Letters to the Editor: Summer 2021

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I am the class secretary for the Class of 1970, and like other Mills alums, our class is saddened by the announcement that Mills will transition into a new entity, but responses have varied. Some say that Mills’ financial situation and enrollment decline gave President Hillman no choice. Others say that colleges like Mills have gone too far out on a limb with extremely high financial aid. Others find the criticisms of President Hillman and their confrontational tone unwarranted and destructive.

So, as usual, we have a lot of different opinions. In general, most of us still support the more broadly inclusive Mills as it has become over the years, but we don’t have a solution for its problems. I, for one, support President Hillman’s leadership and believe she has done all she could to save Mills. I may have stood with the “Better Dead than Coed” 1990 rebels and the Black Student Union demonstrators in President Wert’s office in 1969, but I do not believe it is time to go to the barricades now, nor is it time for recrimination.

–Kathleen Dalton ’70, Lexington, Massachusetts

My letter is simple: be transparent and tell us the truth. We’re grown-ups. The Quarterly has remained rosy while the building is allegedly on fire.

–Kimberlee Garfinkle MacVicar ’95, Alameda, California

I, the father of a Mills alumna, support the creation of a UC Mills union as an independent model under the UC system and to remain a degree-granting college and maintaining its mission and principles for the benefit of both UC and Mills.

Mills’ legacy as a women’s liberal arts college that serves diverse and marginalized students will serve new students well with its strong academia and specialized programs. UC Mills is a great idea and a win-win situation for both schools.

My daughter’s choice to attend Mills College helped her become a strong independent leader, social activist, and successful in her endeavors. She is also loving, humble, and a great daughter and woman.

–Gilbert R. Almanzan, P ’92, Rosemead, California

My choice to attend Mills in 1999 was both a radical departure from my life as I understood it and an open door to a future I never imagined. At Mills, I could imagine myself in a world that had no
restrictions on my potential.

I am aghast at the decision to sell this powerful place without a transparent process or even an open conversation. Mills is where I learned to build consensus, craft unshakeable coalitions, and put first the voices of those most impacted by decisions I was able to influence. I am stunned that the place that taught me all of this seems unable to do the same.

To the Mills College Board of Trustees and President Beth Hillman: The time has come for you to resign. You were entrusted for years with our full faith and support to manage and maintain this incredibly special place, but it seems that our belief was misplaced. We cannot let Mills become absorbed when its student body so clearly represents the future—even if our current leadership doesn’t know how to honor and support that.

–Darcy Totten ’03, Sacramento

Change is coming, like it or not. Change isn’t always such a bad thing. We can use this moment to fight for the kind of school that Mills could be. Or we could cling to a ruined past that is over.

Mills is the place for people like me. It teaches the most vulnerable people in the room to become leaders. Who else would do that?

It’s also one of the only places in the entire country where women can work full time or take care of children and go to school, in an academic environment that supports their outside commitments and responsibilities.

This moment needs us to be leaders. We need to dig in our heels and demand change, now, while there is still a possibility we might save something of the school I know we all love.

–Ariadne Wolf, MFA ’19, Alamo, California

When my eldest child was in sixth grade, she came home from school to tell me they’d researched colleges. She’d found the perfect place—music, art, and education: all of her passions. I asked where, nearly falling down when she said, “Mills College!”

Rose did enroll at Mills, with a generous four-year faculty scholarship, and despite the deep challenges of COVID and remote learning, she’s having a beautiful and transformative experience.
Like all of the Class of 2024 I know, she was initially horrified to learn of the plans to turn the College into an undefined, non-degree granting institute, and then unsure about the news of a potential partnership with Northeastern.

For both of us, Mills has its huge gifts and real challenges. We are people with disabilities, and Mills offered us the small classes and inclusive professors we needed, but it also failed on administrative and structural levels. In my day and now, Mills doesn’t support the very students it claims to value: Black, Latinx, Indigenous, first-generation, LGBTQIA+, and resuming students. If we are to save Mills, we need to save it as a place that actually supports and nurtures the students it attracts.

