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Holmgren Q & A: her life as president, the College’s enrollment and finances

President Janet Holmgren shared her history as leader of Mills College for nearly two decades, her knowledge of the College’s financial situation and her thoughts on leadership with Campanil reporters. She revealed the challenges she faced and the successes she won during her time as president.

Campanil Staff: How would you define the two decades of your presidency?

President Janet Holmgren: “I see the last decade, the 21st century, as a time of building and really having come to terms with owning our mission and owning the ways in which we will develop that mission and, in a sense, I’ve seen it as a time of empowering Mills. I didn’t come here as a ‘bricks and mortar’ president. In fact, in the earlier stages of my campaign as academic leader and an intellectual I was often a little bit, not scornful, but certainly skeptical about building buildings. … I’ve seen that in the last 10 years that building the endowment, building the student body, building the buildings — it’s all an investment in empowering Mills as an institution. So I would say that there was a decade of consolidation and articulation of our purpose and opening up some of the areas where we had not been as successful and a period of really making that solid and building on it and making it more powerful.”

CS: What were some challenges you faced during your time as president?

JH: “There were many issues that we had to address and re-frame. Issues around diversity that Mills did not have a good track record with. It was very early on that it was apparent to me that to have less than three percent of your faculty as people of color is simply not being ready for educating students in the way we wanted to be ready. We had many very intense meetings among the faculty and students. We had many discussions among the alumnae and the Board. We really transformed the Board in terms of the leadership and the sense of direction; transformed the faculty. Students have been really strong participants of this process.

“I think one of the first things I did as president was say that we had to put sexual orientation into our affirmative action policy because it was the right thing to do and because it was very important for us to have that sense at Mills of who we are. And what we really are about is education and intellectual and moral growth and so we allow our whole community to be self-defining and appreciating in terms of the way we approach questions.

“I think the Strike, which happened a year before I came, was a wake-up call to our alumnae, to our support community, to a wider community to say, ‘If this institution is going to thrive, it has to be supported, the mission has to be articulated, the argument for why it is important to focus on women has to be clear and that’s what we are going to go forward in doing in this time.’”

CS: What are your feelings towards Mills as an institution?

JH: “I think the fact that I want to continue to be associated with Mills is a really good indication of how much I love the institution and how strong I think it is.”

CS: What does the president do for the College?

JH: “A president has to be someone who can shape the messages and also talk to a wide variety of constituencies; make the money come in and raise the money – and set high standards, very high standards, for everyone. And the president also has to tell the story.

“People say presidency is like being mayor of a small town — not exactly because you don’t get elected. I mean, the Board elects you, but you’re not out there everyday trying to maintain yourself in the position, but you do have a very wide range of constituents, and you do have a very important stewardship responsibility. Your responsibility is to take care of the whole body politic, not just yourself or your own aspirations.”

CS: What is a challenge you have faced in leading the College?

JH: “It is a very public position and at the same time people have earnest messages to convey. I used to feel like everybody says they don’t see enough of me: Students say they don’t see enough of me, and the faculty and the alumnae. And then I thought, ‘Well, it’s true.’ I would love to be in four places at one time, and I would like to see more of everyone in the community, but there’s a kind of limitation to what you can do.”

CS: What kind of leadership style did you try to convey at Mills?

JH: “There are presidents who are extremely articulate public speakers and very smart in terms of intellectually directing the institution, but they’re quite introverted and not very interested in interacting with people, so their concept of service is to be the leader. And I think I kind of stand with a foot in each camp. I really love the interactions with people, and, of course, it’s frustrating when you can’t do what people want you to do. But I also have that side of me that is able to stay focused. At the bottom line, I have to be able to see all the pieces and fit them together, so if I only make one appearance in one context, I have to really make it count, and that’s what I have learned. It takes a long time to learn this job, and I don’t know that I actually fully understand it yet, but it’s important to be strategic and thoughtful and also have a sense of humor.”

CS: How did you ensure the academic excellence of the College?

JH: “For me, that focus on academic excellence and also strengthening the financial aid support for students has been key. And the Board has certainly agreed with that; I wouldn’t have stayed if we hadn’t been able to do that and really make it absolutely key. I wanted to strengthen the financial commitment to academic programs by having an emphasis on full time, tenured, tenure-track faculty so students would have the experience of a very solid and creative and topnotch faculty.”

— The above interview was conducted with President Janet Holmgren April 7 by Campanil reporters Lauren Sliter and Jennifer Courtney.