Mills and the Future of All-Women Colleges

At the end of last year’s hit movie, The Kids are All Right, Nic and Jules (Annette Benning and Julianne Moore) drop off their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) to begin her freshmen year at an attractive, unnamed college. The campus was gorgeous — its stately buildings and lawns captured the promise of a nourishing and provocative undergraduate experience.

It received no mention in the film’s dialog or credits, but the scene was shot on the campus of Mills College in Oakland. Oddly, I had visited the campus hours before seeing the movie. The campus is five minutes from my house and I married a professor, but this was only my second visit to Mills in three decades of living in the Bay Area.

Mills is a hidden treasure that gets little recognition on screen or off. The school is a stranger to Silicon Valley and unknown to residents of Northern California outside of its passionate alumnae. This group includes several accomplished Bay Area women (and Dave Brubeck, since the graduate fine arts program admits men).

The college recently named a new President, Alecia DeCoudreaux, a Wellesley grad who brings a first-rate business, legal, and nonprofit background to her work. She may prove to be an inspired choice because she is better equipped than most academics to help Mills find three important things that it currently lacks:

A renewed raison d’etre. Women’s colleges survived secularization, discrimination, and patronization. But what is the role of an all-women’s college when the average US campus is 60% female — a number that grows to two-thirds by graduation?

Money. Mills subsidizes the cost of its degrees, but is dangerously under-endowed compared with peer institutions.

Partners. Nearly every other national women’s college participates deeply in academic consortia with adjacent colleges, allowing women access to a full range of courses and to men as an elective in social and academic settings.

Because most US colleges and universities were all male, women’s colleges arose more out of necessity than preference. Once all-male universities began to admit women, most women’s colleges began to admit men. As a result, women’s colleges today are strongest in countries whose major universities exclude women. Japan has more than seventy women’s colleges. India has more than sixty. Canada, in contrast, has one all women’s college left, Australia has two, the UK has ten and continental Europe appears to have no remaining secular women’s colleges.

During the past two centuries, more than 140 women’s colleges have closed their doors, more than 90 have gone co-ed (and at least a half dozen have done both, occasionally more than once). Only ten women’s colleges in the US went co-ed prior to World War II – but at least 34 took this decision in the sixties and seventies as women entered higher education in force.

My own family illustrates the trend towards co-ed schools. My grandparents met at Pomona College in the 1920s at a time when most colleges were still all male. Pomona had been founded as a co-ed college 1887, but while my grandparents dated and married in the campus chapel, Claremont established Scripps, an all-women’s college. By the time my mother attended Pomona in the late 40s, the Claremont Colleges had started an all-men’s school thanks to the surge of GI Bill funding. My mom’s college roommate was Panzy Pitzer, whose family endowed another Claremont College that was, for many years, a second all-women’s school. Pitzer became co-ed the year I applied to Pomona in 1970. CMC, renamed Claremont-McKenna, followed suit in 1976. Likewise, my in-laws attended segregated colleges (Harvard and Radcliffe) that are now merged and co-ed. My wife was in the first class of women at Williams College in the 1970s.

My daughters, had I managed to produce any, would not recognize the campus of their ancestors. Women in the US today make up 60% of college students. Women earn higher grades than men and graduate in higher numbers. Among older students, low-income students, and black and Hispanic students, the student body is even more predominantly female. Indeed, Mills or any other university that aspires to advance black and Latino education needs to focus on the poorly understood and rarely articulated needs of men.

Now that men’s colleges have all but vanished in the US (we are down to one, by most counts), only sixty US  women’s colleges remain. More than a third of these are Catholic schools. Another 20+ are regional schools (many vestiges of “finishing schools” that were common in rural America, especially the antebellum South).

Nine secular women’s schools in the US can credibly claim national reach: the five surviving “seven sisters” (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley), all founded in New England between 1837 and 1889, plus Scripps, Simmons, Spelman, and Mills. Seven of these nine schools have substantial endowments. Eight of the nine participate in meaningful academic consortia. Only Mills does neither.

The chart below shows the respective endowment of leading women’s colleges, normalized for undergraduate enrollment (unlike most sisters, Mills has graduate programs, so the comparison is even worse for Mills using total enrollment). For a college the size of Mills, a smaller endowment translates directly into higher pressure on annual fundraising campaigns, since Mills provides more than 90% of its students with financial aid, which totals about $15m annually.

Seven of these nine schools have substantial endowments. Eight of the nine participate in meaningful academic consortia. Only Mills does neither.

