Mills College
Mills College's Mill Hall, the original building that once housed the entire school.

With a legacy that includes talents such as composer and artist John Cage, master improviser Fred Frith, French composer Darius Milhaud, and Deep Listening founder Pauline Oliveros, the music department of Oakland’s Mills College is renowned all over the world.

Students and alumni describe their experiences there as transformative — both rigorous and encouraging exploration. The program embraces nontraditional students and is notable in the world of electronic music as the home of the Center of Contemporary Music, which started as the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

Nalini Ghuman
Nalini Ghuman

Nalini Ghuman, a musicologist, performer, and author of Reminiscences of the Raj has taught at Mills since completing her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. She says her mentor, Richard Taruskin, told her when she applied 15 years ago that it might be the only job application she ever made. Ghuman says she and other faculty members were disbelieving and blindsided when they got an email on March 17, stating that the college would stop accepting new students this fall, and become an institute.

Mills’ rich musical history is central to the 169-year-old college, Ghuman says, with people like Ali Akbar Khan, Béla Bartók, and Igor Stravinsky having performed there. She emphasizes the department doesn’t only have a golden past, but a shining present, with a vibrant, innovative program that has produced five Fulbright scholars in the last 10 years — more than any of the Ivy League schools.

“We had so much to look forward to,” Ghuman said. “Ellie Hisama, a professor of music at Columbia did an external review in 2017, and she said we are peerless and leading the field in innovation.”

David Bernstein, the chair of the music department, who is currently writing a book on Oliveros, and has published others, including one on Cage and one on the Tape Music Center, says Mills’ alumni and students are doing wonderful things.

“The connection is so deep for me and all my colleagues,” he said. “It’s kind of a tragedy if that would go away. I don’t think there’s another place like it.”

One of 37 women’s colleges left in the country, Mills has long struggled financially. Some students and alumni, including Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who has often spoken of how her experience at the college is central to who she is, agree with Bernstein that it’s a unique place that needs to exist.

MaryClare Brzytwa, who founded Technology and Applied Composition program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and now works in audio production at Facebook, is another of those alums. Brzytwa was interested in Latin jazz and wanted to play it on the flute when she heard about Mills. Like others, she uses the word “transformative” about her time there.

MaryClare Brzytwa in the studio

“I got into electronic music, and it was game over for me,” she said. “Mills spoke to me for a few reasons — I’d never been in an environment where women were the majority. I’d never been a traditional learner. I was not the model student, and I was approaching music from a high level of abstraction and it just fired my brain off in all the right ways.”

The faculty members and the care and attention they give the students make Mills special, she says. One of the musicians she got to work with there — and still collaborates with — is Fred Frith.

Frith, who retired from the college in 2018, says he’d never been at a place like it, and he’s still in touch with many of his students. Like Ghuman, he says the students are encouraged to avoid getting bogged down in the rich past, but to find what they’re excited about now.  

“There’s a lot of crossing over in disciplines,” he said. “It’s an ideal education, and I wish I’d been able to go there when I was a student. None of the professors at Mills would have been very happy with the idea of students sounding like them. It’s about finding out what students want to do and giving them resources for how they might set out about it.”

Rodolfo Córdova
Rodolfo Córdova

That’s what happened to Rodolfo Córdova. He studied composition in a conservatory in his native Puerto Rico, which he loved, but his experience at Mills made him a performer as well as a composer, he says.

“It absolutely transformed my practice as an artist,” he said. “The moment I got there, suddenly I am performing — I’m singing in everyone’s works, and I’m playing guitar in everyone else’s works, and I’m playing piano in everyone’s works, and I’m studying electronic music and improvisation. It really opened up a world of possibilities for me.”

Córdova came to Mills partly because Roscoe Mitchell taught there. He not only studied with Mitchell — he toured with Mitchell’s Art Ensemble of Chicago as well, performing with them in Brazil, Paris, and in Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center.

Some faculty members, alumni, and students are asking how such a vibrant place could disappear. In the email she sent out, Mills President Elizabeth Hillman said it was due to the economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic, declining enrollment — it has gone down 40 percent in the last 10 years — and budget deficits.

In a video call with San Francisco Classical Voice, Hillman said they’re looking at different models for an institute, and they plan to keep what’s special about Mills.

“Those include offering transformative learning and research opportunities to artists, to scholars, and to students,” she said. “To be Mills, it also has to advance women’s leadership opportunities and to advance racial and gender equity.”

