Students, alumnae speak out at meeting in Student Union

By and
December 2, 2011

Six Mills staff members were laid off on Nov. 30. Those let go were Kate Dey, Director of Campus Career Services; Kala Hale, Events Coordinator from the Office of Institutional Advancement; Jess Miller, Director of Services for Students with Disabilities; Gina Rosabal, Director of Social Justice Initiatives; and two others.

In a Dec. 1 email sent the Mills community, President Alecia DeCoudreaux said the other two positions that were eliminated were the Director of Systems (Information Technology Services) and the Planned Giving Officer (Office of Institional Advancement). President DeCoudreaux did not disclose the names of the staff  members in those positions.

“I realize that people may have strong feelings as well as some important questions about the staff layoffs that occurred yesterday (Nov. 30),” DeCoudreaux said in the email. “While these kinds of decisions are never easy, they were necessary in our continuing efforts to strategically bring the College’s budget in balance.”

Within an hour of senior class president Jack Elliott’s posting of the news on Facebook, students met in the Solidarity Lounge to answer each other’s questions and begin organizing ways to show solidarity with the staff and disapproval of the layoffs.

Students responded to the layoffs with surprise and anger because of the College administration’s lack of transparency in the matter — students and other community members were not consulted in the downsizing process. Many students later said that the laid-off staff members were needed by the community’s most vulnerable population — students of color, low-income students and students with disabilities.

In a memo from Dr. Joi Lewis, Dean of Student Life, she assured members of the Mills community that the layoffs should not affect the quality of education students receive from Mills.

“Please know that maintaining a quality student experience for you as Mills students remains one of our highest priorities,” Lewis said in her Nov. 30 email. “Although there are staffing shifts, the College is committed to providing a seamless transition to students so you receive the services you need.”

Students set up tables for video and written testimonials from those affected by the layoffs on Dec. 1, throughout the day in Adams Plaza.

A meeting among students, alumnae, faculty, staff, DeCoudreaux and Lewis was held in the Student Union later that afternoon to discuss concerns about the layoffs.

Lewis and DeCoudreaux began the meeting with comments to the crowd of over a hundred community members that had come to voice their concerns.

Prior to the gathering, many students had agreed to spend the first ten minutes in silence, but as soon as Lewis opened the floor for comment, people started speaking out.

Of most concern to students, alumnae and other members of the Mills community were that those let go had less than one day to leave campus and that Miller’s layoff meant a shift in focus away from aiding students with disabilities.

One alumna, Kat Hall, explained that decisions such as this one would reduce overall alumnae contributions.

“If this doesn’t change…I will never donate again and I will tell fellow alumnae never to donate again without an improvement in transparency,” Hall said.

It quickly became apparent that the Alumnae Association of Mills College had not been notified of the layoffs at all. Several alumnae present said they were only made aware of the situation because of Facebook.

Over the course of the meeting, many students shared accounts of how they were personally impacted by those who were laid off.

“Thank god I had Jess Miller,” Kate Smith said as she told a story of a difficult time in her life.

Another student asked Lewis about Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act — which ensures that people with disabilities aren’t discriminated against at any educational facility or organization receiving federal funding. Lewis said that she could not speak to this particular issue.

Students also expressed concern when DeCoudreaux abruptly exited the meeting a few minutes before she was scheduled to leave.

Transparency 

During the course of the meeting, many called for more transparency within the administration – a problem that is not new to the College. According to a 2008 report in The Campanil, former President Janet Holmgren had attempted to remove  Nancy Thornborrow, Professor and Department Head of Economics, from her position as Dean of the Lokey Graduate School of Business, a position which Thornborrow had intended to step down from within a year or two.

In 2008, Roger Sparks, Professor of Economics, told The Campanil that Holmgren informed the Board of Trustees that Thornborrow had micromanaged the Graduate School of Business building project, amongst other things. He said that while the board of trustees have to approve personnel decisions, they usually rubberstampped Holmgren’s decisions.

The situation led to an outcry from the Mills community.

Similarly, in 2007, students rallied around former Dean of Student Life Joanna Iwata when she was abruptly let go.

Students drafted a letter and petition addressed to Holmgren and Ramon Torrecilha, now Executive Vice President,calling out the administration’s lack of communication regarding the situation.

