In 2017, Mills College in Oakland, California, faced a budget deficit so severe — to the tune of $9 million — it declared a "financial emergency" as it moved to lay off dozens of faculty and staff.
Five years of multimillion-dollar shortfalls and enrollment declines had not only led to problems in the college's accounting books. It also created what Julia Chinyere Oparah, provost and dean of faculty at Mills, described as a "deficit culture" at a panel during this year's annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
As talk of budget cuts pervaded Mills, Oparah said faculty and staff at the women's college, which dates to the mid-19th century, were asking stark, existential questions. Among them, "Is it viable to be a women's college in the 21st century?", "Are we too countercultural?" and "Are we too queer?" (51% of students identify as LGBTQ).
And then there were questions about financial sustainability, which Oparah said can't just be about balancing the college's budget. "It's not enough for us to have a financially viable institution if it's not financially viable for our students to navigate through the institution to graduate," she said. "And increasingly, our students are facing financial stresses."
Even with the situation dire, many faculty resisted change, Oparah said, noting she thought people hold on tightest to what they have in uncertain times.
Many faculty members wanted the university to stick to an agreement made about a decade ago that the small liberal arts college would not launch a business major, even as Oparah said business was the most desired program among its incoming students, who now more than ever were first generation. Another professor told her there was no place at the school for an online program.
There was pushback on staff cuts, too, which can be expected. "Many of us do reorganize on the backs of our staff," Oparah acknowledged, saying that doing so forces remaining staff to take on more work.
Mismatches between how resources were deployed and the needs of "students living in the 21st century" meant some programs were "tiny," with just a few students in them, while other popular programs were "starved" for resources, Oparah said.
None of this is unique to Mills. On a slide, Oparah listed key features of the school's travails: enrollment declines, structural deficits, low staff morale, questions about the college's mission versus pragmatic necessities, and other issues. "Any of you recognize or resonate with any of these?" she asked the room to knowing chuckles from her audience.
"It's not enough for us to have a financially viable institution if it's not financially viable for our students to navigate through the institution to graduate. And increasingly, our students are facing financial stresses."
Julia Chinyere Oparah
Provost and dean of faculty, Mills College
To tackle these problems, the administration tried to focus on investing in students rather than the need to cut the budget. "Beneath the surface, we had to change the culture," Oparah said. That meant finding ways to talk about money that emphasized investments as well as building a sense of accountability among faculty in how the college spends on its programs. Mills also sought a "narrative" about its shared mission. "There was a sense of loss and grieving for faculty, who had seen so much change," she said.
Structurally, the college reduced tuition by 36%, streamlined its curriculum, revised around two-thirds of its programs to make them more accessible to transfer students and reduce the number of under-enrolled classes, reorganized its academic structure and reinvested in areas of student need. It also created a faculty award for excellence in online education and centered its undergraduate program on student experience in a new initiative called MPower.
Further, Mills created new pathways into and out of the college. In the fall of 2017, it partnered with the University of California, Berkeley. The university, under political pressure to accept more students from the state while facing capacity issues, had plenty of reasons to work with Mills. The latter had small classes, strong engagement between faculty and staff and access to high-demand courses, said Margaret Hunter, associate provost for recruitment and student success at Mills, who also spoke on the panel.
The partnership includes a shared 3-2 engineering degree, in which students attend Mills for their first three years. In other cases, Berkeley provides a path into some of Mills' graduate programs. Those include its MBA, which focuses on socially responsible and ethical business administration, and that Hunter said might appeal to Berkeley undergraduates who may not qualify for the university's highly selective MBA program.
Also in 2017, Mills partnered with Peralta Community Colleges to create a guaranteed pathway into Mills.
Throughout the many changes and painful cuts, it was critical to lead "with emotional intelligence," Oparah said, especially when navigating contentious issues with senior faculty.
"You can't burn out in the middle and crash," she said.