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As Holmgren announces plans to step down, new president should usher in new era

As Mills College nears its 20th anniversary of its recommitment to women’s education, it is an appropriate time to start the search for a president to lead the institution in a new, positive direction.
Janet Holmgren’s presidency, which has spanned nearly two decades, has encompassed many changes to the College. At the start of her career the Board of Trustees had recently made the decision to remain a single-sex institution after a 16-day strike organized by students. Throughout the following years Holmgren has proven her dedication to women’s education and diversity.

At the time of the strike, adminstrators made the decision to go coed largely based on the College’s budget deficit. Even with today’s recessionary economy, Holmgren, who encourages fundraising and modes of generating money, has ensured that Mills stays fiscally sound. Enrollment is at an all-time high, and the amount of applications is also record-breaking. The College is continually recognized nationwide in reports that rank higher education, including U.S. News and World Report and Forbes, which placed Mills in the top 50 colleges in the country.

It is in part because of Holmgren that Mills created new graduate programs in business, public policy and education (and 4+1 programs are a great addition to our academics). Several buildings have been renovated, including Mills Hall, and she has overseen the construction of Vera Long, the Education Complex, the Natural Sciences Building and most recently the Graduate School of Business.

Overall, Mills has flourished, but there is always room for leadership improvement. In Holmgren’s case, two of the largest are in the areas of transparency and managing personnel. Holmgren is known to reward loyalty and act ruthlessly when it comes to firing employees who upset her, usually tying clauses to severance pay packages that forbid those fired from speaking out. In late 2008, controversy arose after she attempted fire much-loved Nancy Thornborrow, Dean of the Graduate School of Business, and students protested in 2007 after then Dean of Students Joanna Iwata was abruptly let go. Professor Margo Okazawa-Rey said Holmgren essentially fired her back in 2005. Holmgren recently announced she is laying off her entire administrative staff because the President’s Office is “restructuring.”

Similarly, lack of transparency does not look well for the College as a whole. In national survey results from 2004 and 2008, Mills faculty said the administration was not open about its policies and the majority said they did not feel involved in campus decision-making. In the 2009 Sustainability Report Card, Mills excelled in most areas of sustainability but received a “F” rating in endowment transparency and shareholder engagement, bringing the total down. Students who work for the Annual Fund report several alums have refused their annual donations in recent years because of Holmgren’s refusal to explain many of her decisions. There is no reason to lose out on alumnae support and college rankings because of a president’s desire for ultimate control and secrecy.

It is time for new leadership, and the upcoming presidential search committee should find a leader who values academic excellence and prestige in the same ways as Holmgren, but the new president should value the importance of interpersonal connections and fostering an environment of inclusiveness instead of the current climate of fear and fragmentation. A president who actually lives and not just entertains in the President’s House would also help the new president to build bonds to the campus community and get to know staff and students on a personal level (Holmgren spends most of her time these days in a private home off campus). As the College has never had a president of color, choosing one might also be a step in its mission to increase diversity.

All in all, Holmgren has had a successful career as president, but it is time for fresh administrative leadership, which should usher in a new era in the College’s future.