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Beloved icon Daphne Muse leaves Mills College

On Aug. 28, members of the Mills community gathered in the Mills Hall living room to celebrate Daphne Muse, professor and director of the now-canceled Women’s Leadership Institute, whose many titles throughout her life have included writer, educator, social commentator and civil rights activist.

Though Muse’s departure from Mills was bittersweet for many students and faculty members, the crowd was all smiles at her farewell celebration, “The Fruits of Summer,” and many used the occasion as an opportunity to honor Muse’s many professional and personal contributions to the college.

Joi Lewis gives Muse a plant and a smile. (Jennifer Courtney)
Joi Lewis gives Muse a plant and a smile. (Jennifer Courtney)

The packed crowd—whose numbers were a clear testament to Muse’s profound impact on the Mills community—snacked on fruit pie and mounds of figs, mangoes, berries and grapes on one of the warmest days of the year as they gathered to give Muse a memorable send-off.

“Daphne really represents for us in the College a connection to the community, a connection to the world and linkages to the institution as it is now, and as it was to our alumnae and our friends,” said Mills President Janet Holmgren. “We are going to be a less rich place for not having Daphne here every single day doing the terrific work that she has done for us.”

Holmgren recalled how Muse was one of the first people to knock on her door when she became president in 1991. She confronted the brand new president about Mills’ lack of diversity and community engagement, sparking the college’s push towards becoming a more diverse institution.

Muse is honored by President Jan Holmgren and Vice Provost Andrew Workman. (Jennifer Courtney)
Muse is honored by President Jan Holmgren and Vice Provost Andrew Workman. (Jennifer Courtney)

“I was very glad to meet this feisty, formidable woman who carried Mills in her heart but also carried a vision for Mills that was bigger than any of its parts, and bigger than its present and past,” Holmgren said.

Muse has certainly become an authority on Mills’ past and present: she was a member of the faculty from 1975 to 1983 and again from 1991 to 1993. More recently, in late 2005 Muse was appointed director of the Women’s Leadership Institute, a co-curricular program dedicated to promoting women’s leadership and civic engagement.

Though the Women’s Leadership Institute was abruptly canceled last year due to lack of funds for the costly program, its legacy remains through the students that were involved with the program. To many of them, Muse’s departure carries great weight.

“Daphne Muse is the most amazing thing to ever happen to this school,” said Cecelia Aguilera, a senior who participated in the Women’s Leadership Institute.

“As the director of WLI, she did so much to bring every student into the community and make her feel like she had a voice.”

Michaela Daystar, director of the Institute for Civic Leadership, a curricular program that parallels the Women’s Leadership Institute in many ways, has had a close collaborative relationship with Muse. Because both programs shared many goals, resources and even an office informally dubbed “The Leadership Suite,” Daystar came to know Muse as both a cherished colleague and inspiration.

“She being so fully entrenched in social justice history and the history of particular activists who I knew on page that she knew in person and in life–that was incredibly valuable to me,” said Daystar. “And just on a personal level, she was a mentor to me and a very good friend. We got into a lot of mischief together!”

Muse’s intellect, magnetic personality and remarkable life— celebrated civil rights activist Rosa Parks once stayed at her house for a week—has had a profound impact both on those who knew her well, and those who, like LaTasha Monique, a senior, were inspired by her from a distance.

“My first semester [at Mills] I was like, ‘I must know this woman, I must speak to this woman.’ I felt like there was so much she could teach me, and of course I was right,” said Monique.

“Just the few conversations I’ve had with her have been very enlightening and have allowed room for personal growth. When you hear Daphne Muse speak, you don’t have a choice but to listen.”

Her time at Mills may be over, but her final contributions to the school ensure she will continue to impact students even as she pursues other endeavors. At the reception, she presented the school with the first installation of a scholarship to be awarded to students with disabilities that transfer from City College of San Francisco. She also gifted the Mills library with a photograph of President Barack Obama swearing in Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

As Muse develops her newest project, which she hinted involves women’s leadership on a global level and travels to Mozambique and South Africa to conduct research, she will undoubtedly have many fond memories of her long relationship with Mills — which she jokingly refers to as “kind of an addiction.”

As she spoke of her appreciation for every member of the Mills community, she said to those gathered, “I have had some hilarious times with some of you, I have had some notorious times with you. I have had some intellectually invigorating times with many of you—the kind where I go home at night and it makes me read in ways that I’ve never thought about ideas. And I’ve had difficult conversations with people that have helped me grow beyond that little girl in the fifth grade who never imagined that this is where she would end up.”