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Mills College in Oakland is closing to become an institute

The 169-year-old Mills College, one of the few women's colleges in California, announced Wednesday it's shifting from a degree-giving college to an institute promoting women's leadership.

After fall 2021, Mills will no longer enroll new-first year undergraduate students and it will likely confer its final degrees in 2023, pending further consideration and action by the board of trustees, Elizabeth Hillman, the school's president, said in a letter posted online.

"Our goal is to deliver an exceptional academic and co-curricular experience to our students for at least the next two academic years, with Mills faculty and staff at the heart of that experience," Hillman wrote. "Additional information will be provided in the coming weeks regarding academic opportunities for students. Similar planning will be launched to develop transition plans and opportunities for faculty and staff."

Opened in 1852, two years after California became a state, Mills is steeped in history. The college was originally founded in Benicia as the Young Ladies' Seminary, according to the Mills website. The school was moved to Oakland in 1872, after being purchased by two missionaries who were champions of women's rights. Mills has been hailed for many firsts over the years, including the first women's college to offer a computer science major in 1974, the first and only women's college to reverse a decision to go co-ed in 1990 and the first single-sex college to adopt an admissions policy welcoming transgender students in 2014.

The college survived two world wars, but the pandemic has presented new challenges and the need for a new path forward.

"Declines in enrollment, coupled with years of operating loses and the unexpected challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, require this change," Hillman said in a video posted on Twitter.

The college faced financial struggles even before the pandemic. "In 2017, Mills College declared a 'financial emergency,' laying off several tenured professors, due to 'five years of multimillion-dollar shortfalls and enrollment declines,'" according to the Campanil, a news site covering the school.

The design for the institute is still being worked out, but Hillman said it will carry the same mission as the college.

"Mills intends to continue to foster women's leadership and student success, advance gender and racial equity, and cultivate innovative pedagogy, research, and critical thinking by creating a Mills Institute housed here on campus," Hillman wrote. "Over the next few months, Mills faculty, trustees, staff, students, alumnae, and other stakeholders across our community will consider potential structures and programming for a Mills Institute."

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