The Transformation of Mills College

The past year has been difficult for all of us who love Mills College. But we have more than saved the college we love.

Mills College campus in Oakland, Calif. (Sanfranman59 / Wikimedia Commons)

A year ago, it seemed that we might lose Mills College. Today, Mills is on the cusp of a transformation that affirms its mission and offers greater opportunities for students, faculty, staff and alums. What got us here?

The announcement a year ago that Mills College would no longer grant degrees but would create an institute to carry Mills’ legacy forward shocked alums. Lila Goehring’s moving story in Ms. about the importance of Mills in her life—recognizing her worth and talents even though other institutions weren’t interested in her—captures the mourning we all experienced. She wanted to fight to save the college that saved her.

I share her sense of loss and her desire to save Mills. Because of my years as a student at Mills, I’ve spent my life working for women’s education. I, too, participated, from afar, in the 1990 student strike at Mills against the trustees’ vote for coeducation—with letters to trustees and T-shirts for the student strikers. I was such an annoyance that the college invited me to give the Convocation address following the reversal of the decision.

That was three decades ago. The college and the world are in a very different place now. March 2021, fortunately, did not mark the end of the Mills story. We have saved Mills once again.

Mills College was under untenable stress a year ago after years of deficit budgets: cutting costs where possible, restructuring to be more efficient, but barely supporting the students, staff and faculty the way they should be supported. Regular maintenance and repair of campus buildings had been deferred so long that some were no longer usable.

Talks about an extended partnership with U.C. Berkeley had gone on for over two years but were stalled. The trustees determined the college could no longer continue to grant degrees after 2023. Rather than close entirely, Mills would create an institute to carry on the college’s commitments to inclusive learning, progressive teaching and to the community around us. A broad-based planning effort to design a distinctly Mills Institute was created to gather ideas and hopes from the whole Mills community. 

When news of a possible closure of the college became public, Mills received inquiries from leaders of other universities. The most compelling came from Northeastern University in Boston. University leaders traveled to the Mills campus during the pandemic to talk with Mills leaders. They were drawn to Mills because of our mission and values. A merger would make a “both/and” solution possible: Save the College and build the Institute. Mills College at Northeastern would become a hub in the university’s global network. And the university will join us to fully realize the vision of the Mills Institute as a center for learning and research to serve the Oakland community and beyond.

While it’s hard to see in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, the Mills story is but one example of fundamental change throughout American higher education, comparable to other historic transformations.

Is this transition easy? Of course not. To bring together two institutions, located a continent apart, enmeshed in a thick web of regulatory agencies is difficult, to say the least. The details of the merger had to be worked out carefully and confidentially by 10 teams of college officers, staff and faculty collaborating intensively to make it all happen between the September 2021 commitment and the July 2022 implementation date. From the beginning, Mills leaders have been committed to meet student needs during the confusion of transition (and the lingering pandemic), to protect the faculty and staff that make Mills work, and to honor the requirements of donors of numerous endowed funds. 

While it’s hard to see in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, the Mills story is but one example of fundamental change throughout American higher education, comparable to other historic transformations. The advent of land-grant universities in the mid-19th century, the founding of HBCUs just before and after the Civil War, the creation of women’s colleges in the late 19th century, the professionalization of academic disciplines at the beginning of the 20th century and the GI bill after World War II all changed ideas about who should be educated as well as what and how they should learn. 

Challenges to higher education today include rising costs, an antiquated business model, competition from for-profit schools, explosive growth in knowledge and ways of learning brought about by technology, along with shifts in student demographics and aspirations. Small, liberal arts colleges have struggled financially and with enrollments as students ask: What can I do with a liberal arts degree? Many colleges have had to close or drastically change their mission—from residential undergraduate to graduate online education, for example. Few can survive alone, even with significant endowments. The strongest have created partnerships or are in a multi-college consortium, like the Five Colleges in Massachusetts or the Claremont Colleges in California. Partnerships and mergers provide new life while allowing colleges to retain their distinct identities.

Mills has often been on the leading edge of educational change, ever since the Ladies’ Seminary in Benicia (1852) became Mills College for Women in Oakland (1871), a decision that some students and teachers resisted at the time. Mills has become a leader in inclusive education, committed to gender and racial justice. Lila Goehring’s essay rightly celebrates the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of Mills students today. It hasn’t always been the case, however, that gender and sexual diversity were celebrated or even tolerated at Mills. That, too, has been a story of progressive change not always welcomed by all.

Northeastern is attracted to the inclusive excellence of Mills today, to our story and our location. And Mills has the opportunity to join with a university that is arguably the leader in experiential learning on a global scale through internships, co-ops, placements in businesses and in non-profits that are seamlessly woven into the whole student experience.

Mills College at Northeastern will be gender-inclusive; the law requires it. But that doesn’t mean that commitment to the lives and aspirations of girls, women, gender non-binary and LGBTQ+ people will be marginalized. Racial and gender justice continue to be central to the vision of Mills, not only for the college, but for the institute, which can and will develop programming and research specifically for people who have not been well served in our schools and businesses. We now have a partner to realize the mission that emerged from discussions across the Mills community: 

“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.”

Ideas for programming proposed by members of the Mills community range from a subsidized STEAM gap year (STEM fields and the arts) for students from Oakland high schools, to summer boot camps on the Mills campus for young women and nonbinary individuals to develop skills and creativity through coding, painting, photography or community organizing; six-week intensive programs for women, nonbinary, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals to advance their careers in business; and sponsored research programs for teachers at all levels to develop high-impact teaching practices that engage students more deeply in their own learning.

A national search for the inaugural executive director is already underway. More information can be found here

The past year has been difficult for all of us who love Mills College. But we have more than saved the college we love; we have created Mills College at Northeastern, the West Coast hub in a global network that promotes experiential, lifelong learning. 

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Marilyn R. Schuster received her B.A. from Mills College in 1965. She returned to Oakland in 2015 having served on the faculty at Smith College for over forty years. She helped found Women & Gender Studies as well as a track in Queer Studies; she served as Provost & Dean of the Faculty at Smith. Her most recent publication is A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout. More information about her work can be found here. She has served on the Mills Board of Trustees since 2015.