Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 300 U.S. universities and colleges, including Mills College, transitioned to online learning platforms in efforts to adapt their campus life and protect their students and faculty from contracting the virus.
In 2017, Mills College declared a “financial emergency”, laying off several tenured professors, due to “five years of multimillion-dollar shortfalls and enrollment declines.” This information, combined with conversations about budget cuts left students feeling concerned about the financial status of the college.
President Beth Hillman told the SF Chronicle, that she isn’t worried about the college closing and did expect the financial struggles to worsen in the Fall semester. The administration is working to create a plan that will help the college survive this time, as it is has fostered a community for first-generation college students, Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ identified students.
In a virtual town hall hosted by the Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Life, Dr. Chicora Martin, and Dean of Faculty and Provost, Dr. Julia Chinyere Oparah, students were able to ask questions regarding a proposed merger between UC Berkeley and Mills.
“Earlier this year, motivated by a mutual desire to build on the strengths of each institution for the benefit of our students, faculty, and staff, we began conversations to consider deepening Mills’ long-standing partnership with UC Berkeley,” President Hillman said via email. “While our discussions are preliminary and remain in early stages, our vision is to sustain the socially driven mission of Mills College and enable UC Berkeley to serve more California undergraduate students.”
Students remained on mute during the entirety of the town hall and were asked to send questions ahead of time to Dr. Martin or utilize the Zoom chat function. The majority of the questions students asked were related to seeking clarity about “deepening” the relationship with UC Berkeley, what changes they could expect in the near future, and why this decision is being made.
In 2017, UC Berkeley and Mills established a partnership to aid both institutions with challenges they were facing: Mills has enrollment issues while UC Berkeley struggles with capacity issues. In this partnership, Mills students were able to cross-register for certain courses, and access study abroad and internship programs at UC Berkeley. Students at UC Berkeley would also have access to housing on-campus as well as accelerated graduate programs.
The logistical details of academic and admission changes due to a merge with UC Berkeley have not yet been defined.
“Our academic leaders from both Mills and UC Berkeley are in conversation about the potential for a stronger integration between our campuses. And as these discussions between Mills and UC Berkeley continue, we’ll probably have a much clearer picture of what those academic programs might look like and what potential opportunities would be there for Mills students, faculty and staff,” Dr. Oparah said during the town hall. “So I’ve sort of seen a lot of questions that are very much like ‘What exactly is happening?’ and ‘When is it happening?’ And I wish I had clearer answers for you that gave those kinds of details. President Hillman really wanted to give you an advance notice of things that are underway, conversations that are happening. It’s not something that’s been finalized at this point. There’s no firm timeline on these discussions. No dates are set.”
UC Berkeley is a co-ed university with a student population of over 40,000 compared to the 961 students at Mills. One of the most favorable aspects of the liberal arts college is it’s 8:1 student to professor ratio, with classes averaging eleven students. Undergraduate students are concerned about a great change in their campus life with the entry of new professors who are not familiar with the unique community created at Mills and co-ed student admission, especially co-ed housing.
“My philosophy is we should make sure we have living spaces that meet everyone’s needs. Some of that is gender inclusive. Some of that is gender-specific. And I’m very committed to making sure that we have updated appropriate living spaces for people of all kinds. And I think that is really important to maintain. I also think it’s important to know that as an institution, we’ll never be Berkeley, we are a very different shape and size and culture and really it’s that culture piece that matters,” Dr. Chicora Martin said.
Due to the pandemic, liberal arts colleges are seeking partnerships with other larger universities for sustainability. There are several women’s colleges that have long been partnered with a peer co-ed institution such as Barnard College, partnered with Columbia University and Scripps, apart of the Claremont Colleges.
The unique aspect of Mills compared to other historical women’s colleges is its undergraduate admission policy for transgender or gender-questioning students. It is unknown at this time if a merge with UC Berkeley would affect this policy.
In 1990, then-Board President Warren Hellman announced to the student body that the college would be admitting cis-men students into the undergraduate programs. The students drowned out the voices of the board in protest, a protest that would last 16 days. Similarly to now, the Board told students that the reason for this decision was due to low enrollment and financial instability. Because of the efforts of those students who engaged in civil disobedience, the decision was overturned.
Dr. Martin emphasized that conversations of this nature, regarding institutional merges, take time and that students should not expect to see changes in the next year. They understand how important it is to the student body at Mills to have access to an education that centers their marginalization because of their gender.
While there are no concrete updates at this time, Dr. Oparah clarified that there is no anticipation to increase the cost of tuition for current students. Her goal is to have more frequent town halls to maintain communication but may not always have clear updates as this is an ongoing process.