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Students at Elite, All-Female College Oppose Co-Ed Plan

May 2, 1990

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) _ Tiny, exclusive Mills College has never been where the boys are, but a vote by trustees of the 138-year-old women’s school may admit male undergraduates for the first time.

The trustees of Northern California’s only women’s college meet privately Thursday at an undisclosed location to decide whether to go coeducational 101 years after graduating the first women west of the Mississippi.

Students say they feel powerless to affect the board’s decision, although most of the 777 women undergrads at the quiet, tree-lined campus in East Oakland oppose the plan designed to boost enrollment and revenues.

″I think the board of trustees is going to vote to go co-ed no matter what we say. They’ve shown that so far,″ said Nina Schneider, a 22-year-old art major who will graduate this year.

Mills has admitted male graduate students since the 1930s, when the program began, said Lindsey Beaben, a Mills spokeswoman who noted that schools can lose federal funds if they exclude graduate students because of race, sex or national origin. Nearly 20 percent of the 264 graduate students are men.

Its undergraduate school is one of three in the state and 98 nationwide that exclude men.

Although most students and faculty oppose admitting male undergraduates, administrators say going coeducational ultimately will save the prestigious liberal arts school from a growing financial crisis.

″Of course it will be an unpopular decision. It will be a heartbreaking decision,″ said the trustees’ chairman F. Warren Hellman, whose family members have attended Mills and held positions on its board for 75 years.

Hellman, a San Francisco investment banker, said the college must go co-ed to avoid relying too much on its $70 million endowment, which provides one- fifth of the school’s $24 million annual budget.

″We had a deficit last year and we’ll have a deficit this year and the next,″ Hellman said. ″It’s not working any longer. I don’t want to see us eat away at the endowment until we’re in real trouble.″

Opponents argue that admitting men would violate tradition at the institution that began as the Young Ladies Seminary high school in Benicia before moving 35 miles southeast to Oakland as a college in 1871.

Opponents also contend that letting men into undergraduate classrooms could spoil the atmosphere that allows women to take leadership roles in discussions and on campus.

″There’s a sense of empowerment women get from attending this college because of the climate in the classroom,″ said Robyn Fisher, the 21-year-old senior president of the Associated Students at Mills.

Enrollment in Mills College’s 33 undergraduate programs is down 4.2 percent from three years ago and 29 percent below the 1,000 students needed to balance the budget. Peak undergraduate enrollment was 810 students in 1987.

Frank DeToma, dean of the faculty, said he’s not sure if trustees will heed last week’s 57-26 faculty vote against admitting male undergraduates.

″Many women do demonstrably better in this teaching environment,″ said DeToma, who came to Mills in 1989 after 19 years at all-woman Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. ″But I personally feel going co-ed will help maintain the liberal arts programs at the high standards we have now.″

Sociology professor Ted Thomas headed the panel that proposed the co-ed idea after rejecting ideas to attract more women students.

″Going co-ed is the least risky option for the future of the college,″ said Thomas, who’s been at Mills for 26 years. ″There are two ways to look at this, in a funereal way or as a challenge to build upon something that has a great tradition.″

Even the numbers seem to favor a change. Only 4.2 percent of California students taking college entrance examinations say they want to go to an all- female college.

And the $11,900 tuition, which usually increases 8 percent a year, is 10 times more expensive than the University of California’s public colleges and universities.

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