October 27, 2021

The Battle to Save Ladies’s Faculties From Extinction

15 min read


Erica MacKinnon was about to log in to her digital English literature class when she discovered that her faculty—the college she had enrolled in, then dropped out of, then re-enrolled in 22 years later; the identical faculty her grandmother had graduated from precisely a century in the past—was closing for good.

The announcement, which got here in an electronic mail opaquely titled “Mills Transition,” was as stunning to her because it was to the remainder of the 700-person scholar physique—together with the employees and school, who had heard of the closure solely an hour earlier. However quickly it might be splashed throughout nationwide newspapers: Mills School, the 169-year-old ladies’s faculty in Oakland, California, would cease accepting college students this fall and confer its remaining levels in 2023.

“To be again at Mills—to have this overwhelming pleasure and sit in these school rooms and have professors lecture on Faulkner and Morrison—was so lovely,” MacKinnon stated. “After which to have this announcement [come] out of the blue was so heartbreaking and stunning. The anger was palpable.”

Mills college students weren’t the one ones to obtain the same shock in latest months. In Could, Judson School, the fifth-oldest ladies’s faculty within the nation, introduced it’ll shut its doorways completely this 12 months. Converse School in South Carolina, whereas not closing utterly, revealed it might grow to be a completely co-ed establishment.

At the least 5 different personal schools have been felled by the pandemic this 12 months, their comparatively small endowments no match for a public well being disaster that slashed enrollment charges and all however eradicated room-and-board income. For ladies’s schools, nonetheless, these closures weren’t a once-in-a-lifetime fluke, however the continuation of a decades-long development that has seen the variety of women-only establishments decline by practically 85 p.c within the final 60 years.

And at Mills specifically, it was the beginning of a struggle—one that might pit the administration in opposition to its college students, school, and finally, its personal board of trustees.

MacKinnon enrolled in Mills in 1996, on the age of 18, due primarily to her household ties: Her grandmother had informed her, from a younger age, that Mills was the one place she was by no means informed “no.” From her very first day there, she felt the identical freedom her grandmother had skilled. Coming from her gruff and male-dominated hometown in Alaska, she stated, “I simply discovered a world the place ladies’s concepts and their ideas have been welcomed, and I had by no means skilled that.”

Three years in, a household dispute compelled MacKinnon to drop out of the faculty she beloved. She promised her mentor at Mills that she would finally return and end her diploma, however because the years progressed, she discovered herself drifting farther and farther from that vow. She tried on-line diploma applications, and even enrolled briefly at USC, however nothing appeared to click on the way in which Mills had.

Courtesy of Erica MacKinnon

Lastly, final 12 months, after establishing a profitable profession in visible communications and making a house in Detroit, she noticed that her alma mater was providing distant lessons through the pandemic. She determined to re-enroll.

“I can’t fairly clarify the way it was—simply this wave of understanding to be again in a Mills classroom once more,” she stated. “That top notch again, it was like no time had handed.”

Mills understands that no life is completely measured out, and it has all the time made allowances for that.

Erica MacKinnon

Whereas, at age 43, MacKinnon just isn’t essentially your common faculty scholar, she is surprisingly consultant of the ladies’s faculty inhabitants as an entire. Such establishments enroll practically thrice as many college students ages 25 to 65 as their co-ed liberal arts counterparts; Mills itself is sort of 20 p.c resuming college students. If the significance of this for ladies specifically wasn’t clear earlier than, the previous 12 months made it manifestly so: A whole lot of hundreds of ladies left the workforce through the pandemic to care for kids and aged family, and a disproportionate variety of ladies scaled again their faculty course load or dropped out altogether.

Whereas ladies nonetheless outnumber males when it comes to faculty enrollment, few are provided the sort of flexibility and assist {that a} non-traditional faculty like Mills supplies.

Courtesy of Erica MacKinnon

“Mills understands that no life is completely measured out, and it has all the time made allowances for that,” MacKinnon stated. “They know that typically you’re going to have children in tow and typically you’re going to have to depart to maintain somebody. It’s so ingrained within the life of ladies that it’s simply part of how that college has grown and constructed itself.”

And these advantages aren’t restricted to resuming college students like MacKinnon. Ladies’s schools, on common, enroll 13 p.c extra college students of colour and 11 p.c extra low-income college students than comparable co-ed faculties. At Mills, the scholar physique is 65 p.c college students of colour, 58 p.c LGBTQ college students, and 44 p.c first-generation college students. Greater than half its college students qualify for federally administered Pell Grants.

