A Few thoughts, cobbled together, about Mills

TL;DR. I’ve watched the place for a long time. Can we imagine someone acquiring the place and turning it into a going concern? I think yes. But first you have to recognize that the current situation did not happen, it was caused. Take the ship’s tiller out of their hands. Second, realize that the status quo is more information about mismanagement than about the environment or the core product.  Third, leadership has to abandon its reliance on factionalism. Fourth, work with the core competency of being able to teach across a blindingly wide spectrum of preparation/condition/privilege. Fifth, you can still choose what kind of history to make. Sixth, take seriously the responsibility to design and deliver the kind of education that will turn out 50 years hence to be the one that the 21st century needed.

Dear Trustees and Other Friends of the College,

I write with the perspective of some time and distance (though I’m back in Oakland these last many months and in close touch with lots of Mills friends). I’ve missed working at Mills and I’m sorry the last few years have been so challenging for those still working there. Looking back, I must say, that while I found it astonishing how easily smart people were bamboozled by a small number of people with a perverse and vague agenda a few years back, it is no surprise at all that their implementation of that agenda landed us where we are today. Even absent COVID, it was the kind of thing you could have set your clock by. And yet we continue down the path.

I resigned tenure 2017, after 20 years at Mills, partly in protest over the firing of my tenured colleagues. It seemed unethical to countenance a decision that could destroy lives and was unlikely to solve the college’s financial problems. It also seemed wrong to hold onto my chair given that I was fortunate to have an alternate employment option that others did not. It was the most difficult decision I have ever made and there’s not a day that I don’t regret it. Working at Mills was the most meaningful work I’ve ever done and I think I was pretty good at it. In retrospect, the whole affair is all the more painful because the Financial Stabilization Plan did, in fact, stabilize nothing.

Watching from afar, I have often, over the last few years, pondered the possibility of assembling a group of like-minded education/innovation/make-a-difference folks to acquire the massively under-performing asset that Mills College is. We see that happen in the commercial sector, why not in education? The challenge, of course, is that most folks who play that game do so for the promise of profit, and that’s just not a very likely scenario in higher education. There IS a massive return on investment when it is done well, but those returns, and their multipliers, are socialized and hard to capture. So, investors aren’t breaking down the doors to get in on the deal, but that does not mean that the place could not be reorganized into something that is a successful, ongoing concern. I think it could be. I think it’s real. I think it is worth doing. And I think we could win.

That window of opportunity has not completely closed, but it cannot be exploited without some serious tapping on the brakes and some hard steering.

Stop Digging

I suspect most of you have little appetite for hindsight at this point, but ignoring how we got here distorts what we take away from the status quo. We have heard it said “we’ve tried everything and that proves that nothing will work.” That’s bad logic. 

As I write this, the Mills website boasts about percentages in student demographics. But compared to a few years back, Mills, according to its own numbers, in 2021 educates fewer undergraduates overall (997 in 13-14, 609 today), fewer students of color (almost 500 in 13-14, maybe 400 today), fewer LGBTQ+ (~400 in 16-17, ~350 today), fewer Latinx (222 in 16-17, 207 today), and fewer resumers (~160 in 12-13, ~100 today) . After jumping on the faux-price-cut bandwagon tuition plus room and board minus average financial aid award has gone down maybe 1,500 in 2011 dollars. Years of hand wringing and tens of thousands of consultant dollars barely moved the needle on the bottom lines for families. Operating budgets have been squeezed, faculty ranks shrunk, but deficits remain. And, as best I can tell, the single most important outcome of good management, revenue, has only contracted.

Let that sink in – four years of massive restructuring and almost every single indicator is basically unchanged or worse. And you ask the leadership “what’s next?”?

While anemic investment in marketing and lack of strategic messaging, maybe even the negative valence of our Oakland location, and COVID have all contributed to the revenue drought, most of the downward spiral, I believe, did not happen, it was done.

This team’s response to an alarming drop in enrollment post 2015 was to reduce full time faculty, increase adjunctification, cut majors, reconfigure the curriculum in a manner that made the school look amateurish, and shift the meaning of critical thinking from tool to critique.  Each of those moves made Mills a less robust, less attractive, less serious, less competitive institution.

