The Mills College Campus is beautiful – wide sweeping lawns, and tree-lined boulevards. It’s a tranquil place where I can picture myself reading a book in the warm sunshine, or maybe even doing interpretive dance in front of the student union – which is exactly what’s happening when I walk onto campus.
The dancers jump, sway, and sometimes shout. This dancing is not about joy or tranquility. It’s a protest. These dancers are trying to save their department.
While the dancers protest on the lawn, other students gather at the student union for a forum on the proposed cuts to the Mills curriculum.
Artistic sanctuary in danger
The room is packed. Many students hold colorful signs that say things like “Defend Liberal Arts” or “Take Back Mills.” There are dancers here, too. One is standing at the front of the room – wrapped in billowing flowered fabric, she moves in response to various comments made by administrators or students.
Students bring up a number of concerns during the forum.
“It seems so counterproductive to get rid of the education that people are asking for,” says senior Erica Veitch. “What we need is to improve our existing departments – and though yes, there might be room for change we don't need to cut departments to get that.”
Dance and Book Art, in particular, are unique programs. Mills has the longest continuously-running dance department in the country, and has trained leaders in the field, like MacArthur Foundation genius Trisha Brown. The Book Art program – which combines printmaking, letterpress, and handcrafting books – is the only one of its kind in the country. Students like Oakland local Amirh McNeil are concerned that the proposed cuts and restrictions would mean getting rid of the Mills College they know and love.
“Coming to Mills was about me finding sanctuary in a town that is oftentimes difficult to survive in as a young person of color, especially a young black woman,” McNeil shares. “I know for sure that I need my younger sisters to be able to look at Mills for ways to produce art, ways to get things off of their chest, and off their shoulders, and I think the programs that are proposed to be cut are the exact programs that they would be looking towards enrolling in.”
Most of the meeting is respectful, if a little tense. but toward the end things get more heated. At one point, students start to yell over Provost Sharon Washington as she attempts to answer a question.
Keeping it all together
Washington’s job as provost is to balance the school’s academic priorities with its budget. When I get the chance to meet with her a couple of days later, she says she actually felt great about the forum, but she hopes critics of the proposals try and look at the issue from a bigger perspective.
“We, like many liberal arts institutions in the country, are really looking at what does it mean to be able to deliver the kind of curriculum that our students are looking for,” she says. “But also looking at can we do that in a way that feels financially sustaining.”
The school is tuition dependent – and Provost Washington tells me that Mills can’t keep raising its prices.
Annual tuition and fees for an undergraduate are now about $43,000, a 20 percent increase since 2009. Since Alecia DeCoudreaux became the school’s president in 2011, the college has reportedly laid off 11 employees, cut the track team, enforced staff and faculty salary cuts, but still, they’re looking at a projected $3.7 million deficit for 2016.
Washington thinks students might not understand that curriculum decisions are actually made with a lot of input and discussion.
But, I spoke with a number of students and faculty who felt very differently.
Stakes are high for Book Art
“There's been no conversation. There is not a conversation,” Book Art Department Director, Kathleen Walkup, tells me. “The first warning that I had about this was not even a warning it was a statement made over the telephone. On a Sunday night. Less than 24 hours before this announcement was going to be made public.”
Walkup feels like the administration doesn’t totally understand what’s at stake for her department.
“If the studios are dismantled. It would take another generation to build them back up,” she says. “Given the fact that most of our equipment is no longer manufactured, once it's lost it's would be next to impossible to get much of it back. I would feel I think like my right arm were being chopped off if I had to watch these presses and types go out the door.”
Students and alums have rallied together in a major way to try and save the Book Art program. As of last week, there’s a petition to save the department on change.org with more than 4,200 signatures. There’s also a blog with pages and pages of heartfelt testimonials from students and alums alike.
Walkup says she knows this program won’t ever be big moneymaker for the school, but that’s not the point.
“It's never going to be a huge program because it's for very specialized students,” she says. “But the students that we have, when they come into the program one of the first things they usually say is oh there's other people that think just like I do.”
Mills dancers also feel that the dance department is special, welcoming place. And they’re angry that the department is facing cuts.
Not just 'fun little fairies'
“I’m absolutely mad,” says dance MFA student Bhumi Patel.
Patel says that she’s angry that artists are still fighting cuts to the arts.
“We’re not just in a studio frolicking around doing turns and just like gallivanting like fun little fairies,” she protests. “That’s not what we’re doing.”
Patel says the study of dance and the arts in general, is invaluable – even if the benefits cannot be fully measured financially or through data points. She notes that even though there are many female-bodied or female-identified people in the arts, “all the leadership positions in the field they’re all men. We need to have a space where we’re educating women to step into these roles.”
With budget issues looming large throughout higher education, both arts programs and women’s colleges across the country are fighting for survival. If Dance and Book Art don’t make it, then these students and faculty believe Mills won’t either.
Click here for more information on the Mills proposals. The period for public comment ends on December 1st.