SAN FRANCISCO — Ely Daley, a studio arts major minoring in chemistry is in their senior year at Mills College in Oakland. Daley had never heard of the school until they moved to Oakland from Houston about eight years ago and one of their roommates dated someone in Mills’s dance program. Daley applied and was accepted.

Daley likes the school for a lot of reasons — the large studio spaces open all day and night, the excellent faculty, and the small student body, which means a lot of attention and time with those faculty members. Studying chemistry, Daley particularly wanted to go to a women’s college. “Being in the sciences in a coed environment, men dominate the scene,” Daley said. “You don’t get a lot of chances to assert your intelligence.”

Daley was shocked when they got an email from the president’s office on March 17, saying that due to “economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic, structural changes across higher education, and Mills’ declining enrollment and budget deficits, Mills must begin to shift away from being a degree-granting college and toward becoming a Mills Institute that can sustain Mills’ mission.” The college will stop admitting new students in the fall of this year and expects that 2023 is the last year it will give out degrees. With admission at the college having fallen about 40% in the last 10 years, leaving about 900 students, and a deficit of $3 million, the trustees say they have no choice.

“It completely felt like it was out of nowhere,” Daley said. “I’ve known that Mills has been struggling financially and we all knew that Mills was having a hard time with COVID, but it feels insane.”

Spring Fling, Reg Fest (2017) (photo by Teresa Tam)

Mills College, known for its spirit of innovation and its fiercely dedicated alumni (who include Congresswoman Barbara Lee, musician Laurie Anderson, and artist and author Jade Snow Wong), was founded in 1852, just two years after California became a state. It was the first women’s college to offer a computer science major in 1974 and to have a transgender-inclusive admissions policy in 2014. More than half of the student body identifies as LGBTQ, 65% are students of color, and more than 40% are first-generation students.

Like Daley, many students, faculty members, and alumni expressed shock that the college would close after 169 years. 

Another senior, Mara Thwaites-Albers, said she was heartbroken by the news. Thwaites-Albers, who studies art history and has taken a studio arts class every semester, called Mills a “magical, beautiful school,” and said she loved the light-filled studios, the two darkrooms, and the art museum on campus.

Mills College Art Museum (image courtesy Mills College)

The museum attracted alumna Leila Weefur, who got an MFA in studio art there after going to Howard University and California State University, Los Angeles. Weefur, whose mother attended Mills, worked as a docent at the museum and helped to digitize the collection there. “Most art schools don’t have the space or resources dedicated to archiving history,” Weefur said. “I mean, the museum used to be a ballroom.”

People in the arts department are known as the “Mills mafia,” Weefur said. “Once you graduate, you stay connected. I’m still friends with a lot of faculty and even current students.”

One of those friends is Kathleen Walkup, who has been at the school since 1978, and heads the renowned book arts program, offering the only graduate degree in book arts and creative writing in the country. Walkup was planning on retiring this year, so her job isn’t on the line, but she’s having a hard time conceiving of a world without the college and its innovative music and dance departments, along with the visual arts program.

“Mills has a very deep and rich and complex history in the arts and the awareness of that has been lost over past few years,” Walkup said. “To be quite honest, this is just killing me.”

Painting studio at Mills College (image courtesy Mills College)

Theresa Whitehill, who went to Mills for two years in the ’80s says she applies what she learned at Mills in the book art program every day in her work as a publisher, writer, and graphic designer. “I feel like my whole foundation is being ripped out from under me,” she said. “Mills set me on path I’m on and gave me a great structure to organize my creative energy.”

Whitehill described the college as having that rare combination of rigor and exploration. “You could walk across campus and hear gamelan music on instruments students had built themselves, or you could participate in a crazy video performance,” she said. “It looks like a stuffy Eastern college, but there’s a lot of innovation and encouragement.”

In 1990, hundreds of students occupied the campus, successfully reversing a decision by the board of trustees to admit men in the undergraduate program, and now many people associated with Mills hope for another reversal.

An open letter to the Mills College Board of Trustees signed by the 14 people on the Faculty Executive & Academic Promotion and Tenure Committee on behalf of Mills faculty reads, “This action comes without any due consultation with the faculty, abrogating the norms of shared governance that are essential to successful institutions of higher education.”

Improv Music Class (photo by Steve Babuljak)

The school has met with faculty groups to try to figure out what an institute will look like, Mills President Elizabeth Hillman told Hyperallergic, and they are looking at different models. She says the institute will have the same mission the college did.

“Those include offering transformative learning and research opportunities to artists, to scholars, to students,” Hillman said. “It also has to advance women’s leadership opportunities  and to advance racial and gender equity.”

Students like Thwaites-Albers say there’s no way an institute can offer what the college has. “I think that the loss of Mills is really shameful,” she said. “It’s another example of this loss of care for young people and those who want to shake things up.”

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...

One reply on “Mills College, a Pioneer in the Arts, Closes After 169 Years”

  1. So sad to see this – I heard so many great poetry readings and concerts there in the 80’s and 90’s. John Cage taught briefly at Mills. Great story Emily.

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