The second disadvantage facing Mills is its relative academic isolation. As the table below illustrates, most national secular women’s colleges participate closely with adjacent colleges. This involves much more than cross-registration for classes. Consortia schools share libraries, divide specialized departments, train faculty, engage the local community, and provide a range of common services. As important, women in consortia schools are able to interact with male students academically and socially at whatever level they judge optimal.  Mills serves women for whom the optimal level of contact with men seems fairly low — and I imagine that many women at Mills learn more and learn better as a result. The challenge for Mills is that the battle for female educational equality is won and then some. It must now bet its future on women for whom a 40% male presence is too much.

College Academic Consortia
Barnard A College of Columbia University. Barnard is a separate college, but students receive the diploma of the University signed by the presidents of both institutions, and the College is represented in the University Senate.   Shared residence halls, libraries, and athletic consortium. Barnard provides architecture, dance, education, theater, and urban studies; Columbia does computer science, statistics, and engineering.
Bryn Mawr Tri-college consortium (Haverford, adjacent, and Swarthmore).  Haverford, Bryn Mawr share newspaper, radio station, student activities.
Mt. Holyoke Five College Consortium:  Amherst College, Hampshire College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Common plan and annual report.
Scripps Claremont Colleges: Pomona, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Claremont McKenna. Common administration.
Simmons College of Fenway Consortium: Emmanuel, MA college of Art and Design, MA College of Pharmacy and Health, Wentworth, Wheelock.  Faculty development workshops, joint purchasing, and joint student programs
Smith Five College Consortium:  Amherst College, Hampshire College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Common plan and annual report.
Spelman Atlanta University Center Consortium is the largest consortium of historically black colleges in the US and includes Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College.  Centralized career planning, library, community development.
Wellesley Well-defined partnerships with Babson and Olin. Cross registration with MIT and Brandeis are passive.
Mills College No organized consortia. Cross registration is permitted with more than a dozen schools in the Bay Area, but the program is passive and not widely used.

What should Mills do? Here are three interesting scenarios.

Straighten up and go co-ed. Bad idea and in any case  off the table after a passionate strike successfully reversed a decision by the trustees to do this in 1990. But Mill has a gorgeous campus, a proven ability to attract a capable teaching faculty, and to build a very engaged and passionate alumnae network. Can this group raise money for Mills? Yes, with continued focus and renewed leadership, it can. Stronger ties to Silicon Valley would not hurt, but the school might need to muzzle its proud anti-corporate ethic to achieve this. Appointing a President who is a former drug company executive is a solid start.

Stay the course. Mills can try to remain a proudly idiosyncratic gem that caters to women for whom all-female is very important. It’s a tough group to bet on, since it is not a group that seems likely to grow as the years pass. On the other hand, it doesn’t need to grow, since nobody is going to start another women’s college. Mills may want to simply continue to provide women with an undergraduate experience that they are proud of and willing to support. This limits the scope of innovation available to the campus, but the kids are all right and hidden treasures are treasures nonetheless.

Build the consortium. Can Mills overcome the lack of a meaningful consortium and rival Scripps as a premier west-coast women’s college? Yes, but only if it takes on the Claremont Colleges, not just Scripps. This implies two big changes: a focus on undergraduate education and a commitment to diversity that draws more from Oxford than from Oakland.

Mills should phase out its business and education programs. The business school is architecturally and pedagogically barren and economically unnecessary. The education school is renowned but pointless. Plenty of research demonstrates that if you want a better history teacher, you teach them history, not education. Ed schools simply do not produce better teachers.

Instead of graduate programs, DeCoudreaux should build a three school version of the Claremont Colleges: convert the Lokey Business School to a high quality co-ed but heavily female science and technology school, where a focus on women makes a lot of sense. The school should rival Harvey Mudd. Endow it with Valley money from technologists who want more women in tech (Andreesen College, anyone?). Then turn the Ed School into a large, high quality, fully co-ed college to rival Pomona. The schools would share a range of services from libraries to placement, social events, and faculty development. Mills would be enhanced as a fully competitive, high quality all-women’s school. In twenty years, Mills would rival not only Claremont, but the surviving sisters. Hard to see that happening any other way.

Mills has a choice, not between women’s vs co-education but between being a tiny university with underfunded graduate programs and group of a very high caliber colleges focused on outstanding undergraduate education. From here anyway, it’s clear which direction Mills should go.