Education is social change

Beth Hillman, the new president of Mills College, discusses her experiences in the Air Force and academia, the systemic biases that face women pursuing positions of leadership, and the power of education to improve individual lives and the world as a whole.

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A conversation with Mills College President Beth Hillman

By Linda Schmidt

In less than half a century, Beth Hillman has already lived a life that would provide enough material for not just one book, but for an entire trilogy. The first volume would tell of a young woman hungry to expand her world—all the way to outer space. The second volume would follow her rise through the ranks of academia, excelling in both research and teaching. The third volume would describe her hard-fought battle to bring topics shrouded in secrecy to the light of justice.

Beth Hillman was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with three brothers and a twin sister. Her parents both attended college, so she was no stranger to higher education. But she had two goals in choosing a college of her own: “I wanted to get out of Pittsburgh and see something different; I also wanted to find a way to make it affordable,” she says.

An Air Force ROTC scholarship to study electrical engineering at Duke University proved to be the best bet on both counts. She earned honors as a cadet (she was Air Force Association National Cadet of the Year in 1989) and graduated with a second major in history, a field she considered more of an intellectual home than engineering.

She began her military career as a space operations officer— “We flew satellites and launched rockets and kept track of objects in orbit that might run into each other,” she explains to the nonrocket scientists among us—but was soon granted the opportunity to study further in order to teach at the Air Force Academy.

It was a turning point in her life. “I was reading history really deeply, and also examining my life and what I was doing in a way that I hadn’t done before,” she says. After completing her master’s degree in history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994, she taught military history and women’s history at the Air Force Academy for two years. At that point, she knew that the Air Force would not be her final assignment. “But I didn’t know quite what my next step would be.”

That next step turned out to be two next steps: unable to decide between pursuing a law degree or a PhD in history, she went to Yale and earned both. She served as professor of law at Rutgers before joining UC Hastings College of the Law in 2008, where she became provost and academic dean of the school. In all of these appointments, she has embraced the task of supporting the needs of both students and faculty members, and has been recognized for her scholarly excellence and outstanding teaching. (She was “Professor of the Year” at Rutgers and shared that honor at Hastings.)

Hillman has published two books on military justice and more than a dozen chapters and journal articles, and has been a forceful advocate for social and legal reform. She was instrumental in exposing the prevalence of sexual assault in the military and was appointed by Congress to serve on a panel assessing how the US armed forces responds to these crimes. The United Nations commissioned her to report on barriers to justice for women in military service. And she played a key role in ending the “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy of the US armed forces, as well as advising on such issues as eliminating the bans on women in combat and transgender service members. Yet Hillman’s story is still far from its conclusion. The next volume might explore the importance of building a family with her wife, Trish Culbert, and the challenge and joy of raising five children, all currently between the ages of 11 and 13.

And, since taking office as president of Mills College on July 1, she is quickly launching into the next volume of her life. Hillman is known not only for being an accomplished scholar and administrator, but for being open and accessible, a genuine and generous person. She might be called a smart cookie who shares: She and Trish handed out home-baked cookies to students on move-in day, and were seen lugging items upstairs in the dorms. Hillman has already begun efforts to create a stable and accountable campus leadership team, and to create an open, collaborative environment among all members of the Mills community.

“I like hard things. I like new challenges. I like different opportunities,” Hillman says of herself. “And learning—education— is probably the most exciting, important thing there is. I’m always hungry to understand more. As a teacher, I recognize that if I don’t learn new things I forget how tough it is to learn. I recognize that people have to make themselves open and vulnerable, and be willing to risk failure, in order to learn. If I’m done learning, then I’m done.”

You’ve taken a fascinating route to end up as president of Mills College. What did your military experience teach you?

I learned a tremendous amount from being in the Air Force. People there were committed to a mission outside of themselves, and to some degree subjugated their individual identities to conform to a role within a larger institution. Many people really cared about taking care of those who worked for them. There was a premium on being a team player, and I liked the idea of working together. I liked the public service aspect of being in the military, too; the idea that you should actually get out there and help.

Were there other benefits of your military service?

The Air Force provided my first real exposure to leadership training. Theirs may not be a model that’s particularly well suited for many women, or for those who doubt the military’s mission or methods, but I found it useful as a starting point, and I like that I could see what was necessary in order to be successful in that environment.