Who really expected that those changes could be papered over and be turned into expanded revenue? Anyone? 

And someone, I think, needs to stand up and ask why all those cuts happened at the same that time the college announces its aspiration to enroll more students from Oakland, more students of modest means, more students of color, and more LGBTQ+ students, and to get the designation of “Hispanic serving institution”: why was it OK to offer to these prospective students less of a college than the students who attended Mills before these changes?

Under its current leadership the College has been digging a hole for five or more years. It lost its grip on growing enrollment. It appears to have  lost its grip on growing fund raising. It appears to have lost its grip on maintaining a national reputation. So, stop their digging. Reckon with the realization that the takeaway from the current situation is about who’s been running the place and the decisions they’ve made; it’s not about COVID, it’s not about women’s colleges, and it’s not about the prospects for moving forward.

Eschew Factionalism – from MyMills to OurMills

The College has a long tradition of managing its stakeholder communities via a sort of Tito-in-Yugoslavia-like miracle of balancing opposing forces, side-deals and special arrangements, begging indulgence while the latest crisis was dealt with, and dressing up the goings on with lots of euphemism. But those techniques come back to bite you in the end.  

And now this factionalism is mixed with it’s nightmare cousin: individuals and categories of individuals angling to get the best deal before the curtain comes down.  You’ve seen the demands – back pay, loan forgiveness, refunds. If you are cynical, it’s the rank-and-file wanting a bit of what the top folks have had for a long time: a chance to live OFF instead of FOR Mills. Or it’s just creditors getting in line.  Or, it’s good strategy: it makes pulling up the stakes and striking camp more expensive for those who want an uncomplicated, amicable end. Or perhaps, if one is merely realistic, it’s a path by which the largest number of people might conclude the institution had a good death.

Factionalism has infected the ranks of “SaveMills” too, perhaps, giving the administration and board some comfort in not having to face a fully unified opposition.  

We see this at a personal level: a lot of people have been posting on the internet or writing or speaking to the BOT about how important Mills was to them qua some human category with which they identify.  I’m X; Save Mills because it is important to Xs.

That Mills has done, or does, well by Xs is a good thing. And if Xs think of Mills as a place that’s good or safe for Xs, that’s a good thing. But you can’t build a sustainable institution around “just X,” especially when your institution works tirelessly and effectively to reduce the need in society for a special place for Xs.

This factionalism would give anyone thinking about a turn-around pause and we should just commit to stopping it.  But to do that, you need some leadership. Not leadership that says “sorry, we’re closing up shop but don’t worry we’re going to have an institute that we don’t really know what it is yet (and we’ll ask some of you to do design thinking with us to figure out what we mean).” Nor leadership that says “you just don’t understand how bad things are and by the way we have already tried everything.” But leadership that can say “the path we took is either wrong or we were the wrong ones to lead us on that path and so we step aside and ask that you give a new team a contingent vote of confidence. They’ll seek your wise counsel but they are not designing an institution for the past, they are designing it for the future.  It will not be the Mills you remember, but it will keep doing the things you remember Mills doing. We need folks not to be conditioning their support for Our-Mills on it being their own particular MyMills.  We ask you to lend a shoulder for, say, the next five years, and if you don’t like the direction things are going in then, withdraw loudly.”

Is There (Still) a There There?

During my time the College often hired brand consultants who aske people which words they associated with Mills and which words had positive valence. Interesting enough (more interesting that we generally rejected findings that did not resonate with our priors), but there’s more to a brand than the mental associations of consumers.  If I were talking about the Mills brand to potential “investors,” they would want to know what Mills is good at.  What are its core competencies? There IS an answer to that question and it is important.  And it’s not what’s on the website.

What Mills has excelled at across the decades is providing a transformational educational experience that worked for folks who are conventionally positioned for success in higher education (and life) as well as for folks for whom higher education was, for one reason or another, not going to turn out well.  And for everyone in between. All at the same time, all in the same classrooms. That does not happen everywhere. It mattered. It mattered a lot.

