An Identity Crisis at Mills College

Students are protesting a proposal to eliminate dance as a major and the school’s acclaimed book art program.

Last Wednesday, just before noon at Mills College in Oakland, the school’s dance students staged an outdoor cypher on the campus’ central lawn. As the dancers took turns leaping into the center of the circle, others chanted “Mills needs dance!” Meanwhile, a large group of students gathered in front of the adjacent auditorium with painted signs carrying messages such as “Take back Mills,” and “Not a neoliberal business school.” Students from Mills’ acclaimed book art program passed out little, hand-printed books and posters with words like “Materiality matters.” Soon after, the school’s interim provost, Sharon Washington, and associate provost, Julia Chinyere Oparah, engaged the students in a heated forum regarding concerns about the shifting character of the small liberal arts school.

Mills students and faculty have been reeling since October 19, when college president, Alecia A. DeCoudreaux, sent out a memo announcing proposed changes to the school’s curriculum in response to Mills’ financial challenges. The administration’s plan calls for narrowing a number of majors, including international relations; eliminating the American studies and dance majors; and closing the entire book art program. It also proposes a number of additions and expansions, including a new data science program and a masters in economics. The administration set up eight meetings to hear responses from students and faculty leading up to December 1, when changes will be finalized.

Mills is a tiny, women’s college known primarily for its acclaimed education programs; its influential — and still thriving — music department; and its remarkably low 10–1 student-to-faculty ratio. But in recent years, the school has faced declining enrollment and has struggled with a large budget deficit. In 2013, Moody’s credit-rating service reduced the school’s financial rating to one level above junk bond, giving it a negative outlook. To cut costs, the college laid off eleven employees last year and slashed salaries across the board.

The October 19 memo stressed creating a more sustainable and competitive curriculum for future Mills students. “Like most liberal arts colleges in the US, we’re looking at how do we balance our revenue with our expenses, because, like most schools that are private, we rely on tuition,” Washington said in an interview last week. “We are trying to come up with a really vibrant, dynamic 21st-century curriculum.” She also stressed that the changes have not been finalized.

But at last Wednesday’s meeting, students and faculty strongly questioned the administration’s dedication to upholding the arts-centric legacy of the institution. Sheldon Smith, head of the Mills dance department, said in an interview that he was aware his department was under some scrutiny because he estimates that only three to five dance majors graduate each year (although there is an average of twelve students in every class), but he had no idea the major would be put on the chopping block. In his eyes, the dance department (which includes a graduate program) is the best it’s been in years, and eliminating the undergraduate major would cause it to collapse. At this crucial moment, he’s hoping administration will recognize the value of the program — which is one of the oldest in the country. “When things get tough, the accountants start to look at the things that they think are expendable,” said Smith. “Dance is one of these things that has always struggled for recognition in terms of being seen on an equal playing field with everything else in a liberal arts education.”

The same could be said for book art. The program offers a highly selective dual master’s degree in book art and creative writing — the only of its kind in the country — as well as a book art minor for undergraduates. In the classes, the students learn about the history of books while creating intricate “art books” in the studio. Although it’s easy to classify the field as outdated in the context of a 21st century curriculum, within the book art community, the Mills program is often regarded as the best in the country — and was also the first. Since the announcement, letters have been pouring in from concerned alumni and artists throughout the world, said program head Kathleen Walkup.

Book art classes have been taught at the college since 1930, and the dual MFA has existed since 2006. Walkup, who has been teaching in the department for more than thirty years, is the only full-time faculty member in book art; she’s assisted by an associate professor named Julie Chen. Because Walkup and Chen are both on three-year renewable contracts, which give them professor-level salaries but don’t grant them tenure, the book art department is uniquely positioned for the possibility of total closure.

But both book art students and faculty find the proposal to end the program a troubling indication of a gaping disconnect between the school’s administration and the reality of campus culture. “I honestly just don’t think that they realize how much this program is valued by not just the local community, but the national and even the international community,” said Walkup. “It is ironic that there’s just a huge push over and over for the past year to come up with innovative, interdisciplinary programs to give the school a national reputation and then they kill the one program that hits all those benchmarks.”

Grace Forrest, an undergraduate book art minor, said she was ready to leave Mills until the quality of the curriculum and the tightknit community of students she found in book art classes convinced her to stay. Before she spent time in the studio, she didn’t have a grasp of what book art was, and she’s convinced that the administration and board of trustees are similarly in the dark.

Since the proposal was announced, both dance and book art students have been trying to raise awareness about the value of their respective fields by gathering testimonials on Tumblr and petition signatures on As of Monday morning, the petitions had each gathered over 4,000 signatures.

“It’s fairly clear from the hundreds of letters that we’re getting that this program has had an important impact on people’s lives,” said Walkup. “And that’s what I care about — that the college recognizes that for what it is and recognizes the community that had developed around the program.”


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