A president’s farewell

President DeCoudreaux looks back on the accomplishments of her five-year tenure.

No comments

By Alecia A. DeCoudreaux

As I prepare to leave Mills after five years as president of the College, I am as deeply moved by the warmth of this community as I was when I first arrived. With each farewell, I experience anew the strong sense of connectedness between Mills people that has impressed me from the start. Although I will be moving to Cape Cod to build a home and spend more time with my mother and my husband, I consider myself part of the extended Mills family. Like many of you, I am excited by the appointment of President-elect Elizabeth Hillman and look forward to being of service to her in any way I can. I feel a particular passion for the campaign to renovate Lisser Hall and eagerly await the day I can attend a performance in the new theater.

I am proud of all that we have accomplished together, though it has not always been easy. Guided by our strategic plan, we have revised curricula, financial practices, and organizational structures in order to make Mills strong for the long term. At the same time, we have remained focused on the needs of today’s students and committed to academic excellence, social justice, and empowering women. Looking back on my tenure, I want to applaud the Mills community for achievements that will have enduring benefits for our students and the College.

We created more powerful ways to share the Mills story with prospective students.

One thing that first attracted me to Mills was the way that this environment enabled students to bloom. But when I arrived, it struck me that different people articulated the value of Mills in so many different ways. Since then, we conducted research that put into focus the characteristics of the College that students most value. While we have always known we were not a party school, we now better understand and can more clearly communicate the fact that students come here because of the rigorous quality of our academic programs. Our students are serious about studying, about empowering each other, about being changemakers. They are creative, independent thinkers who are motivated to go out in the world and make a statement. We now have a College-wide strategy for telling this story, which we’ve used in creating recruitment materials to attract the students most likely to appreciate and benefit from the Mills experience.

We broadened access to Mills for students of all backgrounds.

Some talented students who could greatly benefit from attending Mills also face significant barriers to entering college: these include students of color, those from low-income families, and those who are the first in their families to attend college. Today, Mills is opening its doors to these students through a combination of academic programs, policy changes, and community partnerships. We’ve expanded our Summer Academic Workshop, which provides rigorous academic preparation and a support community to entering first-generation students and students of color. We’ve created a new program to support first-generation students throughout their time at Mills. We’ve made standardized tests like the SAT and ACT optional for applicants, since studies have shown that these tests are not good predictors of academic success and pose additional barriers to entering college. And through our participation in the Oakland Promise College Pathway Partnership, we are working with other institutions to enroll local students, with the goal of tripling the number of college graduates from Oakland in the next 10 years.

We redefined women’s education with a historic policy to admit transgender students.

We are better known in the world today because of our decision in 2014 to adopt an admission policy that welcomed transgender students who identify as women. Previously, Mills had been admitting transgender students on a case-by-case basis. The new policy clarified and publicized our position on this controversial issue—a position that is consistent with who we are and what we stand for. We brought issues of gender justice to the forefront, not only within the Mills community but also in the broader community of women’s colleges and higher education. We led the way for seven other women’s colleges to adopt transgender admission policies. Mills already had a long list of firsts; this became another one, and it brought us quite a bit of positive attention.

We revised and globalized the core undergraduate curriculum.

We want to educate all our students—no matter what path brought them to Mills—to be engaged global citizens. Today we have a new undergraduate core curriculum that is designed to accomplish this goal, thanks to the faculty on our Curricular Transformation Task Force. Their diligent work and vision for the future of the liberal arts helped us achieve a key imperative of our strategic plan: to develop a curriculum with a purpose in a changing world. The new curriculum, which will take effect with this fall’s entering class, requires students to study a language other than English and to either participate in study abroad or take courses that provide international perspectives. Because of the role of technology in globalization, the curriculum also includes courses in information literacy and technology. Other requirements ensure that Mills will continue to provide a well-rounded liberal arts education.

We strengthened our performing arts programs.

As we examined our curriculum, we also assessed the strengths and weaknesses of our majors and minors. We made improvements in many areas, but, given the College’s rich history in the fine arts, I am particularly proud of our work to create a theater studies major and strengthen our dance major. In my first year as president, whenever I attended an alumnae gathering, someone would invariably tell me about the importance of bringing back a drama program. We were able to do so in 2014 by entering an innovative partnership with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Last fall, due to financial considerations, we raised the possibility of closing the under-graduate dance major.

In response, our dance faculty worked hard to re-imagine the major and make it more relevant to today’s students, with the goal of increasing enrollment in the program. They listened to students of color to learn how to make the program more engaging for them. They coordinated with faculty in other departments to make it simpler for students to double-major in dance. The faculty saved the dance major and, at the same time, they cut costs.

We laid the groundwork for a campus farm.

Although Mills maintained a working farm early in its history, the idea for our new organic farm was inspired by a gift from the Class of 2010. Since then, we’ve set aside a 2.5-acre site near the front gate and developed plans for the farm. We hired a farm manager with the help of a generous gift from Kathleen Burke, chair of our board of trustees, and her husband, Ralph Davis. Students have already started cultivating a portion of the site, and this spring a biology course, Plant Ecology and the Urban Farm, held labs at the farm. In the future, we can look forward to harvesting healthy food from the farm for the campus and the broader community.

We have no more secrets about the College’s financial challenges.

I don’t feel the same sense of joy about this accomplishment as I do about the others. At the start of my presidency, I was shocked to learn that the College hadn’t analyzed the costs of its programs. So we opened up all of the closets and all of the drawers to investigate our financial affairs. We shared what we learned, and now the whole community understands our circumstances. We implemented best financial practices, gradually reducing the payout from the endowment from 7 percent to 5.25 percent. It’s been painful, but essential for the long-term viability of Mills. We are not out of the woods yet, but with new information and financial discipline, College leaders are better equipped to make informed decisions, put in place a sustainable financial model, and educate generations of students to come.