A long time of flicks like Mona Lisa Smile, which characteristic rich white ladies frolicking on rarefied campuses, and a concentrate on graduates like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi—Wellesley School and Trinity School alums, respectively—have fueled a well-liked narrative of ladies’s schools as “empowering white girl areas,” joked Casey Close to, a university counselor for CollegeWise. However Close to, herself a graduate of a ladies’s faculty, stated this stereotype overlooks the essential function that many ladies’s schools play in educating native, low-income populations that will by no means have gone to school within the first place.

Research present that girls’s schools enroll college students demographically just like public universities, however obtain the identical commencement charges as personal liberal arts schools. Based on a examine by the Women’s Colleges Coalition, ladies’s faculty graduates are extra possible than graduates of comparable liberal arts and public schools to earn a bachelor’s diploma in 4 years or much less, get a graduate diploma, and be “utterly glad” with the general high quality of their schooling.

However financially, the system doesn’t work fairly as effectively. Ladies’s schools face the identical financial pressures as all small, liberal arts faculties—rising competitors, a shrinking inhabitants of 18- to 25-year-olds, and a transfer towards extra “sensible” levels—however enroll a scholar physique that’s much less financially steady and extra prone to drop out if occasions get onerous. Add to that their smaller endowments—thanks partially to the revenue hole between women and men graduates—and, in response to Merrimack School Professor Susan Marine, “it seems that that’s a extremely unstable mannequin economically.”

The general impact is that girls’s schools throughout America are steadily disappearing. ​​Of the roughly 230 ladies’s schools that existed in 1960, when most males’s faculties began to go co-ed, solely 116 survived into the Nineteen Eighties. By the tip of 2023, when Mills confers its remaining levels, there will likely be solely 35.

Mills, in some ways, exemplifies this development. Since no less than the Seventies, when the college started enrolling extra commuter college students and thus making much less cash off of room and board, it has been out and in of economic peril. In 2014, Moody’s Buyers Service downgraded the faculty’s score to simply above a junk bond; in 2015, Inside Higher Ed reported it had enrolled fewer than 20 p.c of its enrolled candidates for the earlier 5 years. In 2017, newly appointed President Elizabeth Hillman enacted a monetary stabilization plan that she claimed would set the faculty on a path to monetary safety, but in addition resulted within the lack of two majors, 4 minors, and 5 full-time school.

Maybe probably the most vital monetary resolution was the board’s 1990 announcement that the college would start accepting male college students so as to enhance enrollment. The choice was met with outrage from college students and school, who marched and blocked the entrances to nearly each constructing on campus. After two weeks of scholar strikes, the board was compelled to desert its plans to confess males. “It was a significant victory,” recalled Joyce Yee, who was a senior on the time.

Echoes of the 1990 strike rang out on March 17, the day Hillman introduced Mills’ closure. Shortly after the e-mail went out, college students have been invited to a digital city corridor the place, scholar organizer Lila Goehring recalled, the dominant emotion was confusion. That Mills would cease admitting college students in 2021 and give up conferring levels in 2023 was clear, however the plan for what would come subsequent—a non-degree-granting “institute” on campus that might “foster ladies’s management and scholar success,” and “advance gender and racial fairness”—was nebulous at finest. Virtually immediately, college students began pushing again.

Inside hours, somebody had launched a “Save Mills” Fb group and began planning an on-campus rally. Ten days later, the ensuing demonstration drew a whole bunch of members each on-line and in-person, and spawned satellite tv for pc rallies as far-off as Nashville, Tennessee. The “Save Mills” Fb group now has greater than 2,000 members; a separate Slack workspace has greater than 300 energetic volunteers. A second group, which is pushing for a merger with the state college system so as to stabilize the faculty’s funds, has a number of hundred extra members. The unbiased Alumnae Affiliation of Mills School sends out weekly emails on efforts to avoid wasting the faculty and hosts common city halls, one among which just lately attracted 700 attendees.

Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury Information through Getty

“I believe they thought that we’d simply quietly settle for it, however that’s not taking place,” Goehring stated of the administration. She famous, with a touch of irony, that a number of scholar organizers had beforehand taken a Mills class titled “Organizing for Social Change.”

“They actually billed us for this,” she stated. “I don’t know what they thought was gonna occur.”

The organizers are effectively conscious of Mills’ monetary struggles. However they’re involved that the board and president aren’t giving them the total image. In early April, when Save Mills requested monetary documentation, the administration balked, saying it doesn’t make such info public. (In authorized filings, the faculty says it has posted 5 years of audited monetary statements on its web site.)

