Mills College Lays Off Five Tenured Professors

BY HANK REICHMAN

On June 26, the board of trustees of Mills College, meeting behind closed doors, approved a vaguely formulated “Financial Stabilization Plan” (FSP) previously rejected overwhelmingly by the institution’s faculty.  The plan calls for reducing the number of departments from 18 to 13 and the number of schools from four to three.  Two majors — Latin American Studies and Philosophy — are to be eliminated as are four minors, including Physics.

As part of the plan, the board sent layoff notices to five full-time tenured faculty members, effective July 1.  These include full professors of English, History, Philosophy, and Physics and an associate professor of Ethnic Studies.  In June the administration had sent preliminary notices of layoff, pending board action, to eleven faculty members, at least seven of whom (including the five ultimately laid off) hold appointments with tenure.  At least two others, one full-time and one less than full-time, are in the midst of three-year term appointments.  Three of the eleven, including two full professors with tenure, took early retirement; the remaining three were retained, two of whom accepted changes in their teaching assignments.

Located in Oakland, California, Mills is a small liberal arts college for women with graduate programs that are coeducational.  Mills has been distinguished in recent years for its recruitment of students from the surrounding mainly minority community and for its progressive approach to transgender students.  A significant number of Mills students receive financial aid.  A quarter century ago Mills attempted to address an earlier financial crisis by announcing that it would begin admitting male undergraduates, but a rebellion by students and alumni forced the board to abandon that plan in favor of alternate approaches.  In May of this year the Mills board declared a “financial emergency,” claiming that the school’s annual operating deficit has grown to more than $9 million.  At the time the board said that some 30-35 faculty and staff would need to be laid off, but at this writing the number of staff layoffs is not available..

The board’s decision to lay off just five and not eleven faculty members marked a small concession to the Mills faculty, whose AAUP chapter, supported by the AAUP’s national staff and working through campus institutions of shared governance, has been organizing resistance to the Financial Stabilization Plan.  Another hopefully significant concession came with regard to the appeals process open to those laid off.  As AAUP Associate Secretary Hans-Joerg Tiede pointed out in letters to Mills College President Elizabeth Hillman on May 25 and June 13, “the appeal procedures for faculty layoffs in the Mills College faculty handbook fall short of . . . Association-recommended procedural standards by severely restricting the issues that may be raised in such proceeding.”  Moreover, under that policy appeals are heard by the provost, who sends a recommendation to the president, which essentially means that the very administrators who authorized the layoff in the first place are those who adjudicate the appeals.

In response to these criticisms Mills Provost and Dean of the Faculty Chinyere Oparah proposed adding a provision that would afford affected faculty members an opportunity to appeal an adverse recommendation by the provost to an outside arbitrator.  In a June 29 letter to Professor Roger Sparks, chair of the Mills Faculty Executive Committee, Tiede cited the Association’s Arbitration of Faculty Grievances, which states that “’where the faculty does not share in the making of decisions,’ as is currently the case in the applicable section of the Mills College faculty handbook, ‘arbitration may have particular utility.’”

It remains to be seen, however, whether this change will favorably impact the outcome of appeals filed by the five faculty members, who have retained legal counsel.  The process for selecting arbitrators must be neutral and the standards applied must be rigorous.  It should also be clear that the issues subject to arbitration should include the fairness of the criteria by which those laid off were chosen, whether the criteria were rigorously applied, and the financial or other justification for these dismissals.

What is perhaps most striking about the Mills administration’s actions has been its near-total refusal to involve the faculty in planning or to consider faculty opinion.  In a May 31 response to Tiede, President Hillman declared, “We value the advice of these [faculty] committees and have adopted a number of their suggestions.”  But faculty leaders complain that such consultation has been both infrequent and largely meaningless.  The Financial Stabilization Plan adopted on June 26, in addition to being painfully lacking in specifics, outlines major changes in curriculum, staffing, and faculty compensation that were never submitted to the appropriate faculty governance bodies for approval, or even thorough discussion and debate.  Indeed, those bodies pointedly rejected earlier versions of the plan as they leaked out, and the faculty as a whole has voted overwhelmingly to support an alternative proposal developed jointly by the Faculty Executive Committee and members of the AAUP chapter.

