In May 2017, Mills College declared a "financial emergency" after years of enrollment declines and general budget woes slid the the Oakland, California-based women's college into a $9 million deficit. Administrators ended up laying off five tenured professors, a move usually reserved for the most financially precarious situations.
But just two years later, Mills administrators seemed to reverse their fiscal misfortune. Representatives from the college touted at an Association of American Colleges and Universities conference how they had begun to mend the budget through tuition cuts and a streamlined curriculum. The college had also launched a strategic plan, MillsNext, which involved boosting institutional diversity and forming new business partnerships.
Now once again, Mills' operations have come under scrutiny as it looks to use an unorthodox method to fill financial gaps: selling off two valuable items from its library collection. These are the leaves from the First Folio of William Shakespeare's plays and a musical manuscript, which news reports have identified as a handwritten score by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The sales would "support Mills' current programs and people while we build a bridge to a sustainable future," Elizabeth Hillman, Mills' president, wrote to the campus in a December letter announcing the college's intentions and also plugging the MillsNext plan.
Together, the two artifacts could fetch millions of dollars.
The prospect of a sale raises questions, though, as colleges have only in rare circumstances tried to sell art or other artifacts as a way to strengthen their financial positions.
Art associations in higher ed have gone so far as to argue that these sales run counter to the industry's ethical standards, as the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG) did in 2007 when Randolph College, in Virginia, indicated it would sell try to sell four rare paintings to fatten its endowment. One of the works, a 1912 painting by George Bellows, sold for $25.5 million in 2014.
Colleges and universities serve to educate their constituents on cultural matters, these art associations have asserted, and therefore their collections should be maintained for the purposes of scholarly research and public exhibition. Weakening the collections, which are often stocked with items of historic import that have been gifted to the institutions, would be counter to this mission.
For its part, Mills has given researchers unusual access to its collection, as its student newspaper, The Campanil, detailed in a 2016 feature. Outsiders were allowed to examine the collection — composed of some 30,000 books, manuscripts, archives and photographs — and even "bring paper, pencils and electronic devices" to study them.
AAMG's Task Force for the Protection of University Collections told Education Dive that the situation at Mills falls outside its scope as it concerns a library collection and not a museum. But it stressed it is principally opposed to selling artifacts to fund activities unrelated to the acquisition of new art or the maintenance of a museum.
"The decision by any institution of higher learning to sell valuable works of art from its Museum's permanent collection with the sole aim of generating revenue blatantly violates public trust and contravenes clear ethical guidelines," the group wrote in a statement emailed to Education Dive. "It equally erodes the educational missions of such institutions, while undercutting the capacities of both to serve their many constituencies, on and off their campus, and setting a regrettable precedent."
Is a sale necessary?
Whether Mills must sell the pieces remains unclear because the college's finances are somewhat of a mystery. It is a private institution and its most recently available tax records date to the 2017-18 academic year. Officials there declined an interview request for this story through Rhonda Barnat, a managing director at Abernathy MacGregor, a communications firm the college hired. Mills has not granted other news outlets interviews about the sale.
But it's likely the college is not facing a financial catastrophe, at least not to the same degree it was in 2017 when it announced its $9 million deficit. It lists its current annual budget at $66.3 million and its endowment at $196.4 million as of June 2019. Mills' endowment was even smaller in 2017, Inside Higher Ed reported at the time, noting that even then it would have been difficult for the college to claim financial exigency, widely considered to be a crisis point for an institution and when it may be appropriate to lay off tenured faculty.
Yet the college's latest move has been met with skepticism about whether selling the artifacts would improve its financial situation, along with some dismay over the possibility that academe will lose access to the works.
John Overholt, curator of early books and manuscripts at Harvard University's Houghton Library, tweeted in December that selling the First Folio — which could net the college between $4 million and $6 million according to one collector who appraised it — would not be enough to remedy Mills' financial troubles. Overholt declined an interview with Education Dive.
"The library is not an ATM," he wrote.
The library is not an ATM, and even selling a First Folio is not enough to solve Mills College’s financial problems. https://t.co/GWkOjcnRkk— John Overholt (@john_overholt) December 13, 2019
The American Library Association has not weighed in on sale. Macey Morales, a spokesperson for the group, wrote in an email to Education Dive that the association was unfamiliar with the circumstances at Mills and said it could only provide "general information" on rare book collections, which she did not do before press time. Both the chair and past chair of ALA's Rare Books and Manuscripts Section separately declined interviews with Education Dive.
Gifts with strings
Although Education Dive is not aware of restrictions from donors barring the sale of the items at Mills, other institutions have had to navigate terms associated with gifts in order to off-load them.
Amid talks of possibly shutting down, Fisk University, a historically black institution in Nashville, Tennessee, attempted to sell two paintings — including one by Georgia O'Keeffe — from its collection, the donor contended the sale would violate its gift agreement with the university. A protracted legal battle ended in 2012 with a compromise to share the collection with Crystal Bridges, the Arkansas art museum, which agreed to pay Fisk $30 million. (Fisk later came under fire after it was revealed that Hazel O'Leary, its president at the time of the dispute over the collection, sold off two other paintings without publicly disclosing the sales.)
Mills' Shakespeare folio was given to the college by Mary Louise O'Brien, an alumna and former trustee, in memory of her father, a former Mills English professor, according to Hillman's letter, which did not include information about the Motzart score.
While other past sales of rare works haven't violated colleges policies, they have raised the ire of the art associations and others. Brandeis University's attempts to close its well-known Rose Art Museum and sell the entire collection after the 2008 financial crisis failed after supporters took the institution to court.
Pushback from one professor did not stop the State University of New York at Fredonia from auctioning off a painting by Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani for nearly $3 million in 2018. The university used the proceeds to create an endowment to "preserve, digitize and publicize" a collection that included the painting and commemorated early 20th-century Austrian writer Stefan Zweig.
Institutions have justified selling artifacts by saying they would be used to fund key university operations or support academic pursuits. In 2018, Bennington College said it would auction off five paintings to create an art scholarship program. Mariko Silver, the college's president at the time, told local media that many works in the collection were donated with the understanding they would be sold to help fund scholarships and academic programs.