Mills College students, alumnae fight to save their school. ‘There’s not another place like Mills in the world’ | #students | #parents

Mills College students and alumnae say they will not go down without a fight.

The 169-year-old women’s school, which said Wednesday it will stop offering degrees in two years, has a history of activism. Its students have battled administrators before and won.

But this time could be different. Mills has endured years of falling enrollment and declining revenue, and the problems only worsened during the pandemic.

As the rare private college with more than half of undergraduates identifying as people of color, and half LGBTQ, Mills holds a unique place in the Bay Area and in higher education, one that its supporters say is irreplaceable.

Mills is believed to be the only single-sex college in the country ever to get its board of trustees to reverse a decision to go coed. Student protesters occupied the campus for 13 days in 1990, triggering a reversal and cheers that echo to this day.

Now, as word travels among students and 25,000 Mills alumnae that the stately college in Oakland will no longer enroll new students after the fall, and will close in 2023 to become an institute, their anger and sorrow has turned to action. They have begun a movement to propel the trustees to reverse their decision.

Among the prominent voices protesting the closure is Lateefah Simon, a BART board director and president of the racial justice Akonadi Foundation in Oakland.

“I, along with hundreds of alumni, will work to save Mills,” said Simon, who spent 12 years working part time for her degree, earned in 2018. “I went to Mills as a single mother, and my daughter often sat at my side on the floor while I was in lectures. There’s not another place like Mills in the world.”

First year student, Kendall Bobo stands for a portrait just outside Mills College on Thursday, March 18, 2021 in Hayward, Calif. One of the oldest and last women’s colleges in the country, Oakland’s Mills College, is winding down, and is no longer enrolling first-year students

Amy Osborne / Special to The Chronicle

After learning of the board’s decision, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland and Mills Class of ‘72, announced that she was urging the trustees to reconsider “and to explore all available funding options to meet its financial challenges.”

Lee also was a single mother 50 years ago when she, too, brought her children to class at Mills. Lee led the Black Student Union and credits Mills with inspiring her passion for politics. She called the school “a bastion of diversity in higher education.” The school “must be able to continue in that important role.”

Katie Sanborn, chair of Mills’ board of trustees, told The Chronicle that she appreciated Lee’s passion for the college they both graduated from. But she gave no indication that the trustees would reverse their decision.

“Aggressive fundraising is not a solution to ongoing strategic operating deficits,” Sanborn said. Nor is admitting men.

“We believe the best long-term solution is to transition from being a four-year, degree-granting college and instead focus on building the Mills Institute,” she said. “At the same time, we will continue to seek collaborations with other academic institutions.”

Officials have said the college will become an institute — with details pending — to carry on the mission of the college to promote racial justice and the voices of women and people of color.

The private school is one of just 37 women’s campuses left in the country, according to the 2021 Guide to Women’s Colleges.

“Regional small colleges are deeply struggling, and it just so happens that some women’s colleges fall into that boat,” said Casey Near, author of the women’s college guide and a former admissions counselor at Mills. “It’s not a correct read to say this is happening to Mills because it’s a women’s college,” she said, noting that larger, more selective women’s schools like Smith, Wellesley and Scripps are doing well.

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