Men! You can’t live with them. But you can’t live without them—at least not at Mills College. Not anymore. After 138 years of educating only women as undergraduates, the elite Oakland, Calif., institution decided this month that declining enrollment and mounting budget problems had left it no choice: Men would be welcome starting in August 1991.
Hundreds of Mills undergrads made it clear they thought closing the college altogether might be preferable. Gathered on the college green to hear the verdict of the predominantly female board of trustees, they greeted the announcement by board president Warren Hellman with agonized shrieks. “There was an unreal wail,” says art history teacher Mary-Ann Lutzker. “It was almost like the sound of an earthquake.”
Indeed, even the tremors of last October, which damaged the administration building, hadn’t shaken the sylvan Oakland campus as thoroughly. “I felt like my best friend had died,” says sophomore Jennifer Wallace. “It was like the earth fell out from our feet, and we were falling.” When Mills president Mary Metz explained her vote in favor of coeducation to a gathering of the undergraduates (men have been admitted as graduate students at Mills since the 1930s), students turned their backs until she had finished speaking. Women chanting “Fight the power!” blockaded buildings, boycotted classes and strung up banners proclaiming WE HAVE BEEN BETRAYED. Yellow arm bands, anklets and bandannas symbolizing the women’s “hostage status” became the order of the day. There have been outpourings of sympathy at Scripps, Mount Holyoke, Smith and other women’s colleges, where petitions were circulated protesting the Mills decision. Several Mills diehards, including freshman Amy Hutto, demonstrated their anger by shaving their heads. “Women have historically shaved their heads to protest the patriarchal idea of how they should look,” Hutto explains. Posters demanded Hellman’s resignation, and some militants went so far as to hang the top trustee in effigy.
“I’ve never been hated by a thousand people before,” says the beleaguered Hellman, a San Francisco investment banker whose family’s service on the Mills board goes back 75 years. “It’s quite a traumatic experience,” he adds, holding an inch-thick stack of messages that jammed his fax machine after the announcement. “Ultimately, as sad as I am about how the students feel, I don’t think we have any choice. Economically, we couldn’t possibly survive unless we have more than a thousand undergraduates.” Undergraduate enrollment at the $17,000-a-year institution has fallen from 907 in 1971 to the present 777. Ironically, Hellman left three prestigious clubs (one founded by his uncle) because, he says, “the bastards refused to admit women.” Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it’s kicking him.
Why do the students so adamantly oppose opening their school to the opposite sex? “The issue isn’t men,” insists student body president Robyn Fisher. “It’s the value of women’s education. Women don’t have a place in society to speak out.” There is no question that women’s colleges belong on the endangered species list: Only 94 remain, down from 298 in 1960. And it’s widely believed that men tend to intimidate women and discourage them from expressing their views in coed classrooms. “The whole campus environment changes when men are admitted,” Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for the Washington. D.C.-based Women’s College Coalition, observed. “Male students are taken more seriously, and women suffer.”
Many Mills students, determined to avoid that fate, have signed pledges to leave if men are admitted. “We were told we would be empowered. Coming to a women’s college would give us the opportunity to find our voices. Now men are going to arrive,” says first-year student Zoe Adnopoz. “The freshwomen class is in limbo.” Gretchen Andrews concurs: “We love men. But we want this place to ourselves.” Bischoff. a senior in art history: “We’ll do whatever it takes to reverse the decision. They can’t run a school if they don’t have any students. We have the power to close the college.” The problem at hand, of course, is keeping it open.
—James S. Kunen, Liz McNeil and Dianna Waggoner in Oakland