It was no secret that Mills was struggling financially. [But] this simply got here out of skinny air.

Scholar organizer Lila Goehring

Alexa Pagonas, vp of the Alumni Affiliation’s Board of Governors, stated her group loaned the faculty $2 million in 2017, primarily based largely on the president’s assurances that the college would keep open for no less than 25 years. “We’d not have made the mortgage if we had any clue the faculty was pondering of shuttering,” she stated.

The scholars felt saddened by the closure discover, Goehring stated, but in addition betrayed. They got no advance warning, no likelihood to register their dissent or brainstorm options. “It was no secret that Mills was struggling financially,” she stated. “[But] this simply got here out of skinny air.” (In authorized filings, the faculty stated it has “repeatedly communicated its monetary difficulties to the Board and members of the bigger Mills neighborhood over latest years.”)

“I really feel like this resolution has actually been made behind closed doorways,” Goehring added.

She and her fellow college students would quickly discover out they weren’t the one ones who felt that manner.

Mills is not the primary ladies’s faculty that alumni have rallied to avoid wasting, and it most likely received’t be the final. In 1979, alumni at Wilson School efficiently sued the board of trustees to forestall them from closing the college; the identical maneuver labored greater than 30 years later, when Candy Briar’s board tried to close it down.

However for each ladies’s faculty that has been saved, there are 20 extra that haven’t. And at a sure level within the struggle for any ladies’s faculty on life assist, the vigilantes must face the awkward query: Does anybody actually need these faculties anymore?

Definitely, many alumni and college students at Mills do. (The hundreds of protesters to Mills’ doable closure are proof of that.) However extra broadly, the proof is much less convincing. Some nationwide research present simply 2 p.c of feminine highschool seniors would contemplate attending a ladies’s faculty. Even the Ladies’s Faculties Coalition, a collective of ladies’s faculty presidents devoted to selling the advantages of a single-sex schooling, admits that girls’s enrollment is rising sooner at co-ed establishments than at their very own.

Based on Michele Ozumba, a former director of the Ladies’s Faculties Coaltion, the single-sex mannequin labored within the Sixties and 70s, when ladies have been shut out of many elite establishments. However at this time, she stated, “you’re competing in opposition to establishments which have larger capability, or scholarships, or the sort of issues your prime graduates can be on the lookout for.”

“Within the constellation of a sector that has 3,000 establishments and you’ve got one-tenth of 1 p.c of them, the mathematics simply doesn’t assist it,” she added.

Regardless of the dismal arithmetic, supporters of ladies’s schools argue that that can stay related till ladies are not marginalized. Though ladies are actually the vast majority of college students on most faculty campuses, supporters wish to level out that they make up simply 31 p.c of full-time school and 30 p.c of faculty presidents. Our society is “nonetheless positively managed by patriarchal values, legal guidelines, and customs,” stated Marine, the Merrimack professor, “and till that adjustments, sure, I might say we do want ladies’s schools.”

Janet Holmgren, a former director of the WCC and president of Mills from 1991 to 2011, says each supporters and detractors of ladies’s schools have it mistaken. They’re nonetheless that very same 2 p.c of faculty seniors, she stated, when they need to be ladies like MacKinnon—ladies who’re “returning, resuming, transferring, and are all for investing in themselves and have had some expertise on the earth.”

These ladies, Holmgren stated, “are way more snug in a neighborhood of ladies that’s numerous when it comes to gender identification and sexual orientation, in addition to socioeconomic background, and life expertise, and race.”

And for them, she stated, “I believe this concept that girls aren’t all for ladies’s schools has but to be confirmed.”

On June 17, after three months of protest in opposition to Mills closure, President Hillman made one other shock announcement: Mills was in talks with Northeastern College, a analysis establishment outdoors of Chicago, about changing into one among its 10 satellite tv for pc campuses. If the deal went by, the college would maintain its campus and stay a degree-granting establishment—however would not be a single-sex faculty.

College students and alumni weren’t impressed. In a city corridor hosted by the Save Mills School Coalition and the UC Mills Marketing campaign, 46 p.c of members stated they have been in opposition to the acquisition proposal, and simply 11 p.c expressed assist, in response to Inside Larger Ed.

However the dissenters had a shock in retailer for the faculty, too.

On June 7, in Alameda District Court docket, 4 members of the board of trustees filed go well with in opposition to the faculty, claiming that they had by no means consented to Mills’ closure within the first place. (Two later pulled out, citing the “aggressive tone and actions” surrounding the lawsuit.)

