After a summer of preparation and uncertainty, Mills College is approaching a fall semester that promises to answer many pressing questions: What will students and faculty experience as Mills shifts virtually all of its educational opportunities online? With but a fraction of Mills students returning to live on campus (perhaps 200, compared to a usual campus population of three times that), and the vast majority of staff and faculty working remotely, can Mills keep the coronavirus at bay? Will virtual instruction limit the negative impact of the changing climate and “smoke days” during a fall wildfire season in Northern California that is already off to a horrific, lightning-induced start? How will the 2020 US election season play out in the context of rising demands for equity and racial justice, widespread economic crisis, and a global pandemic? How quickly can medical advances in preventing and treating COVID-19 overcome the uneven policies and logistical challenges that have hindered the United States’ response to date?
Some questions, however, we can already answer, having learned quite a lot about Mills in recent months. Perhaps the most fundamental is whether the College is up to the challenge of stewarding its people and mission through such chaotic times. I can assure you that it is, and that, with the support of students, staff, faculty, alums, and trustees, Mills will continue to adapt and innovate as we both recover from COVID-19 and refine the contours of an expanded partnership with UC Berkeley. Our teams are moving on many fronts at once, to wit:
- Meeting regularly with leaders of our Black community and preparing an antiracism plan to respond to demands that Mills do more to overcome systemic and anti-Black racism, support all students in their educational aspirations, and build a more equitable, inclusive community.
- Building COVID-19 recovery plans and posting them for easy access and with near-constant updates to accommodate a dynamic public health environment; drafting specialized safety, health, and operational guidelines for students, staff, faculty, and—eventually, after the campus is able to open further—for guests and visitors.
- Engaging our faculty in digital pedagogy, trauma-informed teaching, anti-racism, and a new learning platform as well as welcoming new faculty colleagues, including in chemistry, education, gender and sexuality studies, political science, and sociology.
- Creating an outdoor tutorial to fulfill a new requirement for in-person instruction for international students, exploring the uses of mats on our tennis courts for dance classes, and adding risk-reducing protocols for access to biology and chemistry labs as well as art and book art studios.
- Convening frequent virtual town halls that have attracted hundreds of participants and dozens of questions, creating a sense of community in the spaces and ways that are available to us.
- Securing emergency funds for students to support them through the ongoing financial crisis.
- Continuing partnership conversations with our UC Berkeley colleagues as we work together to protect the health and safety of our communities and prepare for the future.
Perhaps you share my sense that we’re living in momentous times. Of course, that’s not new for Mills. A century ago this month, during Aurelia Henry Reinhardt’s long tenure as president of Mills College, the United States ratified the 19th amendment, a crucial step toward gender equity in American politics. The 19th amendment, however, granted only some women the right to vote. It did not enfranchise most Black women for whom suffrage would come only decades later, after the political and legal successes of the civil rights movement. No woman has ever been elected president or vice president in the 100 years since 1920, and this year’s US Congress, the most diverse in history, is more than three-fourths male. Change may, at last, be at hand. This fall, for the first time, a Black woman–Kamala Harris—is the vice presidential candidate of a major political party.
Since I arrived at Mills, I’ve voted in person at a polling site located in the Mills Student Union. Like so many familiar rituals, the election this November promises to be different. Local election officials are adapting polling places and times to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and ensure access to voting, and Mills is standing by to support this effort however we can. Soon enough, those plans will be made clear, and soon after, we’ll know more about what this new world will bring.