Talk to Assistant Professor Ann Murphy about the dance program at Mills College in Oakland, and you get both a history lesson and a sense of why the art form matters so much at this small school for people who identify as women.
“It’s an emancipatory art form," Murphy says, adding that dance is part of the DNA of a college where people who are denied a voice can speak.
“We had a student from Iran a year ago,” Murphy says. “She was arrested for dancing in Iran. She came here and found a home for herself. She was able to teach Persian folk dance, and able to elaborate on her own idiom.”
Mills is currently grappling with budget problems. A month ago, the college's president proposed cuts to some programs, including the end of the dance major in the country’s oldest dance department.
Book Arts would go too, as would some language classes.
The administration is advertising the changes as a way to make the curriculum a better fit for students in the 21st century.
But many members of the Mills community are unhappy with the proposed developments. Students and faculty have been staging rallies and actions over the past few weeks, claiming the proposed cuts put Mills’ unique identity at risk.
Mills student Bhumi Patel is worried that if the dance major is cut, she won’t have anyone to choreograph for.
“We constantly talk about ‘where are the women choreographers,’” Patel says. “Where are the women artistic directors. Because we don’t see them. And places like Mills College send these young people out into the world to take on these leadership positions.”
You can find the same kind of passion and thoughtful arguments for saving arts programs from students in Book Arts.
Students Grace Forrest and Selena Matranga made miniature books -- broadsides really -- to hand out at a recent protest against the proposed cuts. Inside, the books read: “Not a neo-liberal business school” -- a reference to the administration's proposal to add a new data science program and a masters in economics.
Matranga looked around at the old-fashioned print shop, with a letter press and drawers full of type fonts. She says Book Arts is a 21st century art form.
“It’s a historical grounding for all technology," Matranga says. “How are you supposed to understand where you are now without considering the past.”
"What we’re being taught here is how to put ourselves out into the world," Forrest says. "And that’s what Mills wants to do. They want to create passionate people who are engaged in society. And everything that happens in these classrooms is about that.”
Mills College President Alecia DeCoudreaux says she hears the critics. “We have gotten a lot of feedback, I would say most of it opposition,” DeCoudreaux says.
DeCoudreaux emphasizes that the potential changes are still very much at the proposal stage. But the bond credit rating agency, Moody’s, downgraded the college’s credit rating two years ago, and DeCoudreaux says Mills has to reverse declines in enrollment and tuition income. This means some programs, like Book Arts, are at risk.
“Looking across the board at enrollment data, the contribution margins of the various programs, the Book Arts is one that causes us to have questions about its viability going forward," DeCoudreaux says.
DeCoudreaux came to Mills in 2011 following a career in law and business. She says the school is taking too much out of its endowment to cover an annual deficit of about $3 million a year out of a budget of about $81 million.
“It’s work that we know we have to complete,”DeCoudreaux says. “There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not looking at what’s going on in other institutions.”
The economic turmoil at Mills isn't too far away from the financial chaos that caused the near closure of Sweet Briar a few months ago -- another small woman’s college, based in Virginia. DeCoudreaux says Mills is looking at many ways to generate revenue, including hosting more weddings and leasing a parcel of the college for development.
DeCoudreaux says the school should expand its business offerings, as they’re popular with students, and that this can be done without endangering its mission.
“We’re not looking at one thing instead of the other," DeCoudreaux says. "We’re very mindful of our mission. And our goals really are to strengthen it for the long term future of the college.”
In the midst of the protests, the college is also negotiating a new contract with adjunct faculty, who unionized last year.
The proposed cuts have motivated the Book Arts and Dance programs to look at how they can attract more students to generate more income, perhaps through offering new sessions in January and summer classes.
But dance professor Ann Murphy warns that the arts won't survive if all that matters is the bottom line.
“It’s a problem if there’s a philosophical position that the arts are expendable and that the arts have to pay their own way," Murphy says.
Mills College administrators have asked students and faculty to submit their best ideas for the future of their departments by December 1.