Based on the go well with, the vote on whether or not or to not shutter the college was packed into the “consent agenda” of the digital March 4 board assembly—an agenda typically used for routine, run-of-the mill points. Even the language contained inside that agenda was obscure and deceptive, in response to the board members, who say they left the assembly believing that they had voted to authorize the growth of a Mills Institute, “for additional consideration by the Board at a later date.”

“Subsequently, it got here as a shock when, on March 17, 2021, the School (by a broadcast message from Dr. Hillman) publicly introduced, amongst different issues, that the School would stop enrolling first 12 months college students after 2021, and would transition away from serving as a degree-granting establishment,” the lawsuit states, including later: “Plaintiffs haven’t even been requested to authorize such actions, nor to their information produce other members of the Board.”

Past the deception on the March 4 assembly, the board members allege, the faculty additionally misled the general public about its funds. Based on the go well with, Mills has maintained an endowment of roughly $206 million since Hillman enacted the monetary stabilization plan in 2017. The school’s auditors have additionally produced year-end monetary statements stating that it will likely be capable of carry out on its upcoming monetary obligations, the go well with alleges, and have even discovered the college to have “precise, and predicted, constructive monetary positioning” for 2021 and 2022. (In courtroom filings, Hillman claims the college’s estimated monetary loss for 2020 was $6 million, and that its projected loss for the upcoming 12 months was greater than double that.)

Towards the tip of the lawsuit, the trustees give voice to the identical suspicion many alumni and college students have been whispering for months: that the administration was set on closing or promoting off the college and that the rushed announcement was merely a solution to set it in stone.

“One can scarcely think about a extra environment friendly solution to curb enrollment in a university than to announce its imminent closure simply weeks earlier than potential, incoming college students for Fall 2021 must resolve whether or not to attend Mills within the Fall,” the go well with states. Why would the faculty shoot itself within the foot on this manner, the trustees ask, “if not to make sure that the introduced plan can be a foregone conclusion?”

A superior courtroom choose granted the plaintiffs’ utility for a brief restraining order final week, barring the faculty from getting into any agreements with one other establishment till a listening to later this month. However he declined their request to have the faculty hand over dozens of paperwork on its monetary standing earlier than that listening to.

In a press release, President Hillman dismissed the lawsuit as an “unlucky side-show” engineered by the alumni affiliation and its legal professionals.

“The trustees, most of whom are alumnae, are an skilled and complex group,” Hillman stated. “They’ve gone by rigorous and diligent evaluation of their decision-making, and can proceed to take action going ahead. As a bunch, they’re assured that they’ve greater than ample info to meet their duties.”

“Extra broadly,” she added, “it’s deeply disappointing that the AAMC claims shock and seeks to assign blame for monetary challenges that the School, and smaller liberal arts establishments prefer it all throughout the nation, have been going through–and publicly addressing–for a few years. At a time when the School must concentrate on the trail ahead, we sincerely hope the AAMC will cease its divisive efforts focusing on particular person trustees and officers of the School, and can as a substitute dedicate its sources to partnering with us in making a way forward for alternative.”

Courtesy of Erica MacKinnon

There’s a bittersweet irony to the truth that Mills college students, separated for the final 12 months and a half by the pandemic and a digital course load, have lastly discovered an opportunity to return collectively simply as their faculty could also be closing. Goehring, who graduated this spring, says she feels extra supported getting into the job market now—with a community of alumni backing her up—than she would have some other 12 months. (At one level final semester, alumni on the Save Mills Coalition despatched care packages to scholar organizers learning for finals; Goehring stated hers contained “sufficient to open a small comfort retailer.”)

The latest graduate is definitely shut buddies with MacKinnon—the sort of intergenerational friendship that Mills college students say can solely occur at faculties like theirs. Goehring came upon concerning the faculty’s closure from a professor shortly earlier than the announcement electronic mail went out; MacKinnon was one of many first individuals she informed.

MacKinnon described herself as “a multitude” that day, sitting in her digital classroom with tears streaming down her face. However she will nonetheless keep in mind what her professor stated to the scholars, when the remainder of them acquired their announcement electronic mail.

“She stated, ‘We’re simply this island of misfit toys the place we discovered one another,’” MacKinnon recalled. “And I believe there are such a lot of college students like that there, and there all the time have been … and so they discovered a spot at Mills.”

She added: “I don’t need my Mills expertise to be the final one.”

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