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Grinding Mills College 

Wednesday, Nov 25 2015
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Nora McKinnon left Southern California for Oakland's Mills College, specifically because of the school's book arts program. McKinnon, who is getting her M.F.A. in creative writing and book arts, says she learns printing skills while developing her craft as a writer.

"It's holistic — I write in the morning and then, later on, I'm going into the studio and printing what I have written," she said. "It's a special and important program — I wasn't interested in just studying English."

McKinnon didn't know what to think when she received a school-wide email sent on Oct. 19 by the college's president, Alecia DeCoudreaux, saying Mills officials were considering curriculum changes and the book arts program could be eliminated.

"I was totally shocked and confused as to why they would dismantle such a unique and vital program," McKinnon said. "Everyone is engaged — it's not a program where you just go in and do your work and leave. You develop relationships."

Founded in 1852, Mills is a women's college with graduate programs for women and men. People who have attended the liberal arts school of 1,400 students include Rep. Barbara Lee, musician Laurie Anderson, and author Jade Snow Wong. It's known for its arts programs, including its innovative music department (which is not slated for cuts). But others, including dance, American Studies, and languages could be narrowed.

DeCoudreaux says the college needs to stay within its budget, and the administrators are looking at redesigning Mills' curriculum to make sure the school offers courses that students want and need. Since the memo went out, the college has held forums for faculty, students, and alumni.

"We're listening to all the feedback," DeCoudreaux said. "And I can assure you we've been getting a lot out of it."

Besides book arts, one program that administrators have been getting a lot of feedback on is dance. The proposals included eliminating its major.

That would have catastrophic effects, says Sheldon Smith, head of the dance and theater studies department.

"We started the first dance major in the country 75 years ago," he said. "To remove a historical department like this would crush the spirit of Mills."

Smith says his department has heard from plenty of people who feel the same way. A Change.org petition has gotten more than 4,000 signatures, and Smith's inbox keeps filling up with messages of support from people around the world.

The book arts department also has a petition, heading towards 5,000 signatures. Kathleen Walkup, who heads the program, says it has also garnered love throughout the country, and interntionally from as far as Thailand and Poland. Over and over, Walkup says, she hears that her department is a jewel.

While at a conference in Omaha, Neb., she got a phone call at 10:30 p.m. letting her know book arts could be cut — something she'd had no idea about previously.

"I hung up the phone in shock, turned to my friend and said, 'The administration isn't going to know what hit them,'" she said. "We offer the only grad degree in book art and creative writing, so it's literally unique. I don't know how many students have said to me, 'I came to Mills because of book arts.' And they're not in our program —they just thought a college that would offer something like that had to be cool."

Walkup wants to make it clear that the program is self-supporting, so there's no financial reason to get rid of it.

"Our classes are full, and we often have a waiting list," she said. "We do not have an enrollment problem. We're jam packed this week — we just signed up five new book arts minors."

McKinnon believes that book arts might get cut, in spite of its popularity, because it has only two faculty members — one full-time and one part-time. Both positions are untenured, so they lack union protection, making the department an easy target for cost-cutting.

Nia Fitzgerald, a dance and child development double major, says while she understands the need to be within a budget, what administrators are talking about doesn't make sense.

"This is a capitalist approach instead of an art-based approach," she said. "They think by cutting arts and adding computer science and business, that's going to bring students in. I disagree. I came to Mills because of the dance program."

The suggestions will be presented to the Board of Trustees on Dec. 1, but DeCoudreaux emphasizes no decisions have been made yet, and the budget process is fluid.

Mills' situation is not unique, she adds. DeCoudreaux's morning starts with Inside Higher Ed, and hardly a day goes by that she doesn't read about other schools doing the same thing.

"In order to be responsible to students, we have to refresh our curriculum and how we deliver it," she said. "Sometimes that means closing programs that are no longer as relevant."

The college needs to prepare students for the 21st century, DeCoudreaux says. But Walkup thinks that's exactly what book arts does.

"Students have to come up with a concept and see it all the way through to a material product, all the while thinking about user interface," she said. "I think it's terribly short-sighted not to see the fundamental, critical importance of the arts to a well-rounded society."

"We're passionate about our teaching here," she added. "And we want to find ways to refresh and reinvigorate. But it's got to be done in the context of the broader umbrella of liberal arts, not just hacking the heart out of Mills."

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Emily Wilson

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