came up was that those tech employers were looking for liberal arts graduates because they have the skill sets to easily adapt to change. the list. Through continued internal and external engagement, and in combination with the research, analysis, and strategy being developed by U3, we look forward to articulating our vision for campus optimization— something that is a Mills idea, and an Oakland idea.

Would this work potentially limit the ways that Mills can grow in the future?

Colleges need to be able to evolve to address the needs and expectations of students and to provide the skills necessary for success in the workforce. There was a recent article in The New York Times that said a student graduating today will change their career seven times, but 65% of those careers have not yet been identified. The College needs to educate students to be critical thinkers and to adapt so they can handle those new possibilities whenever they come up. I used to travel to Silicon Valley with faculty and staff to talk with different alumnae who were working in tech—even if their position wasn’t technical—and one consistent theme that came up was that those tech employers were looking for liberal arts graduates because they have the skill sets to easily adapt to change.

If we go back to the Mills core goal to provide access and equity to people who have been underrepresented in higher education, we have remained committed to that mission for 165 years, although the underrepresented groups may have changed over time. When we were founded at the turn of the 19th century, the goal was to educate women. In 2014, we were the first women’s college in the country to craft an admission policy to include transgender students. Mills has always been a place that provides access to a transformative kind of education, and these strategic partnerships help us stay dynamic enough to address the needs of our own Mills community—and to be a point of interest for our immediate neighbors and the City of Oakland. ◆