Frith says he knew the college had been struggling for a while, and that the arts programs cost a lot of money. He says he wishes the college community had been part of the discussion before the decision to close the college.

“In the end it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “But a bit more imagination might have helped. It would have been nice if we could have been brought in earlier.”

Fred Frith | Credit: Heike Liss

Bernstein, the chair of the faculty executive committee, which wrote a statement saying, “This action comes without any due consultation with the faculty, abrogating the norms of shared governance that are essential to successful institutions of higher education,” also thinks the faculty and students should have been brought in to try and find innovative remedies.

“The way to arrive at creative solutions is to have participation by members of your community,” he said. “The corporate model of leadership in academia is much to its detriment, and that’s what we’re seeing right now, neoliberal corporate approaches to higher education, which are exerting a kind of stranglehold on Mills.”

Working in academia, Julia Christensen, the chair of the studio art department and associate professor of integrated media at Oberlin College, worries that other colleges will have the same fate as Mills.

Christensen, who wrote Big Box Reuse, a book about communities reusing abandoned Walmart and Kmart stores and is collaborating with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab on long-term space mission concepts, says she’s always liked working across disciplines and fields, and Mills was a hub for that.

Julia Christensen
Julia Christensen | Credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

She first went to the college in the early 2000s to see the Buchla synthesizer and applied for the following year. The experience was everything she’d hoped for, she says — thriving and creative.

Christensen says the board of trustees’ decision didn’t shock her.

 “I’m totally saddened,” she said. “It’s just tragic, and I fear this is just the tip of iceberg of what we’re going to see in next five years.”

Brzytwa has been talking to others in the notoriously tight alumni group about what can be done to save the music program for future students.

“I would 100 percent have a different life if I hadn’t gone to Mills,” she said. “It taught me tech skills and contemporary art and music, and I learned to solve problems in different ways and how to ask question and be myself and follow own intuition.”

Ziyong Lin
Ziyong Lin

Ziyong Lin graduated from Mills in 2012 before going on to get her Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Michigan. Now she’s a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, studying the potential of musical training on the brain’s plasticity.

Lin arrived at Mills as an international student from China who’d never been to the United States before. It wouldn’t have been possible for her to study music in China, Lin says, so she looked for a liberal arts program with a great music program, and she says Mills was a wonderful place to learn about life as well as music.

“It influenced me in many different ways,” she said about her time at the college. “It was really special and really embraced diversity.”

Lin described herself as “super shocked and frustrated and angry” when she heard the college planned to close.

“I felt there was no communication,” she said. “I have the right to know as an alum and I have the right to contribute to the conversation.”

Lin has been talking with other alumni, and she likes the idea of UC Mills, an initiative to make Mills an independent college within the University of California system. Another campaign, Save Mills College Coalition, was also created to fight the board of trustees’ decision.

“That way Mills can still have its independence and the ability to grant degrees,” Lin said about UC Mills. “I’d be super sad to see Mills disappear, and I’d love to see future generations go there. I benefited so much from time at Mills.”

Chloe Abeyta, a current student, says she worries that the Save Mills campaign could lead to the campus becoming coed, something that was proposed in 1990, and then rescinded after hundreds of students protested. Abeyta says a big part of what she’s liked about her experience at the school is that it’s for women (the graduate program is coed).

“In the music department especially, I found it extremely enriching to be surrounded by the women around me,” she said. “Oftentimes, in a majority of my past experiences in music, I was the only girl in the room and the atmosphere was unwelcoming.”

Alumna Lucca Troutman went to Smith College before Mills — and to an all-girls high school before that — and she also liked the atmosphere of a women’s college. She says Mills’ history, with people like Oliveros there, drew her to the program.

“I wouldn’t be the musician or artist I am without it,” Troutman said. “It’s a unique community of people pushing the envelope, and there’s no other place like it in the U.S.”

Like Brzytwa, Troutman says the climate of experimenting and the mentorship at Mills completely changed her art, getting her excited about electronic music.

The idea of the school closing is devastating, she says, and she can’t imagine it.

“It’s so ambiguous at this stage,” she said. “There are so many resources there and so many instruments and archival material. I think about those and how historic that is.”

Ghuman is hopeful that momentum to reverse the board’s decision is growing.

“One thing I can say for sure,” she said. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of Mills music in history, both cross-culturally and in North America.”