Margo Okazawa-Rey, visiting women’s studies professor and director of the Women’s Leadership Institute, will not have her three-year contract renewed at the end of this semester.
The decision came as a shock to Okazawa-Rey who resigned from her tenured position at San Francisco State University to come to Mills.
“I came here to do a job…I felt this opportunity with Mills was my chance to do things differently. To try experiments with different ways of thinking, teaching, engaging with students and the community,” said Okazawa-Rey.
According to Okazawa-Rey, during a meeting with President Janet Holmgren in the fall of 2004, she was told that her three-year contract would not be renewed because she was “not a good fit for Mills.” Okazawa-Rey said there was no explanation given to determine what Holmgren’s assessment was based upon.
“I had been told several times in the past to ‘keep up the good work, you’re doing a great job,’” Okazawa-Rey said.
In a separate letter written by Holmgren, it was stated that Okazawa-Rey’s contract would not be renewed because there was no money available for the WLI.
Holmgren said that it was determined that the director position for the WLI should be a full-time position. At the present time, there isn’t appropriate funding for such a position, but Holmgren said she is in the process of trying to find a way to keep Okazawa-Rey.
“I really value Margo and want to find ways to keep her connected to the community,” said Holmgren. “I would encourage students to talk to me about what they value and how special Margo is to them.”
Okazawa-Rey’s main role as director was to make connections with the undergraduate curriculum, faculty and students. In the past, according to Okazawa-Rey, the WLI had not been involved in undergraduate life and Holmgren, along with others, felt making that connection was important. This became Okazawa-Rey’s primary focus for the past three years.
As a way of making that connection, she worked with undergraduate women’s studies students on and off campus, getting the students involved in organizations that support women’s rights and empowerment. She is also the advisor for the White Women Allies Against Racism.
“Margo has built very solid bridges between Mills and the wider community. There are so many organizations who know of Mills and support Mills because of Margo,” said associate professor Julia Sudbury. “It will be devastating, I think, when Margo is gone to be able to hold those threads together.”
“Margo is the closest professor I’ve had. Other professors teach from a book—Margo teaches from life,” said women’s studies major Daisy Gonzales, a sophomore. “Women’s studies here at Mills is a joke. They teach like the only valid experience is that of white women. Margo leaving is a huge loss to the department and especially for the students of color.”
Junior Megan Wheelehan said, “Margo has done so much for us. I can’t believe there’s nothing that can be done to keep her here.”
Okazawa-Rey said how she was treated is “emblematic for what happens at Mills to women of color staff, faculty and students.”
“More than anything I’m concerned that the students experience at their level the same thing I have experienced,” said Okazawa-Rey. “This is not a place where students of color are thriving—they’re surviving and they’re graduating but this is not a place where they can gather wings and fly.”
Diversity, or lack thereof, on campus and specifically within the faculty and staff seems to be on the minds of many students.
“Campus-wide we are not diverse, but this is not at all surprising considering the institution,” said graduate student Tammy Sanders. “It’s an expensive, private, liberal arts college. What do people expect?”
Many students feel that diversity is preached, although not practiced.
“We are diverse in a few areas but not when it comes to race and class, especially amongst the faculty,” said junior Rozena Harten.
“Mills has been struggling as a campus to shift to the very idea of what Mills is,” said Sudbury. “[We] are in the middle of an identity crisis. We are in the process of change and we certainly aren’t where we were when Mills started, but we also aren’t where we need to be.”
As a result of the decision not to renew Okazawa-Rey’s contract, several frustrated students have organized and are preparing a statement that will be presented to the administration that addresses the lack of diversity and retention of women of color in the faculty.
“If Mills wants to pride itself on being a diverse institution it needs to not only recruit but also support and retain faculty and staff that encompass diversity,” said sophomore Carolina Salazar. “The fact that we cannot retain some of the most inspiring staff and faculty women of color is proof that Mills is failing to support its mission of diversity.”