–Larissa Brown Shapiro ‘95, P ’24, Santa Cruz, California

President Hillman and the Board of Trustees’ unilateral decisions about the future of Mills College are outrageous and must be reversed. This is a call to action for every Mills College alumna to join the students, faculty, and staff who have been using our collective intellectual and financial power to keep Mills College as an undergraduate focused, degree-granting university.

We are parents raising children during a pandemic, musicians, dancers, choreographers, actors, artists, politicians, civil servants, scientists, lawyers, doctors, authors, CEOs, professors, engineers, teachers, and community and global activists. We champion the disenfranchised, and we are energized.

–Katherine Mahood ’93, Northern California

I initially reacted to the March 17 announcement about Mills closing in the same way I would react to the news of any impending death: with profound sadness. My sadness turned to outrage, however, when I sat in on President Hillman’s town hall on April 6. Her performance that evening, as well as that of a few trustees, produced such a mishmash of vague, obfuscating, and often condescending statements about the College’s straits that I came to realize something: That for all of Mills’ problems, its greatest one may be the utter incoherence of its leadership.

At the very least, they’ve mishandled the public relations of this crisis. What else have they mishandled? They talk about falling enrollment. Could a deliberately underfinanced admissions office have something to do with that? What else have they, and recent prior administrations, mishandled in terms of other aspects of the College’s finances?

As for the proposed merger with Northeastern University, I don’t believe that route promises any meaningful future for Mills or its stakeholders, campus, and legacy given who the College’s negotiators are.

–Marion Osmun ’76, Irvington, New York

Like many of you, I participated in a prospective student overnight. I was unable to attend the scheduled dates, so Mills made it possible for me to do it sooner. I had the opportunity to hear a Holocaust survivor speak, tour the art gallery, hike to Founders. Upon returning to my school, for the first time, I spoke up in a class of more than 200 students. In a few hours at Mills, I learned my voice mattered.

Fast forward to fall 1990 and French 4 with Christian Marouby. When he realized that there were 30 of us, he said that he would teach an extra section so we could all get the attention we deserved. On my first day of classes, I learned that my education was important.

I have some eucalyptus leaves and acorns from Mills that I draw upon for strength when I need the energy of my mother Mills. It was to her I returned to contemplate whether I wanted to get married. My wedding was inspired by the Mills Boat Dance. My daughter’s first overnight trip was to Mills to accompany me to an AAR training. We stayed in Olney, just like I used to. I continue to dream that she will, along with others, for generations still.

–Priya Kanuga ’93, Santa Clara, California

As we all come to terms with the imminent changes at Mills—whatever they may be—may I offer a perspective I haven’t heard voiced (in addition to the undeniable data points)?

Clearly, Mills is at a point of no return financially. The college we loved won’t continue as it has. For decades, board members and presidents have struggled with how to solve this. Current negotiations have been as transparent as these changes will allow. Kudos to them all for their Herculean efforts!

More importantly, the educational world has changed, and young women may not feel the need for the extensive nurturing environment Mills has provided in the past. This is a good sign! Work towards equality is not done, but enough parity has been achieved for women to compete well and significantly both at school and in the workplace. I’m glad I have lived to see it.

–Brandie Brandt Gallagher ’68, Clayton, California

I was so pleased to read the announcement that Mills has the opportunity to become Mills College at Northeastern University and continue to confer undergraduate and graduate degrees. What an extraordinary way to put the question of Mills’ survival to rest, and for the College to continue to provide an exceptional education to its students.

Given the substantial issues that have plagued Mills over the years, I have no doubt that charting a viable course has been difficult, at best. That said, I’m quite certain that President Hillman and her
leadership team have examined all the possibilities and worked with Mills constituents and the Board of Trustees to develop a plan based on what’s best for students, faculty, and staff going forward.