We made plans to diversify our revenue stream.

Mills will always be tuition dependent, but we have taken steps to make it less so. After careful study of our options, we recently signed a lease with a developer who will build a mixed-use development on 3.5 acres of the campus, in the current location of the corporation yard. Plans are for the development to include a grocery, pharmacy, other retailers, and housing. Mills will benefit in several ways: not only will the College receive a steady stream of revenue without needing to invest capital in the project, but our students stand to benefit from having jobs and internships as well as shopping close by. It’s also a way for us to help our neighborhood.

In addition, we just renewed a partnership to provide housing to UC Berkeley students in a wing of Mary Morse Hall, starting in the fall. Some alumnae will remember that Berkeley students lived in Mary Morse in the past— this time our housing will be open to self-identified women only.

We set the stage for closer collaboration between the College and the Alumnae Association.

When I first came to Mills, I heard so much about the strained relationship between the College and some alumnae, who were disappointed with the diminished role of the Alumnae Association of Mills College (AAMC). Nevertheless, our graduates continued to support the College in crucial ways, such as organizing events, networking with students, and making generous gifts. Today I see a renewed spirit among alumnae—a spirit of connection with the College and commitment to our students. I see this spirit in the AAMC-College relationship. In May we signed a compact, written by alumnae in consultation with College representatives, that sets forth key principles for our relationship and envisions an expanded role for alumnae in advancing the College’s mission. I also see this spirit at alumnae events. Alumnae are asking, “How do we work with the College so we can help today’s students and future generations of students?” Some alumnae are answering that question by taking the initiative to raise funds for Mills. For example, the Alumnae of Color Committee raised more than $75,000 from nearly 150 donors for an endowed scholarship.

I am grateful for this support of our students—and humbled that the committee established the scholarship in my honor. I am thankful to everyone in the Mills community—our alumnae, donors, students, faculty, staff, and community partners—for their commitment to the College and each other throughout these past five years. Together, we have built the foundation for a more visible, open, inclusive, just, creative, intelligent, sustainable Mills. ◆ 

What is the most significant legacy of Alecia DeCoudreaux’s presidency? Seven leaders in the Mills community share their perspectives. 

I deeply appreciate President DeCoudreaux’s focus on a long-term vision even as she addressed important present-day challenges. She planted the seeds to realize some big dreams for Mills, inspiring investments in a vibrant campus community. As a result of her leadership, Lisser Hall will become a modern gathering place in the heart of campus. She carried the students’ dream of an urban farm to reality. And a corner of venerable Carnegie Hall is now an innovation space. – Kathleen Burke, chair, Mills College Board of Trustees

Alecia DeCoudreaux has been embraced by alumnae and has embraced us in return. She attended every one of our AAMC Board of Governors meetings. Because of her work, we feel more engaged with the College and feel that we’re a priority for the College. This has led to the signing of our historic AAMC-College compact. It’s also important to us that she instituted best practices in budgeting so that the College can survive into the future. – Lucy Do ’75, president, Alumnae Association of Mills College

President DeCoudreaux has inspired alumnae to feel not only included, but valued. The academic standards are high, and the curriculum is rigorous. Our campus is more diverse than ever before, and the average student is awarded a larger financial aid package than in past years. President DeCoudreaux helped us to understand that we must give in order for Mills to have the diversity we are so proud of. She has laid the groundwork for all alumnae, including women of color, to make major contributions to Mills College. – Linda Stingily ’78. She and her sisters—Jacquelyn Stingily Major ’78, Paula Yvette Stingily-Williams ’85, Gloria Helen Stingily ’90, and Adilisha Stingily Hodari ’91, Cheri Stingily—and brother, Richard Stingily, contributed generously to the Alumnae of Color Endowed Scholarship in Honor of President Alecia DeCoudreaux, in memory of their parents, Clyde and Hattye (Parker) Stingily, and eldest sister, Deborah Stingily

I am particularly grateful for Alecia’s work to develop the strategic plan and to engage the entire campus community in moving it forward. – Melissa Stevenson Diaz ’91, alumna trustee

Under President DeCoudreaux’s leadership, we positioned Mills as the first women’s college to make the right choice to embrace students of diverse genders. We thoughtfully designed an admission policy that is just and fair for who we are. – Ajuan Mance, professor of English

President DeCoudreaux’s commitment to providing opportunities for women, of all backgrounds, to advance their education, to find advocates and mentors, and to share their voices was exemplified in her unrelenting effort to ensure that Mills was a participant in the Women in Public Service Project. In collaboration with other women’s colleges and the US State Department, her commitment to this effort enabled Mills to bring 25 women from 22 countries to campus to help expand their leadership skills and advance them in public service in their home countries, and was a wonderful cultural and educational experience for the Mills community. – Renée Jadushlever, chief of staff and vice president for communications and external relations

Alecia DeCoudreaux’s presidency represented a period of dynamism in the Mills community. Her legacy goes beyond being the first black female president of Mills College, beyond her tireless work to address the financial stress Mills has faced, beyond building bridges between groups on campus. President DeCoudreaux succeeded in pulling together the entire Mills community to address the College’s weaknesses as well as its strengths. Because of her work, Mills can confidently move forward to achieve its goals. – Dorothy Lawrence ’11, AAMC Board of Governors