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After two decades, Holmgren says goodbye to Mills — but not for long



Holmgren with her daughters and pets in 2010. Holmgren will be leaving her position as President of Mills College this spring after 20 years of leading the college. She plans to return in the spring as a professor. (Courtesy of The Quarterly and President Holmgren)


“In our society, it’s hard for women to feel a sense of pride and distinctiveness. There’s a special opportunity in women’s colleges,” President Janet Holmgren said at her first press conference at Mills in 1991.

Holmgren was 42 when she was elected as President by the Board of Trustees. At the time, she and her two daughters, Elizabeth, who was 11, and Ellen, who was 7, had just moved in to the President’s home on campus.

A photo in The Weekly (now The Campanil), dating back to 1991, shows Holmgren, her two daughters, their cat, Ginger, and their dog, Sandy, sitting closely together, smiles beaming at the camera, in their new campus home — an “all female” household

During Holmgren’s 20 years as President, Mills has grown immensely. The college has seen changes both physically, with several new buildings, and academically, with numerous additions to the faculty and curriculum.

Still, her Presidency has been a symbiotic relationship of give and take with the college.

Three of the school’s biggest construction projects, the Moore Natural Sciences Building, Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business and the renovation of Littlefield Concert Hall, were all completed under Holmgren’s hospice. The Prospect Hill Apartments, the soccer field, aquatic center and Suzanne Adams Plaza were also built during Holmgren’s tenure, according to an article published in The Campanil in 2001.

“Good planning and good construction sends a message to the community,” Holmgren said, noting that her investment in construction on campus was an investment in people, providing more accessibility to classrooms and resources.

Academically, the college has seen the development of the Ethnic Studies Department, Public Policy Department, Educational Leadership Department, the Business School and several graduate programs.

In her 2005 State of the College address, Holmgren “stressed the importance of women making inroads in the sciences.”. Holmgren followed through with this goal, introducing the college’s first Bachelor of Sciences degree in Biology, biopsychology, chemistry, environmental sciences, biochemistry and molecular biology.

Though the sciences may have been emphasized more strongly during Holmgren’s tenure, she also made strides to improve the arts, such as music.

“She supported the Music Department during a crucial period following the Strike, and made the renovation of the Music Building a high priority at the College,” said David Bernstein, a music professor, via email.

Holmgren described the newly renovated concert hall as “one of the most beautiful and inspiring places in the Bay Area to listen to Music,” in an article in the Winter 2009 edition of The Quarterly.

Holmgren also initiated a great push towards using new technology, as her tenure bridged the gap between the 20th and 21st centuries. Though she helped make the shift from using only paper-bound books and research materials to a digital means of gathering information on campus, she felt that she could have done more to support the college during the age of technology.

“I underestimated the impact of technology,” she said.

Supporting diversity, both in the student body and in the faculty, was important to Holmgren.

President Holmgren, left, meets with incoming first-year students at a New Students Tea in 2007 in the Reinhardt Alumnae House. (Courtesy of The Crest and President Holmgren)

In 1989, about 3 percent of the tenured faculty were people of color.

In 2001, that increased to 20 percent, according to an article published in The Campanil in 2001. Today, 28 percent of full-time faculty are people of color, according to the Mills College website.

It is the college’s many successes over the years that Holmgren holds as her most rewarding accomplishment.

“Mills has gone from surviving to thriving,” she said.

Mills has given Holmgren a lot to be thankful for as well. She has made many friends and has felt a strengthening in her love of education.

“I have become a more powerful and passionate advocate for both higher education and the education of women,” she said. “I learned that you don’t necessarily have to be in the classroom to be an educator.”

The enthusiasm with which Holmgren addresses women’s education has permeated the entire Mills community.

“She reinvigorates everyone’s passion for women’s education,” said Kathi Burke, Chair of the Board of Trustees. “She really looks for ways to keep women’s undergraduate education and our graduate programs relevant.”

Holmgren said the people she has met and the influence and strength the college has given her outshines what she has done for the college.

“What I’ve gotten has been far more than I’ve given.”

But great success comes with loss as well.

Remembering some of the tough decisions she had to make, like cutting Dramatic Arts, Holmgren said she faced a lot of battles at Mills, too.

Many of the reductions Holmgren approved were solely based on finances, she said. As the college rose to meet the 21st century, the focus of Mills shifted to incorporate a wider variety of studies and to expand the student and faculty bodies. All of that cost money, and so Holmgren had to make the tough decision to put what funds the college did have towards increasing financial aid, hiring new faculty and developing more modern departments such as Ethnic Studies.

Holmgren with her daughters Elizabeth and Ellen and their pets in 1991. (Courtesy of The Quarterly and President Holmgren)

Holmgren lost some things of her own during her 20 years at Mills.

“I’ve lost some of my privacy,” she said. “I’ve lost the ability to focus on work that is fulfilling to me — writing, research, teaching.”

And it’s her passions outside of education that Holmgren wants to reclaim once she leaves the President’s Office.

“Immediately, I’m going to take a breath,” she said. “I’m 62 right now. I’m thinking about the last third of my life. While this is wonderful work, there are other things I would like to do.”

Holmgren plans to continue living in Oakland and will be returning in the spring of 2012 to teach in the English Department.

When asked to recall some favorite memories, Holmgren had difficulty picking just one or two.

“There are so many wonderful memories, I couldn’t pick just one,” she said. “I love the art openings, the sporting events, the creative writing readings and classes I’ve taught.”

As Holmgren transitions to a life outside of the President’s Office, her successor, Alecia DeCoudreaux will be stepping into the role of President this Fall.

“I wish her well,” Holmgren said. “I hope she gets as much gratification from this work as I do.”

Bonnie Horgos
and Nicole Vermeer contributed to this report.

More photos below. Courtesy of The Quarterly and the Mills yearbook Crest.




For more related posts, check out our Commencement page.