I know that change is hard and the decisions necessary to ensure a future for Mills are not easy to make. I have every confidence that the board and President Hillman have engaged thoughtfully in the important work of finding the best path to continue the legacy of Mills College and position it to continue its work toward women’s leadership, and social, gender and racial justice.

-President Emerita Alecia A. DeCoudreaux, East Falmouth, Massachusetts

The day the College announced a possible deal with Northeastern University, a large part of me was relieved. While I am so thankful I chose Mills and met the incredible people who make it what it is, I witnessed a very quick and steep decline in the quality of services and academic offerings. Working in different departments at Mills opened my eyes to many of the deep-rooted issues facing us—all coming back to money. Frankly, by the end of my time at Mills (pandemic aside), I couldn’t recommend it to friends who were looking into schools.

If Northeastern University can maintain the campus, provide continued employment for faculty and staff, and bring the quality of student life up to an experience that is worth recommending again, then let’s try it! Mills was once a seminary that underwent a monumental transition to a college, and now it is simply time for another transition.

Introducing cisgender men at the undergraduate level is a huge adjustment, but we as alums have the power to teach them our legacy and how to be allies to empowered women and genderqueer people. I am still going to hold our leaders accountable in these talks to make sure our faculty and staff especially are considered, as they have been hanging on despite all of the turmoil.

–Sunshine Anderson (they/them) ’20, Morona, Wisconsin

I know there are conflicting feelings about Mills possibly entering into an alliance with Northeastern University, but here’s a faculty perspective: I got to meet the Northeastern team during its visit to Mills, and this experience was much different than other collaborations we’ve explored.

The team included senior leadership, such as the president and provost. Some things genuinely surprised me, including the level of excitement, curiosity, and respect they showed toward our campus and everyone they met during the visit.

Simple gestures led me to believe that this partnership could actually work. President Aoun took an interest in everyone he saw on campus, and he asked very good questions on what makes Mills different, as well as the hopes people have for this partnership. He also had a genuine interest in our pain points. The visit was a delightful, unintimidating experience in which the team was thoroughly dedicated to identifying common ground for a potential partnership. They were not trying to show off how great Northeastern is or what it takes to gain a seat at their table; they were trying to learn what’s excellent about Mills. They wanted to know what directions we were excited to explore.

During the pandemic, Northeastern kept their staff and faculty, even if it had to reassign job responsibilities or find other roles within their extensive network. The fact that the provost said that he hopes for a smooth way to transition faculty to new roles [within a potential partnership with Mills] disarmed me—I expected a more conservative answer veiled in legalese. “Severance” was not the first thing on their minds, which was unique. If this is the way to transition most of our faculty to Mills College at Northeastern University, count me in.

Now, potential pitfalls. An obvious one is a culture fit: Northeastern is a research university, bigger, more selective, and, yes, coed. The ethos of the two institutions may appear different, but we discovered many common goals: the desire to participate in positive social change, a strong focus on student experience, and respect for what faculty and staff bring to the table. There’s a lot of respect for the experiential learning components of our curriculum and our deliberate efforts to establish connections with the Oakland community.

The team also came across as genuinely wanting to help Mills stay true to its character while becoming a part of the Northeastern family. Yes, there was an elephant in the room—the issue of all-gender admissions—and they acknowledged that it would be a big change. They did not try to trivialize it, but showed understanding of the need to preserve the Mills legacy in imaginative ways.

The experience uplifted me. It gave me renewed hope in a smooth organizational transition that will allow current students to graduate, preserve Mills employees’ dignity, and show respect for our alumnae/i community. I realize that this transition will be a lot of work, but I am sticking around to see it through.

As a favorite colleague said, “I’m enjoying thinking about what the future will look like, both short- and long-term—the difference between March 17 and June 17 is palpable.”

It will be a long couple of years, and it will take all of us to make it work—but I am hopeful.

I send my love to all who deeply care about the future of Mills, even if we disagree on the best way to ensure it.

–Dean of the Lokey School of Business and Public Policy Kate Karniouchina, Saratoga, California