On June 26, the board of trustees of Mills College, meeting behind closed doors, approved a vaguely formulated “Financial Stabilization Plan” (FSP) previously rejected overwhelmingly by the institution’s faculty. The plan calls for reducing the number of departments from 18 to 13 and the number of schools from four to three. Two majors — Latin American Studies and Philosophy — are to be eliminated as are four minors, including Physics.
As part of the plan, the board sent layoff notices to five full-time tenured faculty members, effective July 1. These include full professors of English, History, Philosophy, and Physics and an associate professor of Ethnic Studies. In June the administration had sent preliminary notices of layoff, pending board action, to eleven faculty members, at least seven of whom (including the five ultimately laid off) hold appointments with tenure. At least two others, one full-time and one less than full-time, are in the midst of three-year term appointments. Three of the eleven, including two full professors with tenure, took early retirement; the remaining three were retained, two of whom accepted changes in their teaching assignments.
Located in Oakland, California, Mills is a small liberal arts college for women with graduate programs that are coeducational. Mills has been distinguished in recent years for its recruitment of students from the surrounding mainly minority community and for its progressive approach to transgender students. A significant number of Mills students receive financial aid. A quarter century ago Mills attempted to address an earlier financial crisis by announcing that it would begin admitting male undergraduates, but a rebellion by students and alumni forced the board to abandon that plan in favor of alternate approaches. In May of this year the Mills board declared a “financial emergency,” claiming that the school’s annual operating deficit has grown to more than $9 million. At the time the board said that some 30-35 faculty and staff would need to be laid off, but at this writing the number of staff layoffs is not available..
The board’s decision to lay off just five and not eleven faculty members marked a small concession to the Mills faculty, whose AAUP chapter, supported by the AAUP’s national staff and working through campus institutions of shared governance, has been organizing resistance to the Financial Stabilization Plan. Another hopefully significant concession came with regard to the appeals process open to those laid off. As AAUP Associate Secretary Hans-Joerg Tiede pointed out in letters to Mills College President Elizabeth Hillman on May 25 and June 13, “the appeal procedures for faculty layoffs in the Mills College faculty handbook fall short of . . . Association-recommended procedural standards by severely restricting the issues that may be raised in such proceeding.” Moreover, under that policy appeals are heard by the provost, who sends a recommendation to the president, which essentially means that the very administrators who authorized the layoff in the first place are those who adjudicate the appeals.
In response to these criticisms Mills Provost and Dean of the Faculty Chinyere Oparah proposed adding a provision that would afford affected faculty members an opportunity to appeal an adverse recommendation by the provost to an outside arbitrator. In a June 29 letter to Professor Roger Sparks, chair of the Mills Faculty Executive Committee, Tiede cited the Association’s Arbitration of Faculty Grievances, which states that “’where the faculty does not share in the making of decisions,’ as is currently the case in the applicable section of the Mills College faculty handbook, ‘arbitration may have particular utility.’”
It remains to be seen, however, whether this change will favorably impact the outcome of appeals filed by the five faculty members, who have retained legal counsel. The process for selecting arbitrators must be neutral and the standards applied must be rigorous. It should also be clear that the issues subject to arbitration should include the fairness of the criteria by which those laid off were chosen, whether the criteria were rigorously applied, and the financial or other justification for these dismissals.
What is perhaps most striking about the Mills administration’s actions has been its near-total refusal to involve the faculty in planning or to consider faculty opinion. In a May 31 response to Tiede, President Hillman declared, “We value the advice of these [faculty] committees and have adopted a number of their suggestions.” But faculty leaders complain that such consultation has been both infrequent and largely meaningless. The Financial Stabilization Plan adopted on June 26, in addition to being painfully lacking in specifics, outlines major changes in curriculum, staffing, and faculty compensation that were never submitted to the appropriate faculty governance bodies for approval, or even thorough discussion and debate. Indeed, those bodies pointedly rejected earlier versions of the plan as they leaked out, and the faculty as a whole has voted overwhelmingly to support an alternative proposal developed jointly by the Faculty Executive Committee and members of the AAUP chapter.
As Tiede wrote on June 13,
"The Faculty Executive Committee provided a list of alternatives that it believed would obviate the need to terminate faculty appointments, thus calling into question whether the declaration of financial emergency was demonstrably bona fide. We are not aware that the administration has provided a
rationale for declining to consider these alternatives to terminating faculty appointments."