As Tiede wrote on June 13,

The Faculty Executive Committee provided a list of alternatives that it believed would obviate the need to terminate faculty appointments, thus calling into question whether the declaration of financial emergency was demonstrably bona fide.  We are not aware that the administration has provided a
rationale for declining to consider these alternatives to terminating faculty appointments.

If the administration’s concern were indeed strictly with finances these layoffs are hardly an effective response.  As one of the laid-off faculty members calculated, savings from dismissing the five tenured professors will amount only to about $50,000 in the first year, given promised severance packages and costs of hiring adjuncts to teach courses previously taught by those laid off.  More important, the alternate plan from the faculty, which proposes a combination of voluntary retirements and workload reductions along with temporary salary reductions over two years, would in fact be measurably more effective in reducing expenses than the administration’s plan.  The latter, a faculty economist has calculated, would save no more than $4.8 million over five years, while the faculty plan would save about $6.6 million over the same period.

In private meetings with faculty leaders, Mills administrators have all but acknowledged that their plan is more than a response to financial emergency.  It is, they believe, a bold proposal to remake the college’s curriculum, its student body, and its “brand.”  “At the heart” of the plan, they write, are efforts to “bring revenues to a sustainable level within three years” by implementing five reforms.  These are: instituting a “signature undergraduate experience;” building an alliance with the Peralta Community Colleges; expansion of the UC Berkeley Masters in Management and MBA joint program; development of an Executive Education Program; and recruiting efforts of full time athletic coaches.  These proposals are all ill-defined, with minimal guarantees of success.  And the first proposal for a “signature experience” seems to run counter to the plan’s objective commitment to shifting instructional resources from full-time tenured faculty to part-time adjuncts.

Even the selection of the five faculty members now laid off suggests the fuzziness at best of the board’s and its administration’s alleged vision for Mills’ future, pompously entitled “Mills Next.”  In a letter to the administration on May 22, the Mills Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure Committee raised questions about the criteria and evidence used to determine layoff order.  They wrote:

Layoffs of tenured and tenure track faculty, individuals that have been vetted by the College’s APT committee, raise questions about the status of tenure at Mills.  If tenure, going forward, is to remain on solid footing at Mills, that should be clearly stated in the FSP in both philosophical and concrete terms.  Faculty need to be aware in advance of when and how they will be assessed, and the FSP departs from the College’s promotion and tenure practices.

One faculty member laid off is a nationally recognized poet.  The original list included a world-renowned jazz musician.  But it is perhaps the targeting of the physicist that has most exposed the contempt that Mills administrators have for the college’s liberal arts and science tradition and ultimately for their students.

Here is what one Chemistry/Mathematics major wrote after learning that her physics professor would not likely be teaching again at Mills.

By eliminating physics while simultaneously reducing the number of faculty qualified to teach physical chemistry, Mills College is telling us female/non-binary science majors that we are not eligible competitors in the boys’ club of the physical sciences. Think about how this in turn affects female/non-binary empowerment both in STEM and in general.

For this reason, Mills College cannot claim that they are focusing on “academic excellence in the arts, sciences, social sciences, humanities, and technology” (MillsNext p.1) because without a department dedicated to an entire branch of science, we cannot demonstrate such academic excellence.

Another student voiced similar sentiments:

While I truly do not understand why our departments of chemistry and physics — departments so badly in need of support from professors like you to get us into these male dominated fields — were targeted, I still have hope that our college will recognize their mistake.  For one of the leading women’s colleges to turn their back on chemistry and physics is proof of how hard we as women still have to work for equality.  I will continue to advocate for my field.

The layoffs also have about them the odor of retaliation.  All those laid off have been active in faculty governance and, in some cases, the AAUP.  They are vocal and engaged and their removal suggests at least the possibility that the administration’s aim here is as much about decapitating and demoralizing faculty opposition as it is about finances and curriculum.  Already one of those laid off has been barred from campus and closed out of the college’s email system, even before any appeal process has begun.

It is, of course, no accident that Mills has begun to implement this alleged “plan” as summer begins, when the majority of faculty and students are not around to resist.  But AAUP members at Mills and other faculty members are gearing up for a fight this coming fall.  Earlier this year the provost proposed addressing the financial problem by having all faculty members teach an additional course each year, with no increase in salary, of course.  The Faculty Executive Committee rejected the idea, as did a vote by the entire faculty, but the administration unilaterally imposed it anyway.  Now many Mills professors are considering refusing to teach the additional class, since to do so would in effect be to scab on their laid-off colleagues.