The Air Force also steered you toward an academic career.

Yes, they sent me to graduate school to study history and return to teach at the Air Force Academy, which let me discover that I loved teaching. At the Academy, I had many first-generation students who found it difficult to navigate the challenges of being in such a different and rigorous environment. I also saw the particular challenges that women faced at the Academy. I set up an oral history program where I interviewed, and trained others to interview, women cadets about their experiences.

And I was there during a time of heightened attention to sexual assault on campus. I became involved in efforts to address that from within the faculty and across the institution—efforts that really educated me about the problems that young women can face in undergraduate institutions and in military culture.

What struck you most about the world of higher education?

When I first came to the academy, I found it amazingly fragmented and without teams. I was appalled. I remember helping a friend move in as she began her new academic position. It was August, it was a million degrees outside, and the elevators were broken, so we were carrying boxes and boxes of books up the stairs. And all around, people were just sitting in their offices! I couldn’t believe it—if this were an Air Force detachment, nobody would be able to just watch you do that kind of work. They would’ve gotten up to help. I thought, “This thing I’m in now is going to be different.”

At first, I didn’t realize that hierarchies in the academy are every bit as important as they are in the military. But in the military, your status is on your sleeve, so you can tell who’s what. In a university setting, you have to figure it out, which wasn’t always easy for me at first.

The study of military sexual assault became one of your areas of expertise. Can you talk about that?

Being on a law faculty gave me the opportunity to pursue my interest in better understanding the US military, particularly in relation to other militaries around the world and its history in the period since World War II. I turned my research to studying all branches of US military service, the laws that govern the military, the sorts of crimes that were prosecuted in the military, with special attention to how race, gender, sexual orientation, and relative class status—which in the military relates to rank—affected crime and affected the opportunities of those in the service. This led me to be more involved in public advocacy to try to improve the military’s response to sexual assault in particular.

I worked to change the policy that banned open service by gays and lesbians, as well as to change the policy that banned transgender military personnel from serving openly. And I also have worked most in recent years on the policies related to sexual assault. The tragedy of sexual assault and its prevalence in the armed forces has been a major public issue, but I’ve been gratified by some of the progress that have been made and humbled by how far we have yet to go.

Some people would argue that working as a prosecutor would be the best way to combat this issue, but you see education as an effective tool. Why?

Prosecutors play critical roles, but they intervene very late in the arc of harm created by a sexual assault. What I learned in advocating for policy changes related to sexual assault in the military changed the way I understand the role of education and research in addressing sexual assault both in the military and on campuses. It’s also made me respect the importance of scholars and the insight that comes from real research. Understanding the problem is essential to crafting effective solutions.

For example, we still don’t really know the prevalence of sexual assault because so few incidents are reported and our surveys can only partially fill in our gaps in knowledge, and we don’t know enough about perpetrators because so few assaults lead to investigations and prosecutions. Social science researchers have helped us understand more, but it’s like seeing the tip of an iceberg. We don’t see the problem well enough yet to know entirely what we’re trying to solve.

That’s one sign of how much we need the sort of research that happens at colleges and universities. Even as we’re part of the problem, we’re also part of the solution—both because we can produce some of the knowledge that will help us craft more effective solutions, and also because education is a much better way to solve this problem rather than punishment.

You have been remarkably successful in male-dominated environments. What strategies have you used to achieve those successes?

I’ve always been comfortable in roles where I helped people work together and understand the bigger mission that they’re a part of. I was the president of my high school class; I led the jazz ensemble and the marching band and the concert band. But throughout my career, I’ve been struck by the different challenges that I face as a woman seeking and taking on leadership roles. And I’ve become more reflective about why I’ve been able to seize those opportunities.

I’ve always wanted to prove myself in environments where women aren’t necessarily welcome, and that’s been possible for me for a variety of reasons. First, I just never believed that I couldn’t do it. I’ve been gifted with a lot of faith in myself because other people have believed in me. I never felt especially intimidated, and I was always able to make friends. But was I able to advance, despite being a woman, without barriers or difficulty? Did I move into a world where gender discrimination was solved? No. Even now, although I’ve been fortunate to have leadership positions with quite a lot of authority and status, I still walk into situations where I’m the only woman in the room and the men are interacting in ways that exclude me. At this point, that tends to make me furious rather than cowed, and to want to change the underlying social dynamics that perpetuate such inequities.

