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Strike Q & A: Professor John Harris

It was 1990, near the end of the spring semester, when Mills College’s Board of Trustees announced its decision to make the College coeducational. The student body would not have it and after rallying together, convinced the Board to reverse its decision. When Board President Warren Hellman unfurled a banner that read “Mills, for women again,” the shouts of joy were not just heard from students, but from the staff and faculty who helped aid their cause.

Below is an interview with biology professor John Harris, who was not only active in supporting students, but was also chosen by the senior class of 1990 to hand out diplomas instead of President Mary Metz.

Campanil Staff: What was it like to be a professor during the Strike?

Professor John Harris: “I came to Mills in the fall of 1986, so, at the time, I didn’t have tenure…. The Board went through a whole process of planning that year, but the strike itself was a huge surprise.”

CS: How did you calculate grades for those students who did not come to class or take the final due to the Strike?

JH: “I calculated the grades as they were prior to the start of the strike…. I did hold one informal session of class outside because some students expressed an interest in sharing their final projects with each other…. This was not graded.”

— Harris held this informal session of class outside so as not to force students to cross the picket lines in order to meet with him.

CS: You were chosen to hand out diplomas at Commencement that year. What was that like?

JH: “Commencement was totally weird…. That year, I had already been made an honorary member of the senior class and was given a senior pin … so when the Strike happened, senior class officers asked me to read names [of the graduates]. Even though I did not have tenure … I was not worried…. No one really said anything.”

CS: Mary Metz stepped down soon after the strike that year. What did the College do without a president the following school year while the search for a new leader was taking place?

JH: “The Board hired an interim president, Virgina Smith, to serve while they searched for an official replacement for Mary Metz. Holmgren then started in the fall of 1991.”

— According to Harris, it often takes an entire year for an institution to search for and hire a president to lead the College, which is why the Board appointed Smith as an interim president.

CS: Was there any kind of resentment among the faculty after the reversal was announced?

JH: “There might of been some people after who thought it was a mistake…. Personally, I do not know anyone who did not step up [and] make things work. Everyone took on the sixth class.”

— The “sixth class” that Harris refers to above was the extra class all full-time faculty members took on the year after the Strike to save the College money while expanding course offerings. The faculty taught the extra class for a number of years, but now they are back to teaching five.

CS: What was it like the semester following the Strike? Were things different? How so?

JH: “There was more of a sense of empowerment … [and] willingness to get involved.”

CS: Is the College as an institution extremely different than it was 20 years ago?

JH: “Mills is certainly in a stronger position now than it was back then.”

Read more related Strike articles here.