It’s been a tumultuous fall across the country, yet a relatively quiet one at Mills College. The now-accelerating global pandemic and economic crisis—alongside mounting pressure to realize, at long last, an inclusive and antiracist community—has been the backdrop for an election season more contentious and difficult to predict than any the United States has experienced in some time. Yet the virtual Mills community has thrived, as has a small student, staff, and faculty population on campus.
Academic, civic, and strategic conversations about the College’s future have shifted to the many platforms that now connect us across space and time. One such platform was created in October 2020 by Christie’s, the auction house that set a new world record price for any work of literature with the sale of Mills College’s First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, one of the most important collections of literature in the world. When Brooklyn book dealer and antiquarian Stephan Loewentheil’s nearly $10-million bid ended a six-minute competition among three telephone bidders, Mills realized a much needed—if bittersweet—boost to its finances. Mills had held the Folio, first published in 1623, since 1977, when alumna and trustee Mary Louise O’Brien ’34—together with her husband James—quietly gave the Folio to Mills to honor her father, Professor Elian Olas James, a Shakespeare scholar and beloved English professor who inspired students at Mills College for 35 years. Mills College was fortunate to hold the Folio for these past decades; it was treasured by the students, faculty, staff, and scholars who studied and preserved it. At a time when cash flow and budget deficits are bedeviling the most creative and resilient institutions of higher education, both the O’Briens’ gift and those who cherished the Folio at Mills have sustained the College through a critical time.
Mills College’s own virtual events have also been setting records, attracting more participants and reaching a broader audience than the in-person versions that preceded the pandemic.
Last year, the Jill Barrett Symposium in Biology took place in the beautifully renovated Lisser Hall, but this fall, the symposium was moved onto Zoom and drew a crowd of some 150 attendees. It showcased not only a new logo (above), but also the research of 11 student scholars who, with support from Mills’ extraordinary biology professors, adapted their research plans to flourish even during a pandemic that slowed field and laboratory studies across the world. I’m grateful to Associate Professor of Biology Jenn Smith for leading the College’s efforts to send its science graduates into their careers with both the very best of academic preparation and a network of support.
This fall, Mills launched a COVID-19 dashboard to share information online, especially for the small community that has continued to work and live on campus. The College has also provided housing to about 180 students, and even welcomed Starr King School for the Ministry, the graduate theological school and seminary formerly located in Berkeley, to its new home in the Vera Long Building. So far, the campus mandates for masking and social distancing and the shift to mostly remote instruction and work have proved successful in limiting the spread of infection on campus. This is also thanks to the support and resilience of our frontline staff, to whom Mills recently paid modest and much-deserved bonuses for their heroic work early in the crisis, when we understood far less about the coronavirus than we do now. Yet COVID-19 has affected all of us, and the Mills community in Oakland and across the world continues to shudder under its weight. I look forward to learning more from our virtual community in the months ahead as we continue to fight the virus and embrace the possibilities of learning, planning, and growing online.