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Strike Q & A: President Janet Holmgren

President Janet Holmgren speaking at the Strike Anniversary event in May 2010. (Melodie Miu)

A year after the Strike, Janet Holmgren took hold of the challenges and issues that arose after students and faculty fought to keep Mills College a women’s institution. Holmgren sat down with The Campanil to discuss her legacy as president proceeding the Strike and how it prompted the school to emerge as a leader in women’s education.

What was your leadership agenda upon becoming president?

My leadership agenda when I became president, which was a year after the Strike, was to strengthen Mills as a women’s college, to make Mills more diverse throughout the institution and to reassure the world and certainly our own community that Mills was going to remain a women’s college and become a national powerhouse academically and in every other way as a women’s college.

I have continued to have been amazed and awed by the Mills women I have gotten to know. I have been in the classroom for the 16 of the 19 years as President, I have been gotten the chance to get to know students on a regular bases. I am very proud of what we have done to build academic programs, what we have done to expand opportunities for students of the undergraduate and graduate levels. I am especially proud of the fact that Mills has taken on more graduate educational opportunities specifically focusing on women like Public Policy and the Business School, because I believe those are some of the areas that are certainly overlooked in terms of women’s development and passion. I think Mills and I have been a good fit, and I certainly have and I do love what I do. I am a Mills woman.

Did you hear about strike while working at Princeton University? What were your thoughts?

I was in my home in Princeton and I was Vice-Provost and my daughters were 7 and 11 at the time. I was making dinner and I heard the television was going on about making this announcement form Mills College in Oakland, California on one of the national news networks. And I was very curious, and I heard this uproar, and I walked in and saw these women with their banners and their incredible passion and commitment and I just cheered. I called in my daughters into the room and told them to take a look at this and then I actually started to cry. It was very, very moving to me. And I know many women from around the country and the world said the same thing to me, that they had an experience when they read the story or they saw it on television. This is something that moved their hearts that yes, yes this is good for women to stand up for women and it is good to stand up for an education and opportunities, and an institution for women.

How did the Strike define Mills as a women’s college compared to other women’s colleges? What made the College different in leading women’s education?

I believe that the strike was an affirmation of women’s values and women’s worth and the importance of women’s voices. Simply to say women would remain important, but Mills would become like other liberal arts colleges, would have really betrayed the history of this College and would have comprised the future. And it is absolutely not the case that we should be excluding men. But the way all of our systems work in our country, and in higher education as well, if you aren’t focused on women, you lose women’s voices. Because women’s voices get dropped out so we had and Mills had the opportunity to say “Yes, we are strong, and we will stay strong as a women’s college.”

Why is women’s education important now during the 21st century? How has your leadership at Mills defined that leadership?

I can give you an example from a conservation I had and it was with a company that does financial management and advice. This company is relatively young and when I was looking at it to evaluate its leadership, I noticed that all of the top people were men and all the next level people were women. And I asked since it was a relatively young company, what is your plan? Because this would not be acceptable at Mills to have this structure. And the person responded that it was fact in the financial industry that men have the leadership position. And that is why we need a women’s college; we need a women’s college because more than ever women are getting educated, women are in the work force. They are the lead educators in the home as well.

And women need to be acknowledged at the top levels of leadership in all areas: nonprofits, teaching, science, politics … And we need a model that really says that women belong at the table, in the boardroom, and in the white house. And too often there is a context that women as half of the population, we’re usually the population that supports the other half instead of being the ones taking the leadership role. We need an institution like Mills because we are going to give the very best opportunities to women.

Do you think Mills students are still as active in supporting women’s issues and education as the women in 1991?

I think Mills women are more active. I think every year I see an increase in what I like to call a “seriousness of purpose,” a sense of taking full advantage of this environment and these opportunities to grow. I certainly think the women of 1990 felt very strongly but the whole institution wasn’t mobilized behind them to say “We are partners, we are really excited and we are connected in this work” and for the last 19 to 20 years that’s the Mills effort. And I think every class has a greater degree of energy about it.

You know, I use to meet students that would say they didn’t really know Mills was a women’s college and they didn’t understand what a women’s college was. And I think many of those women in 1990, they had come kind of in spite of or for other reasons. And they got that passion. Now I think more students are coming to Mills because it is a women’s college and because it is such high-quality that they want to get that special benefit and contribute back to it. So that has been a change.