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“Changemakers in Oakland” and Mills Institute present major changes at Mills College

Amidst conversations surrounding Mills College transitioning into a Mills “institute” by 2023, the President’s Office announced on March 25 that the college will be the location for the “Changemakers in Oakland” program at UC Berkeley. Scheduled for the 2021-2022 academic year, the program will bring 200 UC Berkeley first-years of all genders to campus, where they will live and attend classes. These students will have their own dedicated courses and living spaces.

This is a brand-new program offered by UC Berkeley where students will explore Oakland while experiencing some of the unique aspects of Mills, such as the single-occupancy rooms and small class sizes. According to the UC Berkeley Changemaker website, the program will offer a “small liberal-arts college experience within a larger UC campus.” 

“The students will be receiving an orientation, which we will contribute to, which will help them to better understand what the Mills culture, identity, values and students — and who we are as a community — that is something we will provide, but the overall program is provided by Berkeley,” Provost Dr. Julia Chinyere Oparah said during a student town hall in April.

Dr. Oparah expressed her hopes that some of the co-curricular activities that are being planned with colleagues at Berkeley will add value to the Mills experience. These include students being able to attend some of the events on changemaking in Oakland and get to know the first-years from UC Berkeley and their interests in the Mills environment.

The Changemakers in Oakland program will focus on providing an intro-level curriculum to its students that will be separate from Mills courses; however, in spring 2021, UC Berkeley students may have the opportunity to cross-register and join Mills classrooms.

Crossregistration has been a policy at Mills since 2017, allowing students to register for courses at Mills-partnered institutions such as UC Berkeley, St. Mary’s College or Berkeley City College without additional costs. 

“Most of the Changemaking curriculum won’t be until the spring, but we think that the actual co-curricular activities could be throughout the whole year and that could be where our Mills students can participate,” Dr. Oparah said.

This announcement surprised many members of the Mills community, as the college had announced on March 17 that due to financial woes worsened by the pandemic, it would be transitioning out of degree-granting status.

“I was a little surprised and taken a back as everyone reiterated,” Terra Muhammad, a junior at Mills, said. “I wasn’t clear about the reason why they would be bringing 200 incoming freshmen students from Berkeley, even though the school [will not be functioning] as a university anymore.”

Muhammad attended a spring gathering held for students in April, where President Hillman shared more information about the Changemakers in Oakland program. The program will help fund Mills College through its transition, as there will be no incoming first-year class after fall 2021.

As the Board of Trustees makes plans to transition to a Mills Institute and strengthen their partnership with UC Berkeley, there is concern about the legacy of the college and the community it serves. The Save Mills College Coalition and UC Mills have formed in hopes to reverse the decision to transition and advocate for finding solutions that can help Mills remain a degree-granting college.

Save Mills College Coalition, often referred to as Save Mills, is a grassroots coalition of over 300 alumnae, faculty, staff, students, parents and Mills community members dedicated to demanding that the Board of Trustees stop all decisions towards a Mills transition and prioritize Mills as a college for women, non-binary and transgender students. Their goals are to stop plans for the closure of Mills College, support current students in need and create an ideal plan for the future of Mills College that involves input from all stakeholders. The coalition is in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and has obtained legal representation with the law firm of Altshuler Berzon LLP. Save Mills plans to pursue an enforcement action against plans to transition Mills as their lawyers “have determined that the Board of Trustees took a radical and unlawful departure from the charitable purposes of Mills College.”

In a video presented at the Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC) BIPOC town hall, Department Head of Ethnic Studies Dr. Natalee Kēhaulani Bauer shared a call to action for people in the Mills community to join the efforts to save Mills College as a degree-granting institution.

“We, this faculty and staff, who are more and more made up of first-generation, people of color — we’ve experienced violence, the violence of higher education as students and professors. And we recognize that Mills is a place unlike any other. Because of that, we understand this on a profoundly personal level that we cannot give up,” Dr. Bauer said.

Susan Mills, left, taught at Oahu College, now Punahou School, and Cyrus Mills was its president. They bought Mills College in California in the 1860s.
Photo courtesy of Mills College

Mills College has a strong history of activism and forward-thinking policies. In 1974, Mills was the first women’s college to offer a computer science major, and in 1990, it was the first to have its’ student population organize and successfully reverse the Board of Trustee’s decision to become co-educational. In 2001, Mills became the first women’s college to offer a 4+1 bachelor’s-to-master’s accelerated degree program, and in 2014, it was the first to include transgender students in its admissions policies.

Dr. Bauer stressed the importance of a collective understanding of the political and moral obligation to fight for Mills, a historical institution that has served as a community for “students who no one else fights for.”

