This month, the Mills College administration announced it’s pulling the plug on this historic college, my 2nd alma mater, in favor of an Institute for Women’s Leadership. Just as in the 1990 student strike, students and alumnae are going, “whaaa?” and “hells no!” They are asking for ideas from the community to envision and shape a new Mills. Here’s my response.
I am so glad you asked for my imagination. What took you so long? I have always had more ideas than money.
A college is a big dream. It takes passion to survive and thrive through the changes. An institute is a lesser dream. The Mills sisterhood wants better than that.
My personal image of Mills, the one that keeps my heart connected, is that of a circle of women. We experience this all the time there: learning around classroom tables, socializing over lunch on a lawn, a sports huddle, a council. It is there in the evocation of our school song, voices around a fire, perhaps at Hilltop. (The idea of 1920s girls in diaphané carrying lanterns around a lake beckoned me there—as an intellectual refugee from the rarified and sometimes suffocating air of a Great Books school—a pageant from ancient times in all cultures. As the 1.0 Ladies’ Seminary dreamers of the 2.0 accredited college for voters.) Zoom kind of flattens the experience these days, but the essence of a circle remains. Those of us lucky to experience circles of women in our lives know that they are powerful, restorative, balancing, enlivening forces. And special.
Circles expand and contract. Fortunes expand and contract. Now is a time to contract. To regroup, rebalance, and then…expand.
In the best of all possible worlds, Mills stays open as a small independent liberal arts college for women (of all genders). An institute is a nice idea, but as an AND not an INSTEAD OF. To that end, here are two dozen of my ideas, gleaned from what other colleges have done to cope with these tumbling times, my experience of living, teaching, raising a family in Oakland, and my sense of what would be right in the world…
- Stick to the mission. Re-imagine the Freshman core curriculum around the idea of women’c circles and all that is uniquely Mills. Perhaps a history of Mills course as a lens for understanding all of the issues that come to bear on the crucial mission of educating and strengthening women worldwide.
- Make it easy for students to get in. Create a semester’s worth of on-ramping classes online that students pay for after they complete them successfully (see ASU’s open-access Global Freshman Academy). Create scaffolded programs such as a transition year for those with inequity to catch up.
- Go more virtual. Expand online learning; use what we’ve learned from Zoom to enroll students around the world and engage with classroom students. Creating an online option for every live class would reduce the on-campus footprint and yet build enrollment.
- Reducing the student capacity, if even for a year or two, would allow the campus to be temporarily consolidated, and many rooms to be rented to community partners, a Mills Institute, or conferences that will help pay the bills.
- Require one year of campus living for all students who otherwise engage online, that provides a unique experience providing the best of what Mills has always been, and an intense, unforgettable cultural experience.
- Restore traditional dining hall meals as a counter-cultural offering against the national commercialization of campus food.
- Invite Alumnae to host dinner parties on campus in dining halls, sharing institutional memory and offering access to an alumnae support network.
- Create an Alumna semester that brings graduates back to campus, provides housing & a stipend and/or fascinating “life credits” in exchange for leading cultural activities & traditions and a knowledge bank for senior mentoring.
- Create a signature exit program as well that includes career preparation and collaboration, senior mentoring, lifeskills classes, robust internships, meaningful ritual. (per CalPoly’s Senior Project program),
- Create a Mills Community Center that opens onto Seminary and focuses on community partnerships. Invite restaurant pop-ups such as the Ohlone Cafe and Revolution Foods.
- Provide robust work-study and training programs in all aspects of college operations, with student interns in every department from accounting to food service B&G. (Be inspired by Deep Springs College where the whole campus is student-run) Offer a degree in facility management. Create a partnership with a local construction company providing training for students in maintenance and restoration of the historic building. (This is a seriously important life skill!)
- Offer a positive psychology class based on Harvard’s Happiness Class, the most popular class of all time. (I was planning to teach one independently through the AAMC before Covid)
- Create a Lifeskills curriculum based on the crucial strengths of traditional women’s roles and maker culture. (Home Ec went out with the ages but might seem innovative now, at a time when people have rediscovered the challenges of the household.)
- Create crafting spaces and invite Costume College to use Mills campus.
- Give Hilltop to the Sogora Te land trust with the agreement that they use the land to teach indigenous culture and land preservation.
- Create an annual Ted Talk – style symposium around reunion time featuring great ideas by alumnae and highlights graduating seniors. Open it to the community and broadcast it, letting our jewels shine. (This will help welcome new members of the AAMC)
- Create a homestay program among Alumnae that helps students travel for learning and job interviews.
- Create a mentorship program between graduating seniors and alumnae with structured activities.
- Offer two-year programs and certificates that are germane to the Mills mission and can’t be gained at Peralta colleges.
- Support the Oakland community (through a partnership or Institute) with adult ed programs that were cut by OUSD ten to fifteen years ago – ESL, life skills, how to navigate the school system, etc. (All parent centers closed at that time due to budget cuts.) Create opportunities for adult learners through a competency-based degree program in which the college partners with local employers. (Southern New Hampshire University)
- Let it network with the OUSD community schools program, giving students a chance to volunteer in the community and provide a higher profile for Mills.
- Create high-quality online graduate programs that reach beyond geographical constraints. (Simmons College) Offer self-directed graduate studies.
- A Mills Coop. Could as large an idea as a college be run cooperatively, shared and invested in, meaningfully maintained, by all of its stakeholders? One offshoot of the Mills Children’s School, Peter Pan Cooperative Nursery School in Maxwell Park over the hill from Mills, has been operating continuously and successfully, since 1947.
- Let alumnae lead an endowment campaign, highlighting the importance of women’s education and ALL our sister schools, in a display of the feminine principle of sharing. Shoot for raising a billion dollars to share between the endowment and a fund for the Thirty-Three surviving Sisters to strengthen and protect women’s education in these shockingly misogynistic times.
Let’s host a concert that features our alumnae stars (Laurie Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Phil Lesh), alumnae stars, and other women’s education champions (Hillary Clinton, Malala). Invite Rianne Eisler (the Chalice & the Blade; Center for Partnership Studies) to spell it out for us: the Domination Model is over.
If Mills is to close, let us all make that decision TOGETHER, and go out with a bang and a hell of a party. It is unacceptable for this unilateral decision with contradicting messages to strong-arm this caring community.
“When you come to the end of all that you know, tie a knot and hang on.” Let that knot be a circle of women.
All donations from this link will go to the #SaveMills legal fund AND I’ll send you a thank-you copy of Perfectly Revolting!
Take more action with Save Mills College.
And let’s have more ideas here!