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Mills College Scraps Plan to Admit Men

May 19, 1990|LARRY GORDON | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

OAKLAND — After a revolt by students and alumnae, Mills College officials Friday reversed their May 3 decision to enroll undergraduate men and said Mills would remain a women's school for at least three more years.

The change was in response to an extraordinary student strike that had shut down the 138-year-old campus for the last two weeks, as well as to promises from alumnae, faculty and staff to boost enrollment, cut costs and add $10 million to the school's $72-million endowment.

"All of you have had a lot of banners for us all week," Warren Hellman, chairman of Mills' Board of Trustees, told a crowd of about 200 students gathered at the center of the campus Friday afternoon. "Here's one for you," he said, unfurling a banner that proclaimed: "Mills. For Women. Again."

Wild cheers greeted the news along with chants of "We did it! We did it!" Students hugged each other and popped open bottles of champagne. Someone placed a yellow beret on Hellman's head, symbolic of the yellow ribbons students had worn in the protest against co-education.

"There's going to be some serious, heavy-duty partying on this campus," said junior Porscha Williams of Portland, who had participated in the protest blockades of offices on campus.

The students' passionate devotion to single-sex education has revived national debate on the philosophy and finances of women's colleges. And despite Friday's festive mood at Mills, the debate is not over.

Hellman and college President Mary Metz told reporters that Mills might still have to enroll men if the student undergraduate body does not increase from the current 772 to 900 by 1993, toward a target of 1,000 by 1995 that is needed to ensure Mills' financial health. Enrollment peaked at 907 in 1971.

Two weeks ago, trustees said such increases were not possible unless Mills began to admit male undergraduates next year. (Mills has 50 men among its 240 graduate students.) On Friday, trustees said they changed their minds because of promises from students, alumnae and staff to improve recruiting and fund-raising.

"We had a real turnaround plan brought to us by the constituencies of the college," Metz said. Asked why those plans were not offered months ago, she replied: "It's human nature not to confront difficult news until it is right upon you."

Among the proposals are:

A freeze on faculty hiring and an increase in the faculty-student ratio from one to 10 now to one to 13 by 1995. Professors also have offered to teach an extra course a year or work on student recruiting without pay.

Gifts from alumnae totaling $10 million for the endowment fund by 1995 and, separately, a boost in unrestricted donations for operating costs from the current $450,000 a year to $750,000 by 1993. That would require that the percentage of alumnae giving money to Mills rise from the current 39% to 45% in 1993 and 55% by 1995.

Alumnae association director Linda Kay said she was "very optimistic" because $3 million in unrestricted funds have been pledged in the last week, even though only about a third of graduates were reached in a telephone campaign.

"It sometimes takes something very precious being taken away to make you realize how much it means to you," Kay said, explaining alumnae response to the possibility of co-education.

To make its plans work, Mills will have to buck a trend that has seen the number of women-only colleges decline nationally from 298 to 94 over the last 30 years. In the last few years, such previously women-only schools as Wheaton in Massachusetts and Goucher in Maryland have gone co-ed, and Chatham College in Pennsylvania may make the switch soon because so few young women even consider applying to women's colleges.

The effect of the protests on the school's image is still not clear because the student blockades had held up mail deliveries containing deposits from next fall's potential new students. While some faculty members wondered whether the strong feminist aura might scare off applicants, student Williams predicted that all the media attention will help Mills.

"This put Mills on the map. Even some people here in Oakland thought we were a two-year secretarial school or a cemetery," she said. The four-year liberal arts school is on a tree-covered campus of 135 acres, surrounded by a fence stopped with barbed-wire.

Anissa Alston, a senior from Cerritos, described the student protest as "a calm revolution" with no violence and no arrests. Even the campus graffiti vilifying Hellman and co-education were written in chalk so they could be washed away.

Mills students contend that co-education would bring male domination to the classroom and destroy what they describe as the school's "nurturing" environment. Only two other women's colleges remain west of the Rockies: Mt. St. Mary's in Los Angeles and Scripps in Claremont.

There is speculation at Mills that Metz, president since 1981, will not remain in that job much longer because of her handling of the co-education issue. Asked on Friday about those rumors, Metz said she has not had time to think much about her future. Trustee Chairman Hellman insisted that Metz does not face firing.

Yet Metz, who said she reluctantly voted for co-education two weeks ago, will have to work hard to win back student confidence. In announcing the reversal, she told jubilant students on Friday: "Our passion for women's education has made history."

The crowd corrected her, roaring back with a feminist slogan: "We made \o7 her\f7 story."

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