The Feminist Legacy of Mills College Must Not Be Forgotten

We must never forget Mills College’s legacy as a historically inclusive women’s college and a safe haven for immigrants, LGBTQ students and anyone else eager to change the world.

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Mills College, a women’s college in the Bay Area, is facing closure after 170 years. Mills was radical in 1852 for educating women, and most recently made history in 2014 when it became the first women’s college to explicitly include trans women in its admissions policy. (Wikimedia Commons)

We didn’t have to lose Mills College. But it was still worth fighting for. 

My story isn’t unique. After struggling with mental illness in high school, Mills was one of only two colleges I was accepted into. The prestige of East Coast women’s college’s was no match for my attendance record paired with my less-than-extraordinary ACT scores and small record of AP classes. Mills looked beyond all of that, and its admissions team saw my strength as a writer and commitment to social justice, and decided I was more than enough. The school took me in with warm arms, just as it did so many others with stories like mine who I would come to know: mothers who attended my evening classes; those returning to school after 20 years who juggled work and family responsibilities; first-generation students who made it to college against all odds.

At present, Mills is made up of 65 percent students of color, 45 percent first-generation college students and 58 percent LGBTQ students. It is nearly impossible to find another school with those numbers in the state, let alone the country. Mills told us we were its greatest strength. 

Perhaps this is why our school’s March 17, 2021, closure announcement cut so deep. President Elizabeth Hillman sent out an email stating that “Mills must begin to shift away from being a degree-granting college,” citing financial woes, declining enrollment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Alumnae came out of the woodwork that night to fight for their school, just as they had in 1990 when the school decided to go co-ed—only to overturn their decision after a two-week strike insisting that education centering women was still relevant. Jennifer Bermon wrote in her 2015 piece for Ms. about the strike, “The school that had taught us to have a voice, to lead as women and to work hard for what we wanted was seeing those principles in action.”

Following tradition, we dropped everything last March. Alumnae and students rallied in person and online in the thousands and demanded to know more: Without transparency from our administration, how could we be sure this was the only option? Why no last-ditch effort to fundraise through a capital campaign? Where was the fight to save this place from our leadership that just yesterday had promised me and my classmates that we were worth it?

Instead, we were told no: “There’s just not the capacity in our donor base to actually raise enough money to do this,” Hillman said in an April town hall—a statement we believe is rooted in racism and sexism given the demographics of our alumnae (and an untrue one: just the previous year, Mills successfully raised $9.4 million—$2.5 million over their goal). It felt more and more like rather than do anything to keep it afloat, our leaders would do anything to see Mills disappear. 

Right now, the future of Mills’s legacy looms in uncertainty. Last June, two months after the initial closure announcement, Hillman announced Mills would be merging with Northeastern University, a Boston-based research university which did not admit women until 1943—nearly 100 years after Mills came into existence. What was promised as a partnership has come to look more like an acquisition every day: Most shocking is the price Northeastern will pay for Mills, in the form of a $30 million loan to cover our debt—for a school likely worth billions.

Our community has never taken no for an answer. After fundraising for and working with forensic accountants and financial experts, and after a lawsuit filed against college leaders, we have come to find that Mills College never needed to close or merge: Mills’s endowment of $230 million is comparable to other institutions of our size. The school was recently re-accredited for seven years, far more than the usual three to four. Our art collection alone is one of the wealthiest college collections, likely worth hundreds of millions.

Mills did not need to be sold for nothing. Our leaders chose to let it go—to let go of 170 years of history; let go of its diverse student body, who are now being asked to transfer; let go of its renowned faculty, whose contracts will likely end a year from next June.

There is a common phrase I’ve heard time and time again in this fight, at March 26th’s rally, over and over online and from current students and alumnae alike: Mills saved my life. Long before Mills formally recorded its LGBTQ numbers, it was a haven for lesbians to exist in leadership roles and together on campus. 

Mills has always been a safe haven: for Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion Act, for Jewish scholars during World War II, for victims of Japanese internment camps, and most recently, for trans students—Mills became the first historically women’s college to adopt an admissions policy inclusive of trans women in 2014, paving the way for other institutions like ours. Mills has always harbored students eager to change the world. We have long pushed our twin beds together and held each other when our families and the world refused to.

“There’s no way to explain how much Mills means to me… how close I came to being crushed by the world without it,” wrote alumna Darcy Totten in a Facebook post the day after the closure announcement. “As a teenager, I didn’t expect to live to see 30. The only gay people I heard of before college were the ones on TV who had been tortured and killed.”

Several months into our fight to save Mills, I asked Darcy if we were losing. Our losses had begun to outnumber our wins, and the acquisition seemed to be plowing forward without stopping. Our community was tired. What if it doesn’t work this time, like it did in 1990? I asked her, practically panicking with fear. She interrupted me by repeating: We do it anyway, we do it anyway.  We fight because it’s the right thing to do.

Mills College may become another piece of history. But I will never be sorry that we tried, and I will never stop telling this story. We will always be the Mills siblings our school built us to be. 

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About

Lila Goehring is a writer from the Midwest, now based in the Bay Area. She earned her degree in creative writing from Mills College in 2021, and her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Mills Quarterly. Her work can be found at lilagoehring.com and she is on Twitter @lilagoehring.