As the first Black woman president of Mills College, Alecia DeCoudreaux leads an undergraduate program dedicated solely to women, one of fewer than 60 such U.S. institutions left in this country. Mills’ more than 1,500 students include 42 percent ethnic minorities among undergraduates and 39 percent among graduate students, which include men.
A graduate of Wellesley College and Indiana University’s law school, DeCoudreaux is also a Wellesley trustee and former board chairwoman. Prior to joining Mills, she had spent 30 years at Eli Lilly and Co. in various executive leadership positions including vice president and general counsel.
DeCoudreaux, who assumed the presidency last July, recently spoke with Diverse. She and the Mills trustees have publicly declared they have no plans to make the undergraduate program coeducational.
DI: You have stated you wouldn’t have considered this presidency if the trustees wanted to admit male undergraduates. Why are you so committed to preserving women’s education?
AD: As long as there are disparities, we need women’s colleges. Women make up only 2.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 17 percent of Congress. At a women’s college, students find their voices without having to engage in the competitions for learning, for support and for opportunity that are all too common at coed schools.
The student leaders at Mills are all women. And all students are expected every day to do well. We don’t simply tell them they will do well.
DI: When your predecessor, Dr. Janet Holmgren, became Mills president in 1991, there were still about 300 women’s colleges. Are you worried that your school is part of an endangered species?
AD: It’s very troublesome because there need to be places expressly for women. So many Mills students and alumnae have told me that everyone here helps one another. They don’t hesitate to collaborate with each other, and they pool their knowledge. Women’s colleges remain as relevant today as they ever were, and it’s sad to see so many of us becoming coeducational.
DI: Share something from your first seven months at Mills you find striking.
AD: I wanted to spend my first year familiarizing myself with the campus and community before setting goals. This semester, I have started seeing our faculty in action. I visited a graduate-level English class where they discussed Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. I had read the material before class, and the passages are challenging because they’re written in dialect. The students discussed the subject as well as race, ethnicity and stereotypes in context of the past and the present. They discussed the author’s writing structure and how she might have approached her work if she were to have written it today. There was robust discussion, and at the end, one student observed that the thinking had evolved during the class period. This class, like so many we have, illustrates the value of a liberal arts education.
I hired many people in the corporate world, and while you can teach a person many things, you cannot teach them how to think critically. I want to build on the solid foundation of academics at Mills and work with the Women’s College Coalition to keep us strong.
DI: As you know, there is a push nationally for more graduates prepared for jobs in science, technology, engineering and math. How does Mills fit into that?
AD: This is another reason we still need women’s colleges. Technology changes so rapidly, but a liberal arts education is key because students can learn how to learn. The liberal arts prepare students for any career.
DI: Why did you choose to leave a thriving career in the private sector?
AD: I had fabulous opportunities, but my passion has long been in education. I’ve been active with my alma mater for many years.
DI: What led you to enroll at a women’s college as an undergraduate?
AD: I was taught by nuns at all-girls’ Catholic schools in Chicago and had very good experiences in that environment. I was a city girl and chose Wellesley because it was near Boston and near family. I didn’t have the opportunity to traipse the country to shop for a college and went to Wellesley sight unseen.
But in Chicago, the alumnae of women’s colleges held many events that I attended before choosing Wellesley. They spoke of intellectually stimulating experiences, and they had become lawyers, accountants, teachers, physicians, mothers and lifelong volunteers committed to community service. These events were quite engaging, and these women made all the difference to me. I don’t recall even applying to any coeducational institutions.