“Better Dead Than Co-ed!”
That was the battle cry last spring when Mills College students--with faculty and alumnae support--staged a strike that shut down the campus for two weeks to protest a decision by trustees to admit male undergraduates.
On May 18, victory was theirs.
Trustees agreed to keep Mills for women--as it had been for 138 years--at least until 1993. They acted, they said, in response to promises from alumnae, faculty and staff to boost enrollment, cut costs and fatten the school’s $72-million endowment fund.
Seven months have passed. The graffiti have long since been washed away, the banners torn down; the media blitz that brought Mills international attention is history.
But there’s no lull on the Oakland campus.
Mary Metz, president since 1981 and a target of student ire for her reluctant vote for coeducation, resigned. So did beleaguered Dean of Admissions Zina Jacque. Former Vassar College president Virginia Smith, a Mills trustee, is interim president while a search committee considers more than 100 candidates of both sexes.
In September, Mills enrolled 254 new undergraduate students and 514 continuing students, a total of three below that of September, 1989. But the numbers reflect a significant jump in transfers--slightly older women who, “heard the message of the strike,” says Lindsey Beaven, vice president for communications and recruitment planning.
Dec. 1 was the official deadline for spring applications and, Beaven said, those are up from 76 last year to 105.
Recognizing, as one alumna observed, that keeping Mills for women might be “breathing life into a dinosaur,” the college is aggressively instituting new curricula during a time when the number of U.S. women’s colleges is down from 298 in 1960 to 93. Some studies also show that only 5% of women even consider a women’s college.
“We want to be special,” said Beaven. “Just being a women’s college isn’t going to do it.”
At an annual cost of $20,000-plus for tuition, room and board, Mills recognizes that it must offer something a large state university cannot, says Marilyn R. Chandler, associate professor of English and a member of Mills’ “Vision 2000" committee.
Pilot programs this year include small freshman seminars team-taught by professors from different disciplines. Among these are “Ecological Catastrophe and Public Policy” and “Understanding Revolution.”
“We want to say to the world, ‘Just watch us,’ ” Beaven says. “We’re free to change. We’re going to do some unbelievable things. We’ve got the courage to do it now.” Beaven acknowledged that a confused public may be asking, “What is this Mills becoming?”
She senses an “enormous commitment” to keeping Mills for women and thinks the strike brought residual benefits for all women’s colleges. “The case for a women’s college was brought up very clearly,” says Beaven. “Everything we’ve tried to do with the press over 10 years culminated in that two weeks.”
Still, Mills is banking on innovation and not just on being for women. The current mood on campus is both “excited” and “concerned about stepping into the unknown,” Beaven adds. “If we get (it) right, I think we’ll be OK.”
Changes are geared toward recruitment and retention, with a goal of 900 students by 1993, then 1,000 by 1995.
Patti Demoff, a 1968 alumna and Los Angeles-based admission’s officer, has been brought on board. Los Angeles is one of Mills’ largest markets. In visiting high schools, Demoff has found the co-ed issue secondary among prospective students to academics.
“I’m thrilled. I don’t think that should be the overriding concern . . . so long as Mills stays a good place to educate women.” To most high-schoolers, she has found, “The thought of being in a single-sex environment is a little bit scary.”
During the emotion-charged strike, the alumnae association pledged to raise $10 million in new endowment--$2 million in each of the next five years. Judy Calhoun, director of annual giving, reports, “So far, we have raised almost $5 million in pledges or gifts. . . . I think it’s a good sign.”
The association also promised to increase unrestricted gifts from the 1988-89 total of $407,000 to $750,000 annually within three years. “We actually made a gift of $600,000 in July,” from 1989-90 solicitation, she says; $725,000 is the target for 1990-91.
The momentum “is continuing,” she says, even though some activists are experiencing burnout. Among the 14,000 alumnae, 43% are now giving, “our highest in years, if not ever,” Calhoun says. “Our pledge had been to reach 45% within the three years.” An anonymous donor has also presented a $1-million matching-gift challenge.
The May crisis, in Calhoun’s view, “galvanized alumnae interest. It brought forth a lot of people who took Mills for granted.” Now, she added, the reality is setting in that “this is going to take work, this is ongoing.”
At a recent alumnae meeting in Brentwood, Chandler said, “It’s very tempting to be all things to all women. We’re making a decision not to do that.”
And, she said, the single-sex issue must not become so much bigger than life that Mills comes across as “a therapeutic institution for downtrodden women.”
One thing is certain, she added--"Everyone knows the name of Mills this year, which is a real change.”