The school’s motto, I find myself thinking, may have gotten it wrong. It was not “many paths and one destination.” It was, strangely, many origins, one path, many destinations. 

The people in our classrooms represented the whole of the bell curve on pretty much any education-relevant dimension you’d care to consider. We’d have students whose current life situation is beyond challenging and students who were in extremely comfortable positions. We’d have students whose lives had been charmed and students who’d been to hell and back. We’d have students who were exquisitely well-prepared for college and students who barely qualified. We’d have fresh faces just out of high school and wrinkled faces with grandchildren. I had students who would make it as long as I didn’t get in their way and I had students who wouldn’t make it without intense mentoring and hand holding. In today’s terms, students with lots of privilege, students with some privilege, and students with minimal privilege.  Intersectionality notwithstanding, where people were on these different dimensions was not rigidly tied to particular demographics.  You’d see cis white students who’d been homeless and queer students of color with trust fund and on and on. At orientation each year we knew we’d learn something from the variety of human conditions and capabilities that sat in front of us. But we would get to know each student and together we’d figure out how each would get their unique Mills education. We aspired to take each student seriously intellectually and to get them to take themselves seriously intellectually.  And no matter where people started, people grew. Class after class, year after year.

Most of the testimony we’ve been hearing this last month is related to this core practice of excellence.

Mills changed the world, not with programs, taglines, partnerships, and expansions of ancillary non-academic services or by incanting “social justice” over and over – not that there’s anything wrong with those – but by staying focused on the self-transformation of students during their time at Mills and then turning them loose in the world.

As far as I can tell, the College has never put big brains and serious time and real resources behind an effort to answer a simple question: how might we do more of this in a manner that’s sustainable and affordable? 

Instead it chased every squirrel that got applause from the choir it was preaching to, listened to consultants rather than thinking, engaged in sleight of hand name changes, disdained the full time faculty, built teams based on affinity rather than competence, told lies with data, implemented bogus pricing schemes, adjunctified the faculty, narrowed the visibility of the brand, and generally turned the college into a less serious place in American higher education.

Despite wear and tear this core still exists because a group of teachers come to work each day and do their job even as things fall apart around them.  That there there is in the DNA; it is not clientele dependent.

We Make the History We Choose to Make

I was in the room with some of you at various points over the last decade when mistakes were made. Some of these were certain sets of voices being heard and certain sets of voices ignored. The most critical were poor personnel decisions and conspiracies to ignore elephants in the room.  I’ve seen “governance by it’s already been decided before you got here” up close. I’ve seen the things that should have been whistle-blown. Lots not to be proud of. But that’s water under the bridge and the question is what now?  

All indications are that the current modus operandi is “steady as she goes”:  minimize transparency, shroud things in euphemism, manage the message, double down on planning processes that gave rise to current failures, defer to people who have demonstrably failed in their appointed tasks, hope that high-minded rhetoric will make up for vague ideas and lack of due diligence.

Maybe let’s stop all that. Maybe let’s stop telling the truth in side-conversations but not challenging absurd claims in open session. Maybe let’s stop letting euphemism pass for analysis. Maybe let’s stop writing off the input of folks who don’t toe the line.

Perhaps it’s time to see through the fog of convention, expedition, prejudice, and posturing, and to do what’s right, to recognize that the fiduciary duty is not to a pool of money or a tract of land or the projects of an incumbent president, but to a next generation of students that the 21st century needs to have gotten a Mills education. No other place is going to do it.

Reprising the Women’s Leadership Institute as a successor to Mills College should embarrass you. An insignificant niche think tank will do little or nothing for those might-have-been future students. The world is awash in non-profits where would be scholars pump out tweets, op-eds, and reports that no one reads. The world doesn’t need more opinions and studies echoing in chapels of the like-minded. We have a demonstrated failure to attract students to study a themed curriculum; why would we now want to divert resources to a bunch of professors to talk about those same themes only this time with no accountability to actually recruit an audience?

The 21st century demands of us who call ourselves educators that we actually build and deliver the education that will turn out to be the one that was right for making this century’s history. Next to that, an institute is but a sad joke, poorly told, an abdication in the face of opportunity. I guarantee there will be no plaques with the names of the founders of a Mills Institute.

