The Mills Institute Comes to Life

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By Ajuan Mance and Marilyn R. Schuster ’65

What is an Institute?

In the weeks and months following President Hillman’s March announcement that Mills College would transition into a non-degree-granting institute, this question was asked many times. Sometimes incredulously, sometimes rhetorically, and sometimes with guarded optimism. However it was expressed, though, the meaning was clear: Members of the Mills community, neighbors, allies, and friends wondered how an institute could replace the Mills we have known and loved.

Of course, much has happened since then. The merger with Northeastern University that was announced in September 2021 will allow the Mills campus to continue as a degree-granting educational hub, serving undergraduates and graduate students. Mills at Northeastern will be able to serve its Oakland neighbors more effectively, offering educational programs and supporting BIPOC and women-owned businesses. Northeastern University will provide significant start-up funds to launch the Mills Institute from a position of strength.

In April, President Hillman asked us to take the lead in listening to different groups in the Mills community to find out what they would like a Mills Institute to be, to define a vision from the ground up that would carry forward the legacy of Mills College.

An Institute Design That’s Distinctly Mills

We used a “design thinking” approach to engage a comprehensive cross-section of the Mills community to create an Institute that would carry the Mills legacy forward. We called on the skills and experience of a veteran of IDEO, an international design and consulting firm. The process we developed was collaborative, involving broad outreach and intensive small-group discussions with Mills constituencies (faculty, students, staff, alums, and trustees), representing deep experience with the College, past and present, from diverse points of view. We found remarkable similarity in the responses of the various groups:

  • After expressing sadness and regret at the loss of a college that has been so important to all of us, the discussion participants were creative and enthusiastic about what the Mills Institute could be and do;
  • All groups recognized that the Mills transition is part of much larger changes in American higher ed, evident for years and accelerated by the pandemic;
  • Many saw that the Institute could potentially have a broad impact in addressing demographic changes and educational needs, both locally and nationally;  
  • Participants expressed a shared desire to serve teachers, researchers, students, the local community, and alums, through research and educational programs, both revenue-generating and subsidized, for young aspiring students, and for lifelong learning.
  • The favorite location for the Institute is Mills Hall, with access to campus facilities such as labs and studios.

The Vision

Building on the legacy of Mills College, the Mills Institute strives to meet changing educational needs in higher education and research issues related to gender and racial justice and the advancement of women, gender nonbinary individuals, and communities of color.

The Mission

The Mills Institute is committed to the advancement of gender and racial justice through programs and partnerships that support transformative teaching and learning, research, and career development for women, gender nonbinary individuals, and historically marginalized racial and ethnic communities.

Possible Programs

The Mills Institute will support research and learning through transformational teaching for transitional moments: from high school to college, from college to career or advanced study, from career to career—lifetime learning for students of all ages.

Programs can be short or long, a week, a summer, a semester, or a year. They may yield certificates. Some will be highly subsidized so that students with limited resources can participate; some will generate revenue to assure the long-term viability of the Institute. Northeastern is prepared to provide significant start-up funds to launch the Institute from a position of strength. Here is a snapshot of potential programs:

  • A STEAM gap year (STEM fields and the arts) for students from Oakland high schools that are unable to offer college preparatory courses. Academic work along with mentoring by faculty and community leaders will help students become competitive for college admission.
  • Summer boot camps on the Mills campus for young women and nonbinary individuals to develop skills and creativity through activities such as coding, painting, photography, or community organizing.  
  • Intensive courses in financial literacy or in ethics and technology for all ages.
  • A six-week intensive program for women, nonbinary, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+ individuals to advance their business careers.
  • Online and on-campus enrichment programs for alumnae/i to learn a new field or refresh their knowledge.
  • Sponsored research programs for teachers at all levels on high-impact pedagogical practices that engage students more deeply in their own learning.

What’s Next?

This spring, the Mills Institute team looks to recruit an executive director and to form an advisory board. More information will appear in the next issue of the Quarterly!