The AAUP is proud to stand with our colleagues at Mills and other institutions facing similar assaults on shared governance and faculty rights.

This fight isn’t over.

28 thoughts on “Mills College Lays Off Five Tenured Professors

  1. Thank you for this exposure of what is happening to Mills College faculty. It is a warning for other higher ed faculty about the emerging “playbook” against us. However, your readers need to know that AAUP is proud to stand only with our tenure-line colleagues. Contingent faculty have been denied support at my institution by AAUP (represented by Joerg Tiede) because governance policy was followed, which allows no representation from contingent faculty. AAUP has not stood with us as we face similar assaults. It is important to be honest about that.

    • Contingent faculty at Mills are represented by the SEIU and have a current union contract. It is not the role of the AAUP to intervene when there is a standing collective bargaining agreement. I assume that agreement has provisions governing layoff. If those are inadequate the complaint would be better directed to SEIU.

      • Yes, Hank, but what about other institutions without CB agreements or unions where AAUP refuses to step in when contingent faculty are being demoted or “non-renewed?” These faculty are not allowed to participate in governance, and they have no recourse. My point is that AAUP only seems to step up for tenure-line faculty, not those who are kept out of governance. To be clear, I am not on the Mills faculty, but am in solidarity with them at a comparable liberal arts institution.

        • I believe we’ve discussed this before. If AAUP only defends tenure-line faculty how do you explain why last month we placed Community College of Aurora on our censure list for dismissal of a part-time contingent faculty member? See the full report here: https://www.aaup.org/report/cca-colorado. And see the statement of appreciation by that faculty member here: https://academeblog.org/2017/06/29/expressions-of-gratitude-for-aaup-for-recent-censures/

          There is little to be gained by pitting one group of faculty against another. Why anyone would think a defense of faculty at Mills is the appropriate forum for complaints about AAUP’s alleged inaction at another institution is beyond me.

          • I was a contingent faculty member at Mills College for ten years (up until last year), and very active in non-tenure track faculty advocacy; I would add to Hank’s comment that I was impressed by the AAUP’s willingness to work with Mills contingent faculty before they unionized–representatives met with us and discussed our options clearly and frankly. It also seems worth mentioning that at least two of the people being fired, and several of those on the original 11-person list, were strong and vocal advocates for contingent faculty at Mills.

            Thank you, Hank, for this piece. Everyone is higher education should be paying attention to what is happening at Mills right now

          • My only point is about your comment at the end of this very strong statement of support for Mills faculty. AAUP is NOT proud to stand in support of the six senior women faculty who were demoted at Pacific Lutheran, so we have to wonder if your CC of Aurora case is an exception that proves the rule. Our faculty (and most contingent faculty) have no access to governance or faculty rights. Perhaps AAUP as a body thinks that we do not merit it because we are not tenure-line. But I can assure you, my contingent colleagues are, on the whole, a highly talented pool of faculty, some with doctorates, many with decades of successful teaching and valuable contributions to the larger culture. Dare I say it, we are the underground university holding the whole creaky structure up, and AAUP is not defending us when we ask. That is our experience. You have that right of course, but let us be clear about it.

    • while I appreciate that your situation does not sound good, this seems a deeply unfair criticism of AAUP. AAUP cannot be and is not a union; we have unions for that. AAUP can and often does censure institutions for practices that violate its guidelines. AAUP repeatedly and clearly writes about contingent faculty, both their rights and the threat to faculty governance and academic freedom as a whole that the shift to heavy reliance on contingent faculty represents. I don’t know the details of your case, but “governance policy was followed” is not something AAUP can take lightly, depending on the history of how that policy was passed and what it is.

      i have, as I suspect everyone does, issues with some aspects of AAUP, but I believe “AAUP is proud to stand only with our tenure-line colleagues” is as a generalization completely untrue, and it is certainly untrue at the institutions I’ve been a part of–where, one should note, unionization is against state law, and so AAUP would be unable to have a presence at all were it to become an interventionist body along the lines you seem to be suggesting. They do what they can within very limited parameters that are not of their own making, and that in certain ways are important. Faculty should also be represented by unions. and states that outlaw unions should allow them. but those are not and can’t be AAUP’s issues.

