Contact: Roger Sparks
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MILLS COLLEGE FACULTY LEVELS VOTE OF NO CONFIDENCE
OAKLAND, CA, May 3, 2021: By evening Monday May 3, the voting faculty of Mills College in Oakland, CA voted overwhelmingly to pass a resolution of no confidence (73% voted in favor of the resolution, 16% voted no, and 11% abstained) against the Mills College Provost and Dean of the Faculty, Chinyere (Julia) Oparah, President Elizabeth Hillman, and the Executive Committee of the Mills Board of Trustees.
The Mills faculty action was prompted by the administration’s bombshell announcement of March 17 that Mills, the first women’s college west of the Rockies and now in its 169th year, would cease functioning as a degree-granting institution as of 2023.
The second incitement was the news that the administration and Board plan to direct the college’s endowment, currently in excess of two hundred million dollars, to a “Mills Institute” that alumnae/i and faculty say is defined by both nebulous purpose and the absence of degree-granting power.
According to Professor David Bernstein, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, the no confidence vote “is a formal, public rejection by voting faculty of the actions being undertaken by college leaders. The faculty call for a halt of the March 17 plans for closure, a sweeping overhaul of board oversight and college administration, and a wholesale reorganization of institutional management, including the college endowment.”
The document levels twelve particulars of mismanagement at the college president, her administration, and the Board. It also alludes to failures in recent years that underscore a pattern of structural and oversight failures.
Among the most glaring of these was the 2017 declaration of financial emergency, executed by then newly-appointed president Elizabeth Hillman at the behest of the Board. This action led to a reduction in lifetime earnings for tenured faculty, particularly junior faculty, cessation of retirement fund contributions by the college and the suspension of the College handbook—the document that serves as the contract between administration and faculty and provides for shared governance between teaching and administration.
The ultimate body blow, however, was the administration’s unprecedented action of closing departments, such as philosophy, and firing five tenured faculty, while causing the resignations of several others. This was the first of a series of extreme measures under a Financial Stabilization Plan (FSP) designed to reduce spending and control faculty interference. Its immediate impact was to incite fear throughout faculty ranks and to quash shared governance.
As historian Hank Reichman, writing for the American Association of University Professors in its “Academe” blog, wrote at the time, what was “perhaps most striking about the Mills administration’s actions has been its near-total refusal to involve the faculty in planning or to consider faculty opinion.”
Nowhere has that been so total, say faculty, than in the lead up to the March news of closure.
While the no-confidence vote has no legal muscle to compel the board or college administration to step down or otherwise alter the plans to shut Mills, the faculty says it felt compelled to take this step because the fight goes beyond the college gates–it has broad civic repercussions that the public deserves to understand. These include the growing attack on small liberal arts colleges, which are a vital part of the higher education ecosystem–places where first generation students, marginalized populations, and non-conformists can thrive amid dedicated faculty who support student-centered education and self-discovery.
According to details in a late March statement by faculty leaders, Mills stands out as an Hispanic-serving institution, with a majority population of students of color, and made history as the first women’s college in the country to admit trans and gender-fluid students. As alumna and attorney Alexa Pagonas, one of the key forces in the SaveMills coaltion, sees it, “The founding goal of educating miners’ daughters in the Sierra foothills has been reimagined in recent years through a potent social justice stance that threads throughout the curriculum and public-facing events.”
The disposition of the 135 acres site is also of immediate civic interest. It serves as a natural reservoir for the neighboring area with the confluence of three streams and the formation of marshy Lake Aliso, created when the college dammed Lion Creek in order to promote a constant rate of water flow through the land. This creek drains Laundry Canyon and the former Leona sulphur quarry—once an iron pyrite mine–nearby.
Mills’ stellar, often pathbreaking alumni tell the story of Mills global purpose, from US Congresswoman Barbara Lee to BART Board member Lateefah Simon (the youngest woman to win a MacArthur fellowship) to Grateful Dead drummer Phil Lesh to choreographer Trisha Brown to composer Steve Reich and Dina Kawar, permanent representatitve to Jordan at the UN.
The faculy Monday evening report that they took action that they hope preserves Mills College as a singular Institution that Oakland, the Bay Area, the country, and the world cannot afford to lose.
MOTION: THE FACULTY OF MILLS COLLEGE HAVE NO CONFIDENCE IN THE LEADERSHIP OF PROVOST CHINYERE (JULIA) OPARAH, PRESIDENT ELIZABETH HILLMAN, AND THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF MILLS COLLEGE.
We, the Faculty Executive and Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure Committees, and members of the faculty, hereby state our concerns regarding the leadership of the College.
The following Statement of Particulars will support a motion for a vote of No Confidence at the Faculty Meeting on May 3, 2021:
Whereas, the Provost, President, and Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees have shown a lack of a meaningful vision for a future of the College that can move us forward with strength and conviction;
Whereas, the administration and Board of Trustees’ Financial Stabilization Plan, implemented in 2017, and subsequent MillsNext Strategic Plan have failed to reduce our budget deficit despite unprecedented layoffs of tenured faculty;
Whereas, there has been a steady erosion of shared governance resulting from the President and Provost’s consistent refusal to engage in meaningful collaboration with a majority of faculty on College affairs or to act on ideas put forward by faculty;
Whereas, faculty ideas and efforts to address our financial crisis have been dismissed in sum and efforts to build new programs, innovate, or ensure better student services have been obstructed by administrative leadership changes, poor staff morale, and the distraction of weak leadership;
Whereas, a rapid series of resignations in College leadership in Academic Affairs, the Provost’s Office, Institutional Advancement, Finance, and in other areas have created tremendous instability, strangling efforts to move forward in problem-solving issues that face the College;
Whereas, the Mills Board of Trustees announced on March 17, 2021 that Mills would cease as a degree-granting institution in Spring 2023, a decision made without warning and without faculty consultation;
Whereas, instead of granting degrees, the College will be transformed into a still undefined Institute, funded by Mills’ endowment in an illegal violation of founders’ and donors’ intent;
Whereas, a primary mission of the College is to educate students of color, LGBTQ students, women and nonbinary students, and students with financial insecurities, the faculty believes strongly that using the endowment to maintain Mills as a degree-granting institution is vastly superior to using the endowment to support an institute that offers no academic degree;
Whereas, the announcement of the College’s closure was not accompanied by a plan to address student curricular and extra-curricular needs and faculty and staff employment; the resulting sharp declines in enrollment caused unnecessary stress, anxiety, and financial and emotional hardship for students, staff, and faculty;
Whereas, the Provost’s office has already begun a process of cancelling classes for the fall, which will potentially result in the termination of employment for some faculty as soon as this summer and fails to recognize that faculty should not be made to bear the costs of low enrollments caused by a decision made without faculty participation;
Whereas, we have little confidence that a still to be envisioned Institute can reflect the historical legacy of Mills, or carry out Mills’ mission in accordance with the founders’ wishes; and
Whereas, faculty seek leadership that is aligned with the values and academic mission of Mills College as a degree-granting institution that enhances access to higher education.
Faculty believe that the issues in this letter are cause for grave concern; therefore:
Resolved, that the Faculty of Mills College have no confidence in the leadership of Provost Chinyere (Julia) Oparah, President Elizabeth Hillman, and the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees. We call for the immediate resignation of the President and Provost, as well as the replacement of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees and their replacement with leadership that will (1) suspend the announcement of March 17; (2) halt the cancellation of classes; and (3) enter into externally facilitated negotiations with the Faculty to evaluate different plans for the future of the College.