And I’ve felt sad but unsurprised by the data about women’s relative pay in professions, which shows that when men start to work in any particular field, the pay increases. But if women start to dominate in a field formerly dominated by men, the pay decreases. It’s true that we literally value the work that women do, no matter what it is, less than the work that men do.

Are there leadership areas in which women excel?

It may be that women listen more, are more collaborative, and make broader connections, but it’s dangerous to overgeneralize— there are all kinds of women and men, who fit in across the spectrums of behavior and identity. More important than naming particular types of leadership suited to women is creating more opportunities for women to become leaders. Women lose the ability to step up when their voices are silenced in the ways they so often are. A lot of things that work for men also work for women, but the bias about women’s innate capacity and proper place make it tougher for women to break through.

Have you seen progress in opportunities for women?

Yes. I’ve seen lots of change, but it’s not been steady and it’s fragile. I’ve seen institutions that have a powerful culture of gender-integrated leadership, with women in leadership roles. And then the next iteration of leadership snaps back into a very different place and the whole institution changes.

Women have been the majority of law students for almost 20 years now, and yet women are a small percentage still of the leaders of law schools or partners in firms. I can’t tell you how angry I get at that. The ways in which gender hierarchies continue to dominate so many institutions make me crazy, given how much we know about the benefits for everyone of opening doors to women. I want to try to fix that—and, since I don’t really believe I can fix anything by myself, being part of an institution that’s going to generate people who will go out there and work to change these systems leverages my commitment in a major way. I love the idea of helping the world grapple with the very big idea that gender is not binary, for instance. To be at a place like Mills where that is happening is a tremendous opportunity.

Educating students is so important in bringing about change. The chance to reach students is why I’ve stayed an academic. I’ve come to see students as the engine of the future.


I think education is social change. Education creates opportunity for people to better understand themselves, to better understand the world they’re in—and then figure out how they want to make the world more perfect than it is right now. And I view that across the board, in every field of study and human endeavor. Everything we learn can help us figure out how to improve things going forward.

You’ll note that I said a more perfect world—I don’t have illusions about a completely perfect world. But good ideas can work, and being tenacious matters a tremendous amount in all the things we try to do. It’s a funny thing: You have to balance the idea that one person can’t do anything alone with the recognition that one really committed person can actually change an awful lot.

How does women’s education fit into this?

We’ve had co-education almost universally in this country for a long time. And it’s not clear to me that that’s working in terms of solving the gender gap in pay and status, in creating opportunities for women versus men, or in breaking down societal assumptions about gender that hold so many of us back.

Many of the people I respect and admire have attended women’s colleges— including my mother, who graduated from Seton Hill College. I didn’t myself, but I’ve looked back and wondered why. Every place I’ve been I’ve seen the need for women’s education— in the military, in law school, and in different sectors of higher education, I’ve seen again and again the challenges that women face. I think women’s education has never been more relevant or important than it is today. Women’s colleges have a critical role to play in helping people see themselves as leaders, and in moving toward gender and racial justice. A place like Mills that helps transform women into leaders, that gives them the opportunity to create and to grow—that’s an extraordinary place to be.

Some people these days question the value of a liberal arts education, just as they question the validity of a women’s college. What is your response?

The study of the liberal arts forces students to engage in true critical thinking, in assessing and evaluating rather than simply accepting what they’re told. This ability is absolutely fundamental to making good decisions in an increasingly complex and chaotic world. It has relevance in all the different sectors that students will encounter—with their families, in their careers, in pursuits outside of their professional work.

In the 21st-century economy, employers of all kinds tell us they need teams with adaptability, openness, a willingness to work with different types of people, and the skills to take on the biggest problems. We see tech companies bringing in creative people because even though solving a difficult technical challenge requires particular technical skills, identifying that problem may require a very different lens. Synergy between the liberal arts and more technical, hard science pursuits is one example of how incorporating diverse perspectives in solving a problem makes a tremendous difference in whether the outcome is going to be successful.