      • I appreciate your point-of-view about AAUP and contingent faculty, and indeed I am a long-time AAUP member. I also think that Hank Reichman has done us a great service by providing in-depth coverage of the Mills situation and AAUP’s support. However, I also have to say that my own experience with AAUP in a time of crisis has not been positive, and that is what I am hearing from contingent faculty around the country. We, as AAUP, have strong guidelines for faculty governance, academic freedom, and conversion from contingent to tenure-line positions, like https://www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts. But when an institution doesn’t follow those guidelines, AAUP does not act unless the rights of tenure-line faculty are violated–at least that is my experience, and what I am hearing from others around the country. I am seeing figures as high as 1.3 million people who are contingent faculty and in need of AAUP support for our own guidelines to be followed. The “limited parameters” that you refer to need to be stretched!

  2. As a 45-year long member of GEW, the german educational union and former functionary of its “university section”, I do support AAUP’s resistance to this attac on academic workers’ rights and the disregard of faculty experience and proposals! Alas, this is a common problem even in countries like Germany with public funding of higher education and -compared to the US- rock-solid job security for those once admitted to academic positions. On the other hand, what wr have been observing for a decade now is the continuous erosion of full time and tenured positions and of long-term postdoctoral jobs. So the general direction universities move in is the same both sides of the Atlantic: Reduce cost of teaching by -plainly speaking- reducing quality. Or raising the number of courses by paying less to “hired -academic- hands” without a job or at the very start of a career. This neither serves the students nor the people teaching nor the educational system. But it seems to be a foundation of a neoliberal credo that has been taking over universities, be they private as yours or public as ours!
    So, please, keep the fight on, Venceremos!
    Werner Doerr, former Chancellor of a University of Applied Sciences (now off duty), still lecturer in Political Sciences

  3. I have always been amazed (and a bit jealous) that tenured professors mostly have such iron clad job security. I am 51 and had two experiences with unemployment: in my late 20’s and at 50. At each of these times I had to learn new skills and reinvent myself in order to meet the demands of the market.

    • Did you have to go back to school for ten years to get these new skills? There are various reason for college tenure that one would only understand if they worked in the field. The most glaring I just pointed out. Other minor issues are the fact that colleges do not hire professors lightly and do not offer comparable benefits if say a professor were to “freelance” like a regular career. They would be treated as adjunct and paid a fraction of their normal salary.

  4. As a Mills alumna, I’m very disappointed to hear of this. It seems only fair to allow an appeal process, and include the professor’s ideas on how the college can save money.

    • Mills does have male alumni from their grad programs, but the opposition 25 years ago was clearly from the undergrad women alumnae. Many institutions are now going with the anglicized and abbreviated alums, which despite taking two years of Latin I kinda prefer, but just didn’t use it for no conscious reason.

  5. The strength of any institution lies in the commitment and dedication of the people who do the main tasks; fo Mills that main task lies in the classroom

  6. What troubles me the most about this plan is its elimination of philosophy. What self-respecting liberal arts college does not consider philosophy as one of the liberal arts, an absolute necessity for the minds and hearts of its students? A very dark day in American higher education.

  7. Whittier College recently decided to close its law school. The law faculty are trying to invoke AAUP to come to their aid. BTW lost in these discussions is the law of students’ consumer rights. Majors cannot be quickly terminated. An excellent article on the issues appears in Vol. 19 California Western Law Review 461 (1984). Lawyers for students will prove successful in obtaining recovery for affected students.

  8. Very upsetting news, especially about the loss of the physics professor. How on earth are women supposed to get stronger in STEM if they can’t study them as undergrads and move on to grad school with the background experience they need? As a project coordinator for an interdisciplinary STEM graduate program at UMass Amherst, I am appalled at these choices, this is why we have such a problem finding diverse participants in STEM from undergraduate institutions. So disappointed in my alma mater. But I can only hope that this has a good ending.

  9. And so the new “signature brand” of this small liberal arts college is no longer the liberal arts–dump philosophy and physics– and now the college is cannibalizing its faculty? Decisions being made behind closed doors? Sounds like Mills has just shot itself in the head.
    Thank you, Hank Reichman, for this illuminating and incredibly depressing account.

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