“I’m asking you to fight until you have no fight left in you. And at that point, step aside, because we’ve already seen that we have tens of thousands of people who are willing to take up this fight,” Dr. Bauer said.

The Save Mills College Coalition addresses the lack of transparency prior to the announcement of Mills Institute and says that the future of Mills College must include the coalition’s commitment to “better serving Latinx, Black, Indigenous and Asian students as well as LGBTQ, disabled, first-generation and non-traditional students, including resumers and parenting students.”

The coalition has started a Save Mills College Legal Fund and a Support Mills College Students Fund. At this time, the legal fund has brought in around $40,000 and the student fund has brought in around $3,000; both have the goal of reaching $100,000.

UC Mills is an organization of alumnae with similar goals as Save Mills in maintaining the college’s legacy; but has created an alternative plan to the Board of Trustees, proposing that Mills become a part of the University of California system. The organization recognizes the diverse opinions regarding the future of Mills and hopes to unite all stakeholders in these discussions.

“… What we hope is that the proposal is a Mills community proposal, meaning, students, staff, faculty, alum — and if done right — the Ohlone people, and, by extension, a community outside of our gates. It is a reenvisioning of Mills, as a public university, that still honors the legacy, keeping what is good and with stakeholders help improve the services and the things that are given to students,” Lori Bass, a Class of ‘92 alumnae, said in the UC Mills presentation to ASMC. “We are hoping that being part of the UC system will also increase funding to meet students needs. It is our hope that UC Mills is a chance to reset and join the ranks.”

Unlike the solutions discussed in past conversations at Mills regarding an expanded partnership with UC Berkeley, UC Mills would not be an extension of another college. As a stand-alone college, the UC Mills proposal is inspired by the UC Hastings model, where the institution would be a part of the University of California system while having the benefit of support from a larger system and maintaining its own independent bureaucracy. This includes the ability to set an admissions policy that aligns with the community’s values. 

One disadvantage to the UC Mills proposal is that Mills’ assets and land would be transferred to the UC system; but the UC Mills organization believes that a specialized admissions policy would help maintain control of the college’s future. 

The goal of UC Mills is also a political pressure and awareness campaign aimed at the Board of Trustees and state of California, local and UC system leadership.

“One of the complaints that I have heard from our recent graduates, and current students, is a lack of support for our Black, Indigenous and students of color. One of the program’s unique to Hastings is the LEOP program. It is a model that promotes mentorship, continued connection and networking, from the beginning of the students entrance onto the campus through graduation and then follows them throughout their career,” Bass ’92 said. “The model gives us a blueprint to provide realized support to our diverse population beyond the Mills Promise program and other similar programs. They also have excellent models to help improve services for students with disabilities and first-generation college students.”

UC Hastings, a public law school based in San Francisco, offers the Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP) designed “to make legal education accessible to students from adverse backgrounds.”

On April 13, the Save Mills College Coalition, UC Mills and the AAMC Board of Governors published a joint letter demanding the Board of Trustees to reverse their decision and continue to work towards maintaining Mills College as a degree-granting institution.

Other groups in the Mills Community have expressed their frustration and disagreement with the Board of Trustees decision. The Faculty of Mills College collectively passed a vote of no confidence in the leadership of Dr. Oparah, President Hillman and the Board of Trustees. The press release called for the resignation and replacement of all parties along with the suspension of all plans to transition Mills College and the beginning of negotiations with faculty to determine the future of the college. 

So far, Mills College has begun a “co-design” process led by Professor Ajuan Mance and Trustee Marilyn Schuster. Students were also encouraged to get involved with the co-design process by sharing their input in small focus group sessions. 

According to Dr. Oparah, Mills College does not anticipate any department closures at this time and is planning to maintain operations for the next two years. The Provost Office plans to support students through the completion of their degree requirements and assess transfer partnerships with other institutions. 

“We know that many faculty and staff are planning to stay with us through the transition to support our historic class of 2023. In the future, some of our faculty and staff may be employed in the Mills Institute, which is currently in the early stages of the co-design process,” Dr. Oparah said in an email correspondence. “As we partner with other academic institutions, we anticipate that positions would also become available through those arrangements. For those who are not placed in a position at the end of the teach out, the College will provide career planning and transition assistance.”

Mills Institute is anticipated to be funded by the $187.3 million endowment and fundraising efforts in the future. Dr. Oparah says that financial donations and fundraising campaigns cannot solve the long-term deficits at Mills, but the Board of Trustees and college leadership are continuing to pursue partnerships with other institutions and academic organizations.