Mills proposes faculty, department cuts amid community outcry
By Jeanita Lyman on June 15, 2017
As most Mills students take a break from academic rigors over the summer, preparing themselves for the work to come in the fall, decisions underway by college officials could mean students will come back to a drastically different academic landscape next semester. With the proposed elimination of departments such as philosophy, journalism, government, and physics, as well as the potential dismissal of numerous ranked faculty, many students are left with uncertainty about what impacts these changes could have when classes resume.
On June 6, rumors throughout the Mills community about the elimination of faculty and departments following Mills’ declaration of a financial emergency in May were confirmed when close to a dozen ranked faculty members were sent letters notifying them of their potential termination. Under Mills’ current financial stabilization plan, the following ranked faculty are set to be terminated starting July 1.
The faculty and their departments are listed as follows:
Associate Professor Vivian Chin, Ethnic Studies
Professor Stephen Ratcliffe, English
Professor Sarah Pollock, English and Journalism
Professor Wah Cheng, History
Professor Marc Joseph, Philosophy
Associate Professor Jay Gupta, Philosophy
Associate Professor Judith Bishop, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Professor Roscoe Mitchell, Music
Professor David Keeports, Chemistry and Physics
Professor Fred Lawson, Government
(An additional professor who wishes to remain anonymous is also proposed for dismissal.)
The news came weeks after the Board of Trustees, in an effort to close the school’s current deficit, declared Mills to be in a financial state of emergency and laid out steps for reducing costs in a May 16 press release.
In addition to individual faculty members, changes under Mills’ proposed financial stabilization plan would include the elimination of entire programs. In a June 12 meeting held by President Beth Hillman, and Provost and Dean of Faculty Chinyere Oparah, it was noted that on the undergraduate level, this would include the major and minor in philosophy, as well as minors in government, religious studies, and physics. Graduate programs in both mathematics and translation are also proposed to be eliminated under the FSP.
As the word spread, community members took to social media, as well as more traditional news outlets, to express their opinions about the potential loss of longstanding, beloved faculty members and programs. Coverage of the cuts emerged in local outlet Mercury News, as well as the Daily Nous, a philosophy news site. Inside Higher Ed continued their coverage of Mills’ financial emergency, and KQED picked up the story of Professor of Music Roscoe Mitchell’s possible layoff and the outcry from students, faculty, alumnae and musicians that ensued.
Letter writing and petitions were other steps taken by the community to mobilize and express their concern. An open letter addressed to Hillman, Oparah, and Chair of the Board of Trustees Katie Sanborn against the dismissal of Mitchell amassed hundreds of signatures from students, musicians and educators worldwide by the time it closed on June 12. Petitions in support of Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Mills alum Vivian Chin, as well as Professor of English and Journalism Sarah Pollock, (who advises The Campanil) remain open.
In addition, Mills philosophy alumna Maja Sidzinksa launched a petition calling for the college not to ratify the FSP, but instead consider a counter proposal created by several faculty members that would cut instructional costs without eliminating departments and faculty members.
“To me the most galling thing is that we have an alternative plan,” Mills Professor of Economics Roger Sparks said. “I think that’s what makes the case for these faculty members pretty strong.”
While cuts under the FSP are projected to provide the college with approximately $1.5 million in saving on instructional expenses, savings in the counter proposal is projected at between $1.5 million and $2 million. In a survey of a group of 70 faculty members created by Sparks, he said 70 percent favored the counter proposal over the FSP. The plan is drafted by Sparks, who credits Professor of Computer Science Barbara Li Santi and Professor of Sociology Dan Ryan with the ideas behind it.
“The administration hasn’t given very many arguments,” Sparks said. “The only argument they have is that the FSP makes more permanent changes than the alternative plan. But the alternative proposal does have its share of permanent changes.”
Sparks notes that the counter proposal contains some of the same permanent changes the FSP does. However, permanence isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“More importantly, it’s kind of a red herring to talk about permanent changes being good and temporary changes being bad,” Sparks said.
Lack of permanence could be beneficial, given that it’s unknown how the college’s plans to create partnerships with other institutions and increase enrollment will manifest and affect operations moving forward.
“If we plan to bring in more students yet layoff faculty, we can’t very easily respond to increased enrollment,” Sparks said.
While the proposed elimination of the journalism and philosophy departments, as well as the potential loss of world-renowned musician Roscoe Mitchell, are notable aspects of the FSP that have dominated a great deal of discourse, they aren’t the only proposals that trouble students, faculty and alumni. According to Emily Harmon, a senior history major with a concentration in Asian history, losing Professor of History Wah Cheng would hurt the school not just in the loss of a valuable mentor and community member, but in the loss of a much needed expert in Asian history.
“To lose Wah as a professor would mean that the history department would lose all Asian history classes,” Harmon said. “Asian history is otherwise brought up only when it applies to European or American history. When that occurs, we only get very little information and, truth be told, it is important to understand and know history from all sides, otherwise the information you are given is biased and skewed.”
Losing an expert in Asian history would be more than just a slight blow to interested students. Under the FSP, the Asian studies minor is also set to be restructured into a Chinese minor that would lead to a professional certification.
The potential loss of Professor of Government Fred Lawson, as well as the government minor itself, are other sources of shock for some students. According to senior international relations major Irena Huang, a longtime student of Lawson’s, his collaborative classroom environment and ability to engage students in his own research areas will be sorely missed if the FSP is ratified.
“If they really were foolish enough to let go of this gem of a professor, the Mills community is going to suffer,” Huang said. “In this time, we need experts in government and international relations more than ever, and Fred knows Middle East politics in a discerning, incisive way that students need to learn from. They better not have let go Fred Lawson– I challenge them to find a better academic or sweeter man.”
The Board of Trustees is currently set to hold two meetings later in the month before ratifying the decisions laid out in the FSP. The first is planned to be at 10 a.m. on June 22 in GSB 101, and the Board will hear additional comments from constituents between 11 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. before entering a closed executive session.
The second and final meeting before the Board of Trustees makes their decision is on June 26.
Stay tuned for more updates by The Campanil as they become available.
This story has been updated on June 19 to include the most recent information regarding the upcoming Board of Trustees meeting and to correct an error in the list of affected programs. The journalism program has not been slated for elimination according to Mills’ administration, but the director of the program and adviser to the Campanil, Sarah Pollock, has received notice of her potential layoff. We regret the error and will provide more updates as they become available.