During the Spring 2016 semester, Mills College’s Presidential Search Committee unanimously voted to elect Elizabeth Hillman as the new president of the College. Hillman’s appointment to the position was announced March 2, after former President Alecia DeCoudreaux stepped down. Hillman has four degrees: a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Duke University, a doctorate in history from Yale University, a master’s in history for the University of Pennsylvania, and a professional doctorate in law from Yale. On July 1, Hillman took the helm of leading Mills, and she states she is excited to spend a long and fulfilling tenure at the College.
The Campanil sat down with Hillman to ask her about her new role.
The Campanil: What have your first few months at Mills been like?
Elizabeth Hillman: Exciting. It’s been great fun to be on campus, both at work and at home. It’s been fun to be on campus both with my family and in my work life; it’s a new convergence for me.
TC: How is your family settling in?
EH: My family is settling in and is excited to be here, too. My wife, Trish is excited to have so much art and culture around her, and she’s very happy. The kids have … just gone back to school this week [in the Berkeley school district] … One thing I also want to mention about Mills is that it does matter that we’re a women’s college in terms of the people here…It’s an extraordinary thing for Trish and me to have four daughters and we’re here on a campus where there are so many women leaders. That’s a very different environment than I’ve been in before, and I love it.
TC: Have you attempted to reach out and connect with the students and faculty in any special way?
EH: I have. At some points in my tenure, I know I’ll be on the road more, but right now I’m here and trying to learn about Mills, and the best people to learn about Mills from are the people who are here and who have been here. So I have been reaching out. We’ve had students to dinner. I’ve had lunch with students, and I’ve taken tours of campus that are run by our student ambassadors. I just run into students around campus at different points in time, and I’m grateful for that opportunity. More intentional outreach to students will happen as everyone settles in a bit more. I’ve been more programmed in my outreach to the people here over the summer – our staff, our faculty as they return a little bit before students return, and I expect to be seeing more students as the semester progresses. I’ve seen a lot of students already.
TC: Have you learned anything special through these connections, about Mills, about the students here, that has really struck you?
EH: One thing I realized before I met any students was that [the] students are what people love about Mills. So I came to my interactions with Mills students with very high expectations, and I have found our students to be powerful and ready to challenge us, and [they’re] very engaged with their world and their work as students here, engaged in their learning. That’s one of the distinctive things that many people talk about, that Mills is a place where people really care, and that means the students really care about the topics they’re studying, about the ways they can have an impact here at Mills and then outside. Many students have talked to me about their connections to Oakland and how important it is to them that they’re here and that they want us to do more. I appreciate that.
TC: What do you have in store for Mills in terms of furthering our commitment to social justice, not only on campus, but also in Oakland?
EH: I’m still getting a sense of what’s already happening here and of what the community needs from us, meeting with community leaders, understanding the initiatives already under way to building bridges to educational success in the communities around us, like the Helman Scholar’s Program, the SAW program, even the GE girls program … working with our faculty and staff to encourage their interest in science and technology. I see the location that we’re in is very much an asset of Mills.
TC: Do you have any plans for Mills, things you would like to improve upon?
EH: The big thing I need to help us figure out is how to be sustainable. Not so much that we change our specific impact in terms of making change in the world. During the orientation program for new students, it talked specifically about that as a process, that it’s about a recognition of self and the world around us and trying to better understand different perspectives and move towards a more equitable allocation of resources. That’s certainly something Mills has worked to do and has grown leaders who are committed to doing in the past, and is doing now. To me, what Mills needs me to do now is find a way to sustain that into the future, and so I’m more focused on finding a way that we can continue to do the kind of work that we’re doing, do more, do better in ways that we can actually continue without the sense of peril that we’ve had at times. Higher education is under a lot of pressure to adapt to a different cost structure, and Mills is playing on that same field. I’d like to create a sense of stability. In that hierarchy of needs, you need the basic needs of a person to be met before you can be fully realized and seek to grow. Institutions are the same way. We need to stabilize so we can blossom again.
TC: Have you been able to sit in on any classes and see learning at Mills happen?
EH: No, not yet. But I have visited the research labs and talked to students doing research over the summer. I’ve scheduled some presentations from students to see some of their research. I’ve looked at syllabi. I’ve heard from students about how excited they are to take certain classes, and from faculty who are every bit as excited about the classes that they’re teaching this term.
TC: Is there anything you would like to say directly to the Mills community?
EH: I came to Mills with a purpose; I expect to be here for a long time. I think the world needs a place like Mills, and I think that we can figure out how to do that when we work collectively on solving the problems that we face. We always want to improve on everything. I’d like to make a Mills education more accessible, more affordable. I’d like to give the faculty the resources they need to produce and create new knowledge and to serve as the kind of inspiration to students that students expect them to be. I’d like to build bridges for students for career opportunities and to have a genuine impact on communities. I’d like to give students multiple pathways to do what they want to do.