The main commons on the campus of Mills College in Oakland. (Phil Bond/Mills College)
Mills College in Oakland, the prestigious 169-year-old women’s institution, plans to stop enrolling first-year undergraduate students after this fall. It will likely hand out its final undergraduate and graduate degrees in 2023 following years of financial losses, the school announced Wednesday.
In a letter, Mills College President Elizabeth Hillman cited “the economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic, structural changes across higher education, and Mills’ declining enrollment and budget deficits” as reasons for the move.
“Today’s news signals the end of an era in Mills College’s history. It may provoke a variety of reactions and emotions in you, as it has in me,” Hillman said in the letter. “I also expect you will have many questions, some of which I will not yet be able to answer. Mills takes seriously our obligation to keep you apprised as we assess options and build pathways for transition.”
Current students were informed of the decision on Wednesday morning - at nearly the same time it was announced publicly.
Mills is grappling with a $3 million deficit — against a $50 million budget — driven largely by years declining enrollment, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Student ranks have dropped by roughly 30% over the past five years, to just 900 during the pandemic, Hillman said.
The college's Mission, "to promote women's leadership, gender and racial justice, and critical and creative thought, has never been more urgent," Hillman said in a video message posted on the school's website. "But it's become clear, through a deep and searching process of reflection and analysis by the college's leadership, that we cannot continue to fulfill Mills' mission in our current form."
Before the pandemic, Mills had considered becoming a shared campus, and was in talks with other universities — including UC Berkeley — about potential partnerships. But the pandemic tanked those plans when it forced the campus to shut down last year and shift to virtual instruction.
Hillman said the administration is now working to create a “Mills Institute” on the campus to “continue to foster women’s leadership and student success, advance gender and racial equity, and cultivate innovative pedagogy, research, and critical thinking.” The specific details of what the new institution will look like are still being worked out, she said.
The school will help current students either finish their degrees at Mills or transfer to other colleges or universities, Hillman added.
Most graduate students can continue to enroll after this fall, with the expectation that their degree programs will be completed by the end of spring 2023, said Tami Kelly, a Mills spokesperson. It's unclear though, what the announcement means for current faculty members.
"We kind of knew that Mills was having issues," said Angel Fabre, a senior and editor-in-chief of The Campanil, the campus newspaper. The school, she noted, has struggled financially for years; in 2017 it declared a fiscal emergency and laid off several tenured professors. "We just were under the assumption that it was seeking different avenues. ... At most, we thought that we were possibly going to merge with another college."
Fabre said the school administration has so far provided very few concrete details about how it came to its decision. Why, for instance, isn't it digging into its nearly $190 million endowment to cover some losses, she asked.
"We've survived several major events. We've been struggling for a while," she said, noting that Hillman had until recently expressed confidence the school would survive, despite mounting financial challenges. "It wasn’t just COVID. There had to be other financial factors that caused Mills to have to close. They're not telling us the specifics of why they don’t have enough money. Students deserve to know."
Fabre, who like most students, hasn't set foot on campus since last March, when the pandemic began, said the news is hitting hard.
"It's been pretty emotional," she said. "For a lot of students, it's really sinking in that they're never going to return to what they left from."
Mills is a unique institution, Fabre said, providing a much-needed safe environment for women and nonbinary students. "You're able to come to a space where you're going to be respected, but also learn to advocate for yourself," she said.
But students here, she added, have a strong history of activism, and are unlikely to take the news sitting down.
That fighting spirit was evident in the swift, ardent response from a number of prominent alumni.
“I am heartbroken and outraged by today’s announcement that Mills College will cease to be as we know it,” U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, a Mills graduate, said in a statement. “Personally I owe a debt of gratitude to Mills College. Five decades ago, I was able to attend college and earn a degree as a young single mother on public assistance who often had to bring her sons to class — something that would have been impossible at many other colleges or universities.”
Mills is where Lee met her mentor, pioneering Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, she said, and where “my passion for public service and politics began.”
One of just 34 all-women colleges in the U.S., Mills has served students at its 135-acre campus on MacArthur Boulevard since 1871, where it relocated after starting as a small seminary in Benicia.
“For generations, Mills has been a bastion of diversity in higher education, providing an excellent academic education to women who are too often shut out by other institution of higher education,” Lee said. The school has been essential in recruiting underrepresented students and must be able to continue that important role, she added.
Lee said she will ask the college’s board of trustees to reconsider their decision, and to explore all available funding options.
“It is critical that the Board does everything possible to maintain Mill’s historic commitment to diversity and equity, and not allow any path that would diminish opportunities for African American and Latin students,” Lee said. “Such opportunities are already too rare in California.”
This post includes additional reporting from Bay City News.