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Remaining staff reflect on former colleagues

Around 3:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon Kim Baranek sat in her office in the Cowell Building, checking her email.  Baranek, an employee since August 2009, currently serves Mills students as the Director of Wellness and Community Outreach, and is also the Advisor to the Community Health Resource Center.  Last year she was named Student Organization Advisor of the Year.

Today, her inbox contained an email from President DeCoudreaux, as did all Mills inboxes.  The subject line read:  ‘Positions Eliminated 11/30/11.’

“’Each employee was given four weeks pay in lieu of notice,’” she read aloud from the email, her voice detached as she still seemed visibly shaken.  “’This is consistent with the College’s policy and is in adherence with best employment practices.’”

Although Baranek herself was not “eliminated,” she was told by Dean of Student Life, Dr. Joi Lewis at the 10 AM meeting Wednesday morning, Nov. 30, she would be demoted to ‘Coordinator of Wellness and Community Outreach’ and would be taking a pay cut — almost a third of her currently salary — effective July 1st of next year.  In addition to the pay cut, she will only be employed by the College eleven months of the year from now onwards.

Among those who were laid off were other Cowell-dwellers under the Division of Student Life, Director of Services for Students with Disabilities Jess Miller, and Director of Career Services Kate Dey.

“Jess and Kate are like family to me,” said Baranek.  A box of tissues sat nearby her computer.  “I’m grieving right now.”

Baranek was hired to replace 2 employees — part-time physicians from UC Berkeley — when the College switched from Berekeley-based healthcare to Kaiser and shortly after completing her graduate degree in Public Health at SF State.

“I felt very connected to the College experience having just graduated,” Baranek said.  “Being able to support other people in doing that and provide support of the whole person on a holistic level — that’s really what I want to do.”

Because of the layoffs and her pay cut, Baranek is unsure if she will continue to be able work at Mills.  However, she said her door would remain open and that her commitment would be unwavering while she remained in her position.

These “staffing shifts,” as they were referred to in the official memorandum sent out to the student body by Dr. Joi Lewis, instantly spurred a backlash from students, as those fired and demoted are viewed by many members of the Mills community past and present as integral people at the College — all of them active within the Student Services Department.

Among those laid off was Dr. Gina M. Rosabal, the Director of Social Justice Initiatives and co-director of the SAW program (Summer Academic Workshop), a four-week residential program created for first-generation college students and students of color.

Rosabal, an Oakland native, formerly held tenure in Women’s Studies at Mankato State University, which is a branch of the University of Minnesota.  Her academic and professional expertise center around curriculum diversification, disability studies, social justice education and pedagogy and critical race theory.

Many new Mills students meet her during their first week, as she leads a workshop which examines intersectionality — the idea that identity components such as race, class, gender, ability, etc., interact on multiple and simultaneous levels — as well as power and privilege.

“If it wasn’t for SAW, if it wasn’t for athletics, if it wasn’t for Gina, if it wasn’t for Kate, I would not be at Mills today,” said Kirie Lange during the emergency meeting held by students shortly after word got out about the layoffs and pay cuts on Wednesday, Nov. 30.

Lange’s statement was followed by a “likewise” and lots of approving snaps from the crowd of students who had gathered.

“Gina does amazing social justice workshops for our students.  She’s changed my life too,” said Mandy Benson, who served as Acting Director of Student Activities Office until about 4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2, when she resigned after a meeting with Dr. Lewis.

Lewis had called Benson into her office to reprimand her for sharing a flowchart showing the new distribution of positions in the Division of Student Life with a student worker, who also resigned shortly after being confronted by Lewis.  The flow chart illustrated some of the positions from which individuals had been laid off would be replaced by new individuals, and that new Assistant Deans would be appointed.  This information brings into question the “cutting costs” reasoning being repeated by Lewis as well as President DeCoudreaux.

In the meeting prior to her resignation, Lewis told Benson her actions were unethical.

“I told her that it was unethical to lie to students,” Benson said in a phone interview around 6 p.m., only two hours after her resignation.  “Knowledge is power, and students need to be empowered.”

Benson explained that another factor in her decision to spread the information was that she had been offered another job at another nearby university.  She received  the offer on 4 p.m. Wednesday, after the layoffs and after being told she would have to re-apply for the position she currently holds in July, participating in a nation-wide search.

“Knowing I had a job to go to helped me take that risk,” she said.

Kate Dey, the Director of Campus Career Services, was also let go on Wednesday, Nov. 30, and the memorandum from Lewis announced that Career Services would no longer be its own department, but would instead come under the domain of the Human Resources Department.

“Kate always stood up to social injustices and constantly advocated for Mills students and her staff,” said Neepa Parikh, a Mills College Career Counselor and Mills alumna.  “She fought many battles behind the scenes to ensure that students were getting the best career services. I truly believe that Kate helped me find my own voice and helped me to realize my potential and worth.”

A bay area transplant from New York City, Dey was hired as an intern at the College nine years ago and gradually worked her way up to the position of Director of Career Services.  Since 2008, she has maintained a blog focusing mainly on career advice.

In addition to her position with Career Services, she also served as the Sophomore Class Advisor.

“No matter what challenges came her way, she approached her work with a wicked and infectious sense of humor. I cannot imagine Mills without her,” said Parikh.

Another department being downsized is Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD), as Director Jess Miller was also fired.  Miller has worked at Mills for three years, and was the only official staff member of SSD.  Her position will now fall under the responsibilities of Kennedy Golden, who already serves as Associate Director of Operations in the Division of Student Life.  20 percent of Mills students utilize SSD’s various services including note taking and test taking arrangements, and many other students had met Jess outside of her office, as Miller took a different course at Mills each semester.

“I wouldn’t be here without Jess Miller,” said senior Kate Smith, during the student meeting Wednesday evening.

Students also expressed their gratitude for Miller on the Students in Solidarity with Staff at Mills College’s Facebook page.

“When I couldn’t get it together and stay on track and balance my personal junk, Jess helped me come up with a study plan and kept me on task,” wrote student Desi Cortijo.

The official memorandum asserts that these “staffing shifts” are about the positions and not the people, but students at the Nov. 30 meeting did not agree. Lange pointed out that as some of those who were fired were older, they would have a harder time finding new work in an ageist industry.

ASMC President and Mills senior Modesta Tamayo felt the layoffs on Nov. 30 were familiar to other business models which cut costs by firing and then re-hiring.

“You fire the person in the position and then what you do is you bring back that position at a lower scale for pay,” she said.

The announcement of faculty furloughs earlier in the semester raised eyebrows, but Wednesday’s layoffs, pay cuts and demotions of such beloved staff members have sparked intense student reaction.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable for an institution to call itself a social justice institution, to market itself as a social justice institution, and fire every social justice position on campus,” said Myles Luber, a senior, at Wednesday’s meeting.

Before her resignation, Benson expressed support for her colleagues.

“What a great loss it is to the College to lose such amazing, organized and brilliant people,” she said.  “They’ll never get that much work out of anybody else.  Those people didn’t work for a paycheck, they worked for the students.”

This sentiment was echoed by Baranek in her office Wednesday afternoon.

“They are not replaceable,” she said.  “Yesterday was a really tough day.  I’m still having a rough time, but all the student support, on Facebook and everywhere else, helps lessen the blow.”

Hundreds of students have since collaborated to post in writing and video the ways these individuals have touched their lives, which can be found on Student Solidarity With Staff at Mills College’s Facebook Page.