Oparah shares about her background, defends actions at Mills

Miguel Arcayena & Ethan Tan

Staff Writers

Oparah, current dean of the faculty and provost at the financially challenged Mills College, will begin her tenure at USF in July. PHOTO COURTESY OF USF OFFICE OF MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS

This July, Julia Chinyere Oparah will officially take over as USF’s new provost and vice president of academic affairs. Oparah will assume her role after two and half semesters of online schooling and recovery from the pandemic’s effects on the University. 

Oparah said she is focused primarily on getting to know the campus community, particularly building a relationship with USF students. 

“I want to just sit in a room with as many different groups of students as I can. So, obviously, the student leadership and student government, but they’re also affinity groups and student organizations that just care passionately about issues. [I want to] listen to them and find out what their journey is, where they see themselves going, and what they want from USF right now,” she said. 

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Oparah has had a diverse and international journey. “I have a complicated background, actually,” she said. “I was born when single mothers, and particularly single mothers with interracial children, were not looked at in a positive light. My mother decided that she wasn’t able to raise me and I was actually put into the foster care system as a baby,” she said. 

Oparah eventually moved to Winchester, England, a historically predominant white town where far-right organizations were abundant. “There were periods when I would go to school on a Monday and over the weekend there had been a far-right fascist demonstration in the town. So it was an intense time to be a little Black girl going to a [predominantly] white space,” she said. For Oparah, that experience only motivated her later in life. “We don’t have to tend towards bitterness, we can actually decide that those experiences are going to strengthen us,” she added.

While attending the University of Cambridge, Oparah became involved in the nonprofit community sector. Although academia would eventually become her career, Oparah’s first work was managing community development organizations that primarily served communities of color. After completing her doctorate in 1997, she moved to the United States when she received an opportunity to teach in the ethnic studies department at the University of California, Berkeley. “I fell in love with teaching, and that was when I decided that I was going to try to switch careers and move into becoming a professor,” Oparah said. 

Oparah became an adjunct professor in UC Berkeley’s women’s studies department and later became an adjunct professor at UC Santa Cruz. Though Oparah is grateful for the experience of working in the UC system, she said, “I have enormous respect for the public sector, but my heart is in the independent cause and university system. It’s something very special and unique about mission-driven universities and colleges, and I wanted to be in that kind of space.” She ultimately followed through on this appreciation and began teaching at Mills College in Oakland. 

When asked how her experiences overall have impacted her career in higher education, a sector that remains predominantly white and male, Oparah said that she brings her “whole self.” “I can’t separate the struggles I’ve had, as a Black woman, and as a Black queer woman, they’re completely intertwined,” she said. “It starts from understanding, from my lived experience, what it means to be marginalized, disrespected, and pushed out, but then recognize it has to go far beyond my own identities, and really understanding what it means to be in deep solidarity.”

After exactly 20 years teaching at Mills, Oparah was named its dean of the faculty and provost in 2017. She took over during a turbulent time as Mills faced deep financial challenges, including more than a decade of deficit spending and a lowered credit rating from Moody’s (a credit rating system for businesses and institutions), which led some in the higher education community to declare that the college was under “death watch.” 

In 2017, Mills College announced a “declaration of financial emergency.” Oparah said that the measures taken at Mills tried to stabilize the situation, and described it as a moment when the “community came together and made some really difficult decisions.” 

The liberal arts college implemented its “Financial Stabilization Plan,” which led to the elimination of certain majors and graduate programs, at least five tenured faculty members being laid off, and triggered a number of resignations from other staff.

However, the plan could not ultimately stave off falling enrollment numbers and continued deficit spending. On March 17, Mills College announced it would close as a degree-granting institution by 2023 and instead turn into a research-based institute. The shocking news angered alumni and students, demanding full transparency from its leadership. Mills community members have claimed, since the announcement, that Mills administration has not been forthcoming about its plans.

Anger over the move boiled over last week when Mills faculty overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence against the college’s trustees and administrative officials, including Oparah, accusing them of “mismanagement … that underscore a pattern of structural and oversight failures.”

Oparah, in a statement to the Foghorn, said, “My 24 years at Mills College, including four years as provost and dean of the faculty, have been extraordinary, both personally and professionally. To have Mills faculty vote no-confidence in me, along with Mills’ president, and the executive committee of the Board of Trustees, was deeply disappointing — both in terms of how the vote was handled, as well as how the actions of Mills’ administrative leadership were misrepresented.”

In an email, USF President Paul Fitzgerald responded defending Oparah, “Throughout the rigorous search process for our new provