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Faculty looks back at the 16 days that changed everything

A crowd of faculty, staff and students gathered behind Mills Hall on the morning of May 3, 1990, to hear that the Board of Trustees had voted to admit men starting in the fall of 1991. For faculty members, the student strike that followed helped them become more aware of how important a college for women was.

Now retired since 2004, Edna Mitchell, a professor of education, remembers the dreary scene.

“I recall the group of administrators making the announcement by appearing at the Toyon Meadow side of Mills Hall, coming out the back door and standing within a yellow-ribboned area — the kind used for marking off no-trespass areas in a crime scene,” Mitchell said. “The crowd outside the yellow-ribboned ‘safe’ space went wild, screaming, crying, raging with anger.”

For Marianne Sheldon, a professor of history who still teaches at Mills, the decision to go coed made her think of Mills’ literal and metaphorical destruction.

“There was a certain irony in standing behind a building which had been damaged and closed after the Loma Prieta earthquake and probably condemned and hearing this announcement,” Sheldon said.

The decision to go coed came after a year of faculty discussions and committee. Mitchell was on two committees: one that studied what happened to women’s colleges that went coed, and another that was to increase enrollment through expanding graduate programs. Mitchell went to Philadelphia’s coed private college Swarthmore to evaluate their program and report back.

Sheldon remembers that the moments of shock and sadness after hearing the decision did not last long before students began an impressive networking strategy to garner media attention.

“Quickly, students took the initiative to reach out to others to figure out what they were going to do,” Sheldon said. “I remember hearing students say, ‘Well, we need to get [the] media aware of this.’ Today that is easy to do, but in that era, it was more complicated. They did it.”

Professor of book art, Kathleen Walkup, who also still teaches at Mills, supplied the strikers with food throughout the two weeks. Above all, she remembers how respectful, steadfast and organized the students were.

“They had child care,” Walkup said. “And the students conducted themselves so well. I just thought it was razor focused.”

Of all her memories over the two-week strike, Walkup’s most vivid was from the last day. At the time, her department shared Sage Hall with administrative offices, and the students had a line around the building preventing Walkup from entering her classrooms or office.

“I could not get into my classroom because students were physically barricading the building, but my classes still met in other places — on the lawn or in the tea shop,” Walkup said.

When the decision was reversed, it had been two weeks since Walkup had been inside her office. With only three hours until her grades were due, she rushed back to get her files. Students stopped her before entering to request that she not come in until they had finished cleaning up.

“Students were outside my building saying, ‘Don’t come in; we haven’t cleaned.’ That was how the whole strike was,” Walkup said. “A very great level of maturity. We were all so impressed.”

Walkup’s near-miss to finish grading is an example of the risk faculty took when they decided to adhere to the strike.

“The end of the semester projects, exams and even graduation were in jeopardy,” Mitchell said.

When Sheldon came back in the fall, she recalled that there was a tremendous sense of energy, motivation and engagement around campus.  There was a desire, she said, to understand, and discussions around campus began to re-define what it meant to be a women’s college — a discussion that was focused on inclusion for all women rather than on gender.

“I think the strike amplified our consciousness about the importance of teaching women,” Sarah Pollock, head of the journalism program said. “It’s not like it was unknown, but we became hyper aware of it in a new kind of way.”