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Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman was a central figure in 1990 Mills strike

The late Warren Hellman, founder of the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival held this Oct. 6-8 in Golden Gate Park, also served on the Mills Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1992 and infamously announced the Board’s decision to start enrolling male students in 1990, which led to a student strike lasting 16 days with nationwide news coverage.

“Mills was just going nowhere,” Hellman said in a 2011 interview with Lisa Rubens for UC Berkeley’s Regional Oral History Office. “And I thought something had to happen to juice it up. And to me it seemed the obvious thing, with all the women’s colleges going co-ed, that Mills should go co-ed.”

“That’s my plan. It was also my capitulation,” said Hellman, whose field of expertise was financial investment. “I planned my Waterloo.”

 As chair of the Board of Trustees for four years, he made the Board’s announcements.

“He felt like he was in a difficult position,” said cartoonist and Mills alumna Kristen Baumgardner Caven, who interviewed him nearly 20 years after the strike. Caven’s first book, “Inside the Mills Revolution: A Cartoon History” illustrates how the strike unfolded.

“To the students he was like this anonymous man,” Caven said. “The man making decisions for us. The man who wants men. That was initially the perception of him.”

When Hellman announced that the college would be going co-ed to address its fiscal deficit, the students responded with a campus-wide strike and “completely closed the place for two weeks. It was great,” Hellman told Rubens.

“Right at the start I said if the major groups opposing it can come up with a solid plan to make this financially viable then I’m willing to change my mind. And they did,” Hellman told Rubens.

Alumnae, faculty, staff and students pledged to help Mills out of its deficit if the college reversed its decision to enroll men.

Alumnae would donate more funding, faculty would teach more units, staff would raise money and improve student retention from its 1990 rate of 60 percent to 75 percent by 1995, and students would help recruit new students, among other promises, according to Linda A. Moody’s 1992 analysis of the strike, “Mills–For Women Again: A Consideration of Race, Gender, and Religion In the Effort to Remain a Women’s College.”

At the time, Mills’ existing [promotional] materials lacked emphasis on the school’s identity as a “single-sex” college, Hellman told Rubens.

“If you’re going to be a women’s college, let’s make that a major part of our mission,” Hellman said.

In their pledge, staff also promised to “fulfill Mills’ mission as a women’s college ‘by creating an environment and developing programs that emphasize and reiterate the value of women’s education,’” Moody cited.

When the board announced their final decision, the Mills community watched as Hellman quietly unfurled a banner with the words, “Mills. For Women. Again.”

Victorious, the Mills students presented Hellman with a yellow beret – the official color of the strike – which he wore with his commencement regalia for two years until presenting it to incoming college President Janet Holmgren McKay, Moody cited.

“He remembered that moment as a real highlight of his life,” Caven said. “He had really fond memories of the strike.”

Hellman grew up very wealthy in the Dunsmuir House, a mansion four miles south of Mills,” Caven said “He became a businessman and financial investor but had “a kind of sense of community that was very non-corporate.”

His estate continues to fund the free-admission, three-day Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, in its seventeenth year since it began in 2001. In addition, he funded the San Francisco Free Clinic and started the nonprofit news outlet Bay Citizen as a new model for journalism when many traditional newspapers were folding.

Hellman’s efforts blended his understanding of finance with long-sighted philanthropy. After announcing the Board’s reversal, Hellman said, “Sometimes, in your lifetime, you’re involved with something that may not just change an institution, it can change the world,” according to Inside Mills.

Warren Hellman died in 2011 of complications from leukemia. He was 77.