All Women, With No Apologies

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`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.''

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.

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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?

The all-female classroom is very important. We have a number of transfer students who have had some experience in co-ed college classrooms, and they recognize the value of the uniqueness of this experience.

I taught at two co-educational institutions before coming to Mills. I can take the same material here and teach it in a co-ed setting, and find that it takes women a lot longer to develop confidence in the classroom and themselves so they really blossom.

The difference is not in the water or the air; it's in the training that women get in an all-female classroom that gives them confidence in their own ideas and their ability to be experimental and risk-takers. It's not that men would somehow pollute the environment here for women, but rather we would dilute the attention given to women. There isn't any question that we are going to remain a women's college.

Many teachers indicate that the nature of children and teenagers has changed from 20 years ago. Has the nature of the college student changed?

It varies a great deal from student to student, but generally students are coming to college with more experience in life, and in many instances they are more troubled. I saw this at Princeton, and I see it at Mills. We will have students, for example, who will identify themselves as children of alcoholic parents and seek assistance from the institution.

Also, I find that students challenge the faculty more in the classroom, so that if something is not understood it will be brought out and discussed.

In your academic experience, and in your three years as president here, what have you learned to trust?

I trust my values and instincts.... I have a great deal of trust in the training I received as an academic, which informs some of my decisionmaking, and I have a sense - it may be trust - that it is possible to make mistakes and nonetheless find a solution to something. When there is an absence of respect and listening, I tend to distrust the situation. I don't like to be bullied, and I distrust a person who will try to get something by aggression.

I was a full-time faculty member for 10 years, and I know it can be a lonely life because your peers can be hard on you.

Are there new programs you want to start at Mills?

What we want to do for women who are currently leaders, whether at the grass-roots level or maybe heads of law firms, is to invite them to take a few days, weeks, maybe even months, to step away and work with other women to help manage the change that is occurring for women [in society]. We have established a Woman's Leadership Institute to help make this change more supportive and positive for all women.

This fall we are sponsoring a women-in-science summit where women scientists can sit around the table with their peers and say, here is what we women can do to help other women come along this path. Our students will be involved too. Women who are in positions where they can be agents of change often have grueling and lonely responsibilities. We'd like to be taking each other's hand and saying, here's the way we suggest the changes be made. In some instances, when doors are not open, we may need to beat them down.

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