The news that Oakland’s Mills College will soon close after 170 years of providing a distinctive educational experience for women came as shocking, yet not altogether surprising, news. Founded in 1852 as the Young Ladies’ Seminary in Benicia, Susan and Cyrus Mills, “Champions for equal education for women,” bought the seminary in 1865, renamed it Mills College, and moved the campus to Oakland six years later.
In 1990, Mills attracted national attention when another financial crisis led to a board of trustee’s decision to admit men, which ignited fierce opposition among students, alumnae, and others who recognize that women’s colleges continue to play a critical role in higher education.
Back then, Mills students wearing T-shirts reading, ‘’Better Dead than Coed,’’ celebrated the victory. However, it now appears their beloved college had only temporarily been spared.
The number of women’s colleges dwindled from 230 fifty years ago to fewer than 40 today. Nonetheless, these institutions have produced many of the nation’s leading luminaries — from Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton (Wellesley), to Elaine Chao, the first Asian American women cabinet member (Mount Holyoke), to Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (Spelman), to Academy Award winner Sofia Coppola and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (Mills).
In a higher education world where too many women continue to be stereotyped and asked if their personal and career goals are too lofty, “Are you sure medical school is a realistic goal for you?” is not a question asked at women’s colleges, or at historically Black colleges for that matter.
Whenever I had occasion to visit the beautifully tranquil Mills campus, I could sense the power and possibility its community of educators — women and men alike — had instilled and inspired in generations of women.
A Jewish Kaddish prayer of mourning proclaims, “The departed live on in the acts of goodness they performed and in the hearts of those who cherish their memory … ” May the goodness of Mills College abide among us always as a loving benediction.
Like colleges that were founded in the 19th century with specific missions to serve women and Black Americans who were denied entry to many higher education institutions, Catholic colleges were often established to provide access and religious education to Irish, Italian, and other Catholic immigrants similarly relegated to the margins of American life.
Some of these colleges fielded teams, like Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, that became sources of pride for their immigrant fans, increased institutional prominence, and provided for their very survival through increased enrollments and financial support from loyal alums.
The late U.S. Commissioner of Education Ernest Boyer observed in his book, “College: The Undergraduate Experience in America,” that prospective students and parents believe there to be a direct relationship between educational excellence and winning athletic programs.
Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie once famously heaved a last-second “Hail Mary” pass to defeat the mighty Miami Hurricanes. Shortly thereafter, BC’s enrollments soared and it went from a regional college to become one of the nation’s most academically competitive.
When I served as faculty moderator for the Saint Mary’s women’s basketball team, then head coach Kelly Graves encouraged his players to “Beat the T-shirt teams”: Teams whose t-shirts are worn by people who can’t find Durham, North Carolina, South Bend, Indiana, or Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on a map. Upon leaving Saint Mary’s to become head women’s coach at Gonzaga, I kidded Kelly that he was going to coach a T-shirt team.
Although Gonzaga’s championship quest came crashing down on Monday night, the reality is that like the Flutie Factor, the Coach Mark Few Factor has served what was once a relatively anonymous Catholic university far better than if Few had been a Nobel Prize winner.
As the Stanford women’s team marched toward another national championship, future Hall of Fame Coach Tara Vanderveer joined the members of the Women’s Coaches Basketball Association in calling out the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for the glaring inequities between the resources the NCAA provided to women’s and men’s teams during the recent championship tournaments.
Faced with embarrassing video evidence of the disparities, NCAA President Mark Emmert reportedly acknowledged that the Association had “some serious work to do” and that “there’s no question that we dropped the ball, that we had some serious misses” around the 2021 women’s tournament.
It is “serious misses” and “dropped balls” like these that suggest the need has not yet passed for women-focused institutions and organizations.
Tom Brown is a longtime St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: firstname.lastname@example.org