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All Women, With No Apologies

Three years after students halted a proposal to admit men, a new president reinvigorates the Mills College campus

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 12, 1994



OAKLAND, CALIF.

`I THINK most administrators are only right about half the time on key issues,'' says Mills College President Janet McKay candidly, ``but if you get the right half right, you're doing well.''

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Three years ago Dr. McKay quietly stepped onto the beautiful but troubled Mills campus as new college president. Mills was in crisis.

The 150-year-old all-women's college in Oakland, Calif., had been shut down for 16 days by angry students protesting the administration's bold decision to accept men as undergraduates.

The trustees, looking for more students and more revenue to reverse a shrinking enrollment, said men were necessary.

No, said the women students: It is unthinkable to alter the purpose of the historic college.

In the end, after much national attention and fierce debate, the college trustees changed their decision. No men for Mills.

The students rejoiced. The former president departed. Enter McKay, fresh from Princeton University, where she was vice provost and a linguistics scholar with a reputation for crisis management.

As the new president of Mills, she stopped operational forays into the college's $70 million endowment, tightened controls over the $28 million budget, eliminated some jobs, and diversified the faculty (41 percent of new faculty and staff hired are minorities).

In marketing the college, she increased efforts to attract older transfer students and women resuming college after years away.

She established a three-year tuition freeze at about $20,000 a year, including room and board.

To build a new dorm, rewire the campus with fiber-optic cables, and do other renovations, the college sold $12 million worth of bonds.

After the student strike, the amount of alumnae gift-giving rose significantly, as did hefty contributions to the endowment fund, now at $95 million. Most importantly, the 1993 entering class was the biggest since 1976. Total enrollment, which for years has included some men at the graduate level, reached 1,137.

``I don't intend to be a career president,'' says McKay, with her characteristic eye contact and direct, firm manner, ``but I care passionately about this institution because it is very important to be the model for the way women should be educated.

It has taken three years to work through the crisis, and we are on a somewhat firmer footing with a rosier outlook.''

McKay has two young daughters, and recently married for the second time. The following are excerpts from an interview with her on the Mills campus.

In a broad context, why have a woman's college?

We are a long way from economic and gender equity in our society, and there are more women than men going to college now. But women who graduate from college still have the same lifetime earning capacity as men who graduate from high school. What we have now is a system that allows educational opportunities for women, but not economic opportunities.... We market the value of the classroom experience for women at a woman's college, and it is an asset, especially for women who are a little bit more mature.

Do women do better without men in a learning environment?