Support for Profs. Stephen Ratcliffe and Roscoe Mitchell

Like many in academia and the arts, I am concerned—even outraged—at the news that eleven tenured or ranked faculty are being considered for dismissal at Mills College. Wayne State University, where I teach, had a recent experience with expedient budget solutions that affect tenure, and condemnation and reputational damage were swift—and had the administration gone through with its plans, severe. Wayne State would have lost credentials, grants, students, and in the long run would have jeopardized accreditation. I can see similar negative outcomes for Mills College should you proceed with this action—already, the news has been widely disseminated.

I am also concerned—even outraged—that these cuts would come in areas that Mills College has long been known for: the arts and humanities, particularly. Mills has two of the most respected advanced programs in Music and Creative Writing; both are known internationally, and students come from far and wide to study in them. When I lived in the Bay Area—I am a native of Oakland, with degrees from UC Berkeley—I attended concerts at Mills frequently. Even more to the point, as a poet and critic of poetry, I consider the Mills program in Creative Writing one of the three or four most advanced and important MFA programs, and I have had a great deal of interest in and contact with its faculty and students. Your reputation is substantially due to your unique programs in the Humanities and Arts, and degrading these programs, in addition to the attack on tenure, puts you on a downward spiral.

More than any one person, Prof. Stephen Ratcliffe has been responsible for building the Creative Writing program and ensuring its quality. I have known Prof. Ratcliffe’s work from the 1970s on and value its rigor of experiment and clarity of language highly. He is widely respected in the poetry community, and has engaged the work of numerous generations of emerging poets and brought them to Mills College. Without Prof. Ratcliffe, Mills would not be the center of innovative poetics that it is in the Bay Area, and would not be attracting students nationwide. He is also a central figure in Mills College faculty governance, a member of the Faculty Executive Committee, who was quoted as a spokesperson in an article in Inside Higher Education:

Many faculty members are worried that the latest financial plan was put together without following proper procedures, said Stephen Ratcliffe, a professor of English who is a member of the Faculty Executive Committee. He expressed concern that tenured faculty could be laid off without the due process of a formal declaration of financial exigency, pointing out that the college only declared a financial emergency under its bylaws. He also voiced worries that curriculum will be reorganized without enough faculty consultation. The plans on the table, which the administration has called MillsNext, did not come from the faculty, Ratcliffe said. “Determining, setting curriculum, that’s our area of expertise,” he said. “The signature experience and the MillsNext language have just materialized. It hasn’t been discussed. It hasn’t gone through division meetings and department meetings.”

Like many in the larger public, I am also dismayed to hear that Prof. Roscoe Mitchell, holder of the Darius Milhaud Chair, is being considered for termination. If you want to take any one action that would contribute to the destruction of Mills College’s reputation in the arts, that is it.

Finally, I understand that two of the proposed cuts are in Philosophy—what would Mills College be without a Philosophy department? Other departments with targeted faculty include Physics, Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, and Government; of the eleven up for dismissal, I am told, eight are men, three are women, and all relatively “older” (in their 50s and 60s). There is the possibility here of a discriminatory impact, it seems.

I hope you will reconsider your actions and find other ways to reset your finances. Narrowing the curriculum, degrading the arts and humanities, and attacking tenure are not the way.

Barrett Watten
Professor, Department of English
Member, WSU Academy of Scholars

Online resources: petition
KQED article
Inside Higher Education article
Chronicle of Higher Education article


Response from Mills College (with my comment)

This is the response I received from Mills College. Waving the flag of “transformative educational opportunities” does not justify the attack on tenure–which is a major component of how such opportunities can be realized and not tossed to the winds with every financial downturn. Nor does it affect the potential age discrimination of their actions. They write:
Dear Professor Watten,
Thank you for writing to share your concerns about Mills College. We realize that Mills is considering changes that affect faculty who have earned the respect and professional loyalty of colleagues, students, and others in our communities. We value both their immense contributions and your input into the financial stabilization process underway.
The problem we face is fundamental in higher education: In order to reduce the need for students and their families to take on debt to finance their education, we must reduce our costs. Mills educated women when society as a whole rejected that investment as folly, hired immigrants when others shunned them, embraced refugees from fascism as others looked away, and included transgender students before other women’s colleges were ready to do so. The difficult transition now underway will enable Mills to continue to offer accessible, transformative educational opportunities in the future.
Beth Hillman
President, Mills College

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