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After the vague town hall about an expanded partnership with UC Berkeley worries students, President Hillman gives some straightforward answers

(Left) Mills College, (Right) UC Berkeley, original images courtesy of Wikimedia

Mills students have been anxious since Oct. 6, when the President’s Office sent an alarming email informing students that the Mills administration had “began conversations to consider deepening Mills’ long-standing partnership with UC Berkeley.” The email seemingly referred to Berkeley’s need to expand and Mills’ lack of financial sustainability, claiming that the goal of an expanded partnership between the two institutions “is to sustain the socially-driven mission of Mills College and enable UC Berkeley to serve more California undergraduate students.” Worried students swarmed the virtual town hall with many questions on their minds, namely this: were UC Berkeley and Mills merging?

The town hall, run by Dean Chicora Martin and Provost Chinyere Oparah, was chaotic and frustrating; many students’ questions were answered insufficiently and in a vague manner. Even though the town hall was largely to address what students had already been referring to as the merger, most of the 45-minute town hall was spent waxing poetic about Mills’ other programs. When students were finally able to express their fears that Berkeley would be buying Mills, and thus Mills would go co-ed, their concerns were met with vague, evasive responses or were outright brushed off. When asked outright whether Mills would go co-ed, Dr. Martin didn’t answer but instead quipped about how the original meaning of the word “co-ed” was an institution that accepts women, and so, in a way, Mills is already co-ed. They did, however, make sure to emphasize that it is important to the mission of Mills to prioritize people who have been marginalized in the classroom due to their gender.

When asked about student representation in the partnership decision, Dr. Martin was unable to provide any specifics and instead chose to stress that the Mills College board of trustees is 60% alumni. Even when students brought up rumors they had heard about fundamental changes involving Mills professors, after years of beloved professors being axed, the town hall speakers simply explained that UC Berkeley has looked at Mills faculty and told them how they would fit at Berkeley “if that’s how we go.”

The administration continued to gloss over students’ concerns with vague talking points and confusing implications, and since the town hall, the Mills campus (both virtual and physical) has been swirling with speculation and rehashing the nebulously answered questions. I sat down with President Hillman, to get some clarification on some of the most important topics discussed during the town hall:

The first question in everyone’s mind: Is UC Berkeley buying Mills?

When asked whether she saw this expanded partnership turning into UC Berkeley buying Mills, President Hillman responded, “No, I don’t.” While partnerships between academic institutions, even mergers, aren’t built overnight, President Hillman also doesn’t see a buyout down the line for Mills.

Hillman elaborated that this is in part because “Institutional combinations among non-profits don’t work the way that business acquisitions do, where one corporation purchases another corporation. That’s not how this [partnership] would work. [Mills is] really looking for a mission alignment and a way to be innovative and look towards the future with a long time partner here in the Bay Area at a time when [both institutions] need to consider different possibilities.”

Will UC Berkeley students be living at Mills?

A large motivation for this partnership, at least on Berkeley’s end, is housing. “Berkeley faces different challenges than Mills,” Hillman explained. “Berkeley needs to serve more students and has some constraints in terms of the space and the resources it has.”

Mills students living on campus are aware that at the moment, Mills is not able to make use of its capacity to house students. As Hillman explained, with most students studying remotely for COVID-19 safety, the “campus population is vanishingly small compared to how big it’s been in the past, and that’s … created a different set of obstacles.” Partnering with Berkeley to make use of Mills’ available housing would provide more financial security to the college. “Even before COVID we didn’t have the number of students living on our campus or studying in our programs to feel secure about our future, which is true for a lot of small colleges,” Hillman said.

“We aren’t filling our housing to capacity right now on our campus,” Hillman explained, “and that’s one reason we’ve opened the doors to the Berkeley students who have been living on the campus. We do think [the partnership] would involve housing and students studying, living and learning on the Mills campus.” 

Will UC Berkeley students, including cis men, be taking Mills classes?

Berkeley students in Mills classes are not currently part of President Hillman’s vision for the college. Hillman said, “We’re not contemplating Berkeley students in Mills classes right now, any more than the current cross-enrollment opportunities that are available for Berkeley students, but we are thinking about new innovative models.”

While Hillman clarified that Berkeley students studying at Mills couldn’t be entirely ruled out as a possibility, she explained that it is “not something that we’re talking about right now.”

Will Mills diplomas also have UC Berkeley on them?

That’s unlikely, according to Hillman, who doesn’t see any change in that right now.

“The arc of the potential set of changes we are contemplating is relatively long,” she said. “And we will share more information as it goes, but higher education institutions are generally strangers to very abrupt change. I don’t anticipate abrupt changes and certainly not surprising students with that sort of announcement.”

She also expressed appreciation that students care so much about Mills College being on their diplomas, and spoke of her regret over not being able to hold a commencement this year due to COVID safety precautions.

“I would love to have the chance to have something approximating a commencement ceremony when we can do that again,” she said. “That will be great joy for the Mills community to come together in that way.”

What opportunities will this partnership bring Mills students?

President Hillman emphasized the resources at UC Berkeley that an expanded partnership would allow Mills students to take advantage of. First and foremost, UC Berkeley has the resources of a global research university, which Mills students already have some access to.

While there are no specifics yet, Mills aims to increase opportunities for Mills students at Berkeley’s research facilities.

“Just yesterday,” said Hillman, “I was at the Barrett Science Symposium where the Barrett Scholars do extensive research in biology with the supervision of faculty and the support of the Barrett Fellowship. Many of those students have collaborated with faculty and sometimes labs at Berkeley to do the work that they’re doing. They also collaborate with other institutions like UCSF. So I think that that’s a small example of the way in which close connections of a major research university can make a difference for Mills students.”

Mills students would also continue to have access to Berkeley’s study-abroad programs and cross-registration opportunities. Hillman expects these programs to be “revived and operating again … in relatively short order, notwithstanding the pandemic challenges.”

How, if at all, will students be represented in the decision-making regarding this partnership?

Decisions regarding Mills’ partnership with UC Berkeley are made by the Mills College Board of Trustees. The board has multiple committees, one of which is the Academic and Student Experience Committee, which students serve on. President Hillman also plans to confer with ASMC leadership about the partnership and will continue to provide town halls where students can raise concerns and ask questions. Hillman also emphasized that Mills’ anti-racism initiatives are not separate from the partnership in that both aim to seek feedback from students and represent them.

Hillman’s answers were far more enlightening regarding the partnership with UC Berkeley than anything provided at the town hall, but it is clear from her answers as well that much is still undecided about this partnership. While students will be glad to know that a full merger or co-ed classroom settings are not in the cards for Mills, the fact that so much is left unknown about such a large decision, a decision with the potential to change what makes Mills unique, is still unsettling.