If the administration’s concern were indeed strictly with finances these layoffs are hardly an effective response. As one of the laid-off faculty members calculated, savings from dismissing the five tenured professors will amount only to about $50,000 in the first year, given promised severance packages and costs of hiring adjuncts to teach courses previously taught by those laid off. More important, the alternate plan from the faculty, which proposes a combination of voluntary retirements and workload reductions along with temporary salary reductions over two years, would in fact be measurably more effective in reducing expenses than the administration’s plan. The latter, a faculty economist has calculated, would save no more than $4.8 million over five years, while the faculty plan would save about $6.6 million over the same period.
In private meetings with faculty leaders, Mills administrators have all but acknowledged that their plan is more than a response to financial emergency. It is, they believe, a bold proposal to remake the college’s curriculum, its student body, and its “brand.” “At the heart” of the plan, they write, are efforts to “bring revenues to a sustainable level within three years” by implementing five reforms. These are: instituting a “signature undergraduate experience;” building an alliance with the Peralta Community Colleges; expansion of the UC Berkeley Masters in Management and MBA joint program; development of an Executive Education Program; and recruiting efforts of full time athletic coaches. These proposals are all ill-defined, with minimal guarantees of success. And the first proposal for a “signature experience” seems to run counter to the plan’s objective commitment to shifting instructional resources from full-time tenured faculty to part-time adjuncts.
Even the selection of the five faculty members now laid off suggests the fuzziness at best of the board’s and its administration’s alleged vision for Mills’ future, pompously entitled “Mills Next.” In a letter to the administration on May 22, the Mills Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure Committee raised questions about the criteria and evidence used to determine layoff order. They wrote:
"Layoffs of tenured and tenure track faculty, individuals that have been vetted by the College’s APT committee, raise questions about the status of tenure at Mills. If tenure, going forward, is to remain on solid footing at Mills, that should be clearly stated in the FSP in both philosophical and concrete terms. Faculty need to be aware in advance of when and how they will be assessed, and the FSP departs from the College’s promotion and tenure practices."
One faculty member laid off is a nationally recognized poet. The original list included a world-renowned jazz musician. But it is perhaps the targeting of the physicist that has most exposed the contempt that Mills administrators have for the college’s liberal arts and science tradition and ultimately for their students.
Here is what one Chemistry/Mathematics major wrote after learning that her physics professor would not likely be teaching again at Mills.
"By eliminating physics while simultaneously reducing the number of faculty qualified to teach physical chemistry, Mills College is telling us female/non-binary science majors that we are not eligible competitors in the boys’ club of the physical sciences. Think about how this in turn affects female/non-binary empowerment both in STEM and in general."
For this reason, Mills College cannot claim that they are focusing on “academic excellence in the arts, sciences, social sciences, humanities, and technology” (MillsNext p.1) because without a department dedicated to an entire branch of science, we cannot demonstrate such academic excellence.
Another student voiced similar sentiments:
"While I truly do not understand why our departments of chemistry and physics — departments so badly in need of support from professors like you to get us into these male dominated fields — were targeted, I still have hope that our college will recognize their mistake. For one of the leading women’s colleges to turn their back on chemistry and physics is proof of how hard we as women still have to work for equality. I will continue to advocate for my field."
The layoffs also have about them the odor of retaliation. All those laid off have been active in faculty governance and, in some cases, the AAUP. They are vocal and engaged and their removal suggests at least the possibility that the administration’s aim here is as much about decapitating and demoralizing faculty opposition as it is about finances and curriculum. Already one of those laid off has been barred from campus and closed out of the college’s email system, even before any appeal process has begun."
It is, of course, no accident that Mills has begun to implement this alleged “plan” as summer begins, when the majority of faculty and students are not around to resist. But AAUP members at Mills and other faculty members are gearing up for a fight this coming fall. Earlier this year the provost proposed addressing the financial problem by having all faculty members teach an additional course each year, with no increase in salary, of course. The Faculty Executive Committee rejected the idea, as did a vote by the entire faculty, but the administration unilaterally imposed it anyway. Now many Mills professors are considering refusing to teach the additional class, since to do so would in effect be to scab on their laid-off colleagues."
The AAUP is proud to stand with our colleagues at Mills and other institutions facing similar assaults on shared governance and faculty rights.
This fight isn’t over.