“As president and vice president, your duties are to provide a stable environment in which your students feel that their needs are prioritized, considered, heard, and met,” the petition said. “Our feelings in this matter have not been considered. Furthermore, we were not informed of this decision-making process.

Back to the meeting

As the Dec. 1 meeting closed, students began chanting “Bring them back! Bring the back!” over Lewis’ closing remarks.

However, on Dec. 2, ASMC President Modesta Tamayo, who had met with DeCoudreaux earlier in the day, said that no one could be rehired due to outstanding lawsuits.

Members of the Mills community remained in the Student Union after administrators left. Senior Grace Osborne conducted a final mic check.

“The people who make the biggest decisions are those we never see,” Osborne said. Those who remained echoed her.

The Aftermath

On Dec. 2, it was confirmed by staff members in the Office of Student Activities, Lewis, and Acting Director of Student Activities Mandy Benson that Benson had resigned from her position that day.

According to Lewis, Benson had officially given her resignation on Dec. 1, but decided to terminate her employment effective immediately on Dec. 2.

Benson explained that the situation arose after she had shared a document with a student worker.

Benson has accepted a position as the Associate Director of the Women’s Center at Stanford University.

“It breaks my heart to leave,” Benson said. “I love my students; I love my workers.”

Jen Ramos and Lauren Soldano contributed to this report.


Students, alumnae speak out at meeting in Student Union was published on December 2, 2011 in News

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1659322446 Maud Steyaert

    Thanks, Campanil staff, for this coverage and your facebook posts. A key point of clarification on “Another student asked Lewis about Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act “– Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (amended in 2008) are two distinct laws, both mandating nondiscrimination against qualified individuals with disabilities. There is no “Section 504 of the ADA.” (Perhaps the American disability rights movement is still missing from the Mills curriculum? Thanks at least to Mills College Library staff for a few years ago purchasing the 3 volume Encyclopedia of American Disability History.) The US Dept of Education  Office for Civil Rights [“OCR”] 
    (SF regional office 415-486-5555; chief general attorney Paul Grossman) enforces Section 504, while the US DOJ  (Washington DC office; http://www.ada.gov/t3compfm.htm) enforces the part of the ADA, Title III, that applies to private colleges such as Mills. (For more information, see also http://www.ada.gov and http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/howto.html)

    As to  Lewis said that she could not speak to this particular issue [of the status of Mills’s compliance with ADA & 504], here is the response I made yesterday on the Solidarity fb page:

    Dr. Joi says she cannot speak about ADA sec 405. #staffsolidityprotestLike · · @thecampanil on Twitter · about an hour ago via TwitterAs a former ASMC president [’88], Recent Graduate Trustee [’91-’94] on the Mills BOT, & Mills Chaplain [’01-’05] who was a founding member of the Mills Disability Alliance, I am seriously disturbed that a DOS would be either unwilling, unqualified and/or unprepared to address compliance with federal civil rights laws that Mills has been subject to since the 1970s. Up to 1 in 5 Americans have disabilities, and while not all of those may require reasonable accommodation, all students with disabilities at Mills should not have to doubt that their legal right to nondiscrimination is ensured. Effective ADA & Section 504 compliance not only demands meaningful, timely responsiveness to all [dozens of] technicalities of these DOJ & Ed Dept regulations, but also at heart requires buy in from all campus constituents to build an anti-ableist campus climate. For Mills to lay off an experienced disability support services professional and (apparently) delegate SSD responsibilities to a person with inadequate training reveals how little the institution, after > 3 decades, understands or cares about ADA compliance. Perhaps after all this time, Mills still believes that ADA/504 compliance is optional?

    My deep appreciation go to the individual staff who were abruptly laid off — some of whom I had the privilege of having as DSL colleagues when I was interim chaplain at Mills — for their years of dedication in service to Mills students. My abiding solidarity goes to current Mills students bearing witness to the adverse consequences resulting from these staffing changes. My sympathy goes to current Mills staff now expected to provide a “seamless transition” in student services while taking on such key responsibilities with likely inadequate training, support or salary. My hope for sustained institutional clarity, and fiscal and ethical responsibility,  goes to the President de Coudreaux, the current administration and the current Board of Trustees as they continue to address the very real challenges to Mills’s staffing and budget, recruitment and retention of students, and  legal and mission-related obligations.

    In solidarity,

    Maud Steyaert ’88
    former staffer, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, Berkeley
    current director of Disability Support Services, Antioch University Seattle 

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