Rep. Barbara Lee calls on Mills College to reconsider closure

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) will speak at events in both San Francisco and Oakland on Friday. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation)

Bay Area Congresswoman Barbara Lee is calling on the Mills College Board of Trustees to reconsider their decision to close the diverse Oakland private college.

The college announced this week that it will no longer admit first-year undergraduate students after this fall and will likely hand out its final degrees in 2023.

Lee said she is "heartbroken and outraged" about the impending closure.

"Mills College has been essential in the recruiting and retention of Black and Latin students, and must be able to continue in that important role," said Lee, a Democrat representing parts of Alameda County. "In light of these concerns, I am asking the Board of Trustees to reconsider the decision to close the college, and to explore all available funding options to meet its financial challenges." 

Mills College president Elizabeth Hillman said "the economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic, structural changes across higher education, and Mills' declining enrollment and budget deficits" are the primary reasons for the closure of the 170-year-old college.

Lee attended Mills College between 1969 and 1973 as a young single mother raising two sons. She was receiving public assistance at the time and often brought her boys to class when there was no one to care for them. 

Lee said she owes "a debt of gratitude to Mills College" for helping ignite a passion for public service and politics. 

As president of Mills College's Black Student Union, Lee invited then Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, to speak on campus. As a result of the meeting, Lee registered to vote for the first time. She also worked on Chisholm's historic presidential campaign, including serving as her delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami.

"It is critical that the (college) board does everything possible to maintain Mills' historic commitment to diversity and equity, and not allow any path that would diminish opportunities for African American and Latin students. Such opportunities are already too rare in California," Lee said in a statement. 

Mills officials said the college will work with students to either earn a degree at Mills over the next few years or transfer to another college or university.

There are plans to create the Mills Institute on the campus to "continue to foster women's leadership and student success, advance gender and racial equity, and cultivate innovative pedagogy, research, and critical thinking."