Epilog

One Sunday in the spring of 2017 I spoke at an admitted student event at a hotel in Pasadena. There were two or three such events there that day: ours and I think maybe Whitman and Pacific Lutheran. The Mills event attracted maybe 30 students and their families. The other receptions were, by comparison, mobbed. The relative numbers were a bit depressing, but our reception made up for it in a sort of quiet intensity.  Before the program began, I made my way around the room trying to say a few words to each student and their families. Quite a few of those families included one or two parents who did not speak English well and so sometimes the daughter would translate. Behind each polite exchange was a question: “So, Mills College, you realize we are making a big big bet on it for our daughter here. Is it a good bet?” I’d had that conversation many times over the years with parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts whose child was considering Mills and I knew what the answer was: “you don’t need to worry, mom/dad, I can guarantee you that we will make a big difference in your daughter’s life.”

And when I’d see those and other parents/uncles/aunts/grandparents/foster relatives at graduation a few years later a familiar scene would play out – new graduate bubbly saying “grandma, this is the professor I told you about and blah blah blah…” – but grandma and I didn’t hear because we were exchanging a look, a look that said “we both know what happened here, we both know who arrived at orientation a few years ago and who is standing here now and we both know what a world of difference these few years made.” I’d say thanks for letting me be a part of that and they’d say thanks for being a part of that and then we’d clink our plastic glasses full of faux champagne.

But I couldn’t volunteer for that reception in Pasadena the next year because the President and her team had already begun to dismantle the place that could deliver on the promise (sadly, right as they were seeking to be designated a Hispanic Serving Institution – that should make you as mad as it made me).  Current students can still have a great experience at Mills because the faculty will deliver that even when they are the last one left standing. But the place has been diminished and most savvy families would spend their hard earned savings and courageous borrowings somewhere else. 

How can it be that not one among us is bold enough to say what is obvious: the current failure mode – at least on the enrollment and revenue front – tells us that the place has been managed into the ground NOT that the core product is outmoded or unsellable.   It IS real. It is worth doing. And we could win. 

None of us have yet conjured up the roadmap, but why not convene the right team and motivation and try?

3 comments

  1. Thank Dan for this poignant piece and your lifelong dedication to our beloved school.

    It is clear that the leadership has deliberately pushed Mills College into this position, which suggests that their proposed “UC Lifeline” was the plan all along. The Mills Institute design is being driven by Marilyn Schuster, former dean and provost of Smith College – Mills’ biggest women’s college rival. She has been at Smith since 1971 and remains in their web site. UCB Chancellor Carol Christ was President of Smith since 2002 before coming to Berkeley around the same time Hillman came to Mills. Beth almost immediately began her “Financial Destabilization Plan” and at the same time formed a partnership with Berkeley. Qui Bono? Clearly losing a major competitor is a win for Smith, while doubling the size of their campus for free is a win for Berkeley.

    The board of trustees appears to be stacked with long-term members who recruited Hillman and have not stepped down between terms as the bylaws required. We have to take their word about the College’s financial crisis, as everything we’ve seen publicly suggests this is being exaggerated. The college made a profit, its endowment went up, it sold the Shakespeare folio for more than was expected.

    How to do a “hostile takeover” when there are no shares to buy? Why has nobody sued for an injunction to stop this madness? Why are factions within the AAMC and Save Mills supporting a UC takeover? We need to focus our energies on *stopping* the takeover and use the courts to force regime change. The bus is heading over the cliff and the driver wants to pump the gas. We need to get the driver out of her seat and hit the emergency brake…like, now.

    Like

  2. I,too, have watched Mills for many years and reading this piece gives me hope that Mills CAN have a future, and I have to now jump onto the path that includes the absolute need for both President Hillman AND the Board of Trustees to relinquish their hold on the reins. Professor Dan Ryan makes really good sense,and I seriously hope that the team of which he speaks can be pulled together and that they will be able to keep Mills from the death aspired to by current “Leadership.” This has reached the crisis stage, and decisive and forward looking action must happen soon. Who might that team consist of, and how can the current Leadership be replaced?

    Like

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