A liberal arts education can help people find those critical thinking skills, that richer understanding of humanity, that deeper assessment of what we ought to be doing, the realization that having diverse people in the room is a precondition to coming up with new and better solutions.

Would you say more about diversity?

I think there’s a widespread recognition that we actually can’t become educated if we’re not with people who are not like ourselves. Diversity is about not just accepting difference, but involves really trying to listen generously to other perspectives. While not everyone agrees on the best ways to measure or achieve diversity, no one who is serious about solving the problems of the future will say that they don’t value diversity.

You know, in any team people have to listen to each other. Any coach understands the need to communicate. But sports analogies only go so far. There are lots of other teams—dance troupes, theater companies, people working in the same company, even college leadership teams—and these people all need to work together. Diversity speaks to that; diversity also includes realizing that we aren’t all going to end up in the same place on plenty of issues.

Is there room to improve on diversity at Mills?

There is always room to improve. Mills embraces the idea that diversity means opportunity for women, people of color, transgender people, and people with different abilities, not all of whom have been represented in institutions of higher education in the past. Women are at the top of the list, of course, but Mills also has a high percentage of first-generation college students, of students who come from less privileged economic backgrounds, and students of color. We have some of the tools we need to support all students, and are building more; we are also continuously strengthening our institutional commitment to helping students from many backgrounds succeed.

We have to continue to work to bring less represented groups onto campus. And, once we get students in the door, it’s up to us to give them a community of support, ways to overcome inevitable challenges, and a full understanding of available opportunities. Retention and completion matter deeply, and we have to hold ourselves accountable for positive outcomes on all meaningful measures of success.

Coming from an academic background gives you a particular perspective on the dynamics of the College. How do you see the role of the faculty?

Academic excellence is critical to the success of any college. It’s certainly a part of what Mills has been and is, and it has to be a part of Mills’ future. Mills relies on the faculty to create the special environment that so many have valued in their experience here.

I’m excited to get to see the Mills faculty in action and to understand the research in which they’re engaged. I want to help create opportunities for brilliant faculty to push the world forward on all fronts, with more knowledge and more understanding and more insight.

And I’m very much looking forward to learning from my faculty colleagues about what they understand is so essential about Mills. We can’t let that go in the changes that are ahead of us. I look forward to learning from our faculty about what they see happening next for Mills. Our faculty has to be a critical driver of our next steps.

No institution can move forward without its faculty, its trustees, its alumni, its staff, and its students understanding what our goals are and taking appropriate steps to get to that next level. Helping everyone see that we want very much the same thing—and that we can only get there together—will be a part of preparing for Mills’ future

You sound both confident and optimistic about the future of the College, despite the difficult issues of declining enrollment and continuing financial shortfalls.

Creating a sustainable future for Mills is a critical obligation for me as president—but I can’t do it by myself. The future of Mills is in the hands of a lot of people. Mills has strength in its distinctive identity. We just have to make sure that our identity is as widely known and respected as possible.

In the short time I’ve been here, so many people have expressed to me how Mills has changed their lives, how Mills helped them find their voice, that Mills is a place where potential is never far away. They’ve told me, passionately, about how Mills helped them grow and understand the responsibility to contribute. That’s a really exciting atmosphere to come in to.

In your view, do alumnae have a role to play for Mills?

I want to get to know our alumnae supporters, those who treasure the experience that they had here and who have come to understand what they value about Mills. I need to make sure that we preserve those experiences going forward. There’s such a full range of things that alumnae can get involved with—being present on campus and connecting to students or offering mentorships and support in making the leap into professional positions or graduate school, for example. And they can help shape and support the initiatives that the college will undertake going forward. We can’t have a meaningful agenda without incorporating the ideas and the input of our alumnae.

Any final thoughts about leading Mills?

Well, you know, I didn’t want to be president anywhere. I wanted to be president of Mills! I can’t imagine a better place to be. My family and I want to be part of this community, and we expect to invest in its success. We have an extraordinary adventure ahead, and I couldn’t be more excited to be getting started. At the same time, it feels very comfortable that this is the next step in my life. It seems to me that this is what I have been called to do—which I view as a good sign for what’s ahead. ◆