OAKLAND — Left financially reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, Mills College officials announced Wednesday that the historic women’s college will stop admitting new students after fall 2021 and confer its last undergraduate and graduate degrees in 2023.
The decision for Mills to discontinue as a degree-granting, stand-alone liberal arts college comes after years of multimillion dollar deficits and declining enrollment, which were exacerbated by the pandemic, said President Elizabeth Hillman.
Facing a $3 million deficit against a $50 million budget, Hillman said it had become clear that “we can’t actually continue to fulfill Mills’ mission in its current form.” But Hillman said the decision to stop admitting new students won’t lead to Mills closing its picturesque 185-acre campus any time in the near future. The campus in the Oakland foothills has been its home since 1871.
For the next two years, faculty will continue to run undergraduate and graduate classes as Mills works to transform its campus into an institute. Hillman said details of this new entity are being worked out — as in whether Mills could become some kind of think tank or otherwise employ faculty, educate students or run programs for the larger community.
“The mission of Mills is more important than ever,” Hillman said, explaining that an institute will do “what Mills has long done: promote women’s leadership, advance gender and racial equity and promote critical and creative thinking. Those things are tremendously important now. We’re looking for a way to continue Mills legacy in a form that we can actually sustain.”
Mills has distinguished itself in recent years by recruiting students of color from surrounding communities and for its progressive approach to transgender students. It also has held to its commitment to limit its undergraduate education to women. Men have been able to enroll in its graduate programs.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Mills immediately reverted to remote learning like other campuses across the Bay Area and the United States. More than half of Mills’ 500 residential students left campus. The pandemic’s economic fallout also forced some of its 960 students, a large number of whom are first-generation undergraduates or who rely on financial aid, to withdraw from the school altogether.
Among small, private colleges across the country, the existential challenges facing Mills are not unique. Experts say such institutions were struggling for years to stay afloat before the pandemic hit.
Across San Francisco Bay, Notre Dame de Mamur University, a 170-year-old private Catholic institution in Belmont, saved itself from possible closure by announcing in January that it would stay open by shifting its undergraduate focus to offering graduate and online programs.
The first signs of real peril for Mills came in 2017 when it faced a $9 million deficit and leaders declared a “financial emergency.” The crisis forced the college to eliminate such majors as philosophy and Latin American studies and to lay off even tenured faculty, a move usually reserved for the most precarious financial situations.
Mills sought to reverse its self-described “deficit culture” by opening new “pipelines” to boost enrollment, Hillman said. One initiative involved slashing the cost of its undergraduate tuition by 36 percent — from $44,765 to $28,765 in the 2018-19 year — to make Mills more affordable.
But Hillman acknowledged that the tuition reduction didn’t attract enough new students. A partnership with UC Berkeley to offer shared degrees and to house some of its students also was undermined by the pandemic, Hillman added. For the students who enter Mills in the fall or who remain at Mills over the next two years, the school will work to ensure their transfer to other universities.
“I found my deep purpose at Mills for education and for public policy,” said Lateefah Simon, president of the Oakland-based civil rights organization, the Akonadi Foundation. Simon serves on BART’s board of directors and is a member of the board of trustees for the California State University system. She said she thrived in the small classes taught by dedicated professors.
Simon said she began studying for her bachelor’s degree at Mills when working for Kamala Harris when she San Francisco’s district attorney. Simon said Mills was welcoming to, as a single mother, especially when she took breaks in her studies to work raise her two daughters. She finished her degree in 2018, the same year her oldest daughter also graduated from Mills.
“Mills is a majestic place: made up the space itself and the people,” Simon said, explaining that its unique learning environment also came from the value it put “on justice, equity, inclusion and feminist power.”
Mills legacy started as a “young ladies seminary” in Benicia in 1852 and moved to Oakland in 1871, where it became chartered as the first women’s college west of the Rockies.
With its history tied to Oakland, Mills became known for its progressive education on gender, race and social justice. Mills became the fist independent college to offer an ethnic studies program in 1969 and launched the first transgender admission policy in the country at a women’s college. More than 58 percent of undergraduates identify as part of the LGBTQ community and 65 percent are students of color.
Its undergraduate programs trained a number of future local and national leaders in various professions, including U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee; Dixy Lee Ray, the first female governor of Washington State; Camila Chavez, co-founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation; Renel Brooks-Moon, the announcer for the San Francisco Giants and pastry chef Claire Ptak, who made Harry and Meghan’s tradition-breaking wedding cake.
Mills’ graduate programs, especially in the arts, also have become a fertile training ground for visual and performing artists, with music alumni including jazz musician Dave Brubeck; Steve Reich, the Pulitzer-Prize winning composer of “minimal music, and Noah Georgeson, a Grammy Award-winning producer, engineer, mixer, and musician.
This content was originally published here.