‘Financial Emergency’ at Mills

College announces layoffs (likely including tenured professors) and plans for curricular reform -- amid a deficit that has grown to $9 million.

May 17, 2017
 

In 1990, Mills College announced that it would become coeducational, with officials saying it was no longer viable to remain a women's college. Sixteen days of protests followed, with students demanding that the college remain a women's institution.

The board relented. College officials said the spirit of the students was a sign of great things to come for the liberal arts institution. The movement attracted global attention to the Oakland, Calif., college.

On Tuesday the college announced that its board had declared a "financial emergency" that will lead to layoffs of faculty and staff members and a new approach to the curriculum. The college's annual operating deficit has grown to more than $9 million -- a considerable sum at an institution where the operating budget for next year is $57 million.

Under the college bylaws, a declaration of financial emergency can be approved when there is a "need to reorder the college’s financial obligations in such a way as to restore and/or preserve the financial stability of the institution." Under those bylaws, such a declaration "authorizes Mills to restructure all of its expenses, including staff and faculty salary and other expenses, in pursuit of financial stability."

The college expects layoffs to hit 30-35 faculty and staff members. President Elizabeth L. Hillman said it was likely that tenured faculty members would be in that group. The total head count of employees (faculty and staff members) at Mills is 569, but many are part-timers and the layoff targets are in full-time-equivalent terms. The college's faculty and staff FTE is 353.

Hillman said the college realized it was not declaring "financial exigency," the term that the American Association of University Professors uses for institutions that are in such dire condition that they may need to eliminate the jobs of tenured faculty members so the institution can survive. She said the board wanted to act on the basis of the Mills bylaws. (The value of the endowment at Mills is $177 million, which would make it hard for the college to declare exigency.)

The college has been struggling financially for years -- with faculty members sparring with the administration over how to respond. Hillman has been in office for about 10 months.

In recent years, applications and enrollments have dropped from prior levels. Consider these numbers from the college's Common Data Set:

  • In 2013-14, the college had 1,827 applicants, admitted 1,242 and enrolled 217 first-year students.
  • In 2015-16, the college had 839 applications, admitted 639 and enrolled 139 first-year students.

Hillman said that enrollment has stabilized and the college has 177 deposits on hand for new students to enroll in the fall. Still, she said, the college has capacity for more students.

With a six-year graduation rate of about 67 percent, the college has also struggled to hold on to students. While that figure is above the national average, it is not the kind of graduation rate about which residential liberal arts colleges boast. Mills does much better than many other institutions when it comes to diversity. A slight majority of students are nonwhite. Many are from low-income families. Mills was early among women's colleges to adopt a formal policy to admit transgender students.

To attract more students, Hillman said that Mills would work quickly to revamp its curriculum. She said the new curriculum remains to be figured out but will include a "signature experience" and will promote both the liberal arts and preparation for careers.

An announcement from the college about the new curriculum put it this way: "A key component of MillsNext [as the program will be called] will be the creation and implementation of a bold new education experience that will bring additional women and gender-nonbinary undergraduate students to Mills. This signature experience will provide a life-changing education opportunity that is affordable and accessible for all students. Every learning pathway -- whether it includes a major or double major, minor, or accelerated master's program -- will provide students with the tools and confidence to solve complex problems, communicate across differences and take action aimed at transforming their communities and the world. This signature undergraduate program will provide a life-changing education opportunity that is affordable and accessible for all students."

Issues of gender and racial justice will also be a focus of many academic experiences, the announcement said. Further, she said Mills was in discussion with nearby colleges, such as the University of California, Berkeley, about ways that their students might take some courses at Mills.

Asked how Mills can create these new efforts while supporting current, more traditional departments, Hillman said that "consultation" with faculty members will take place and "an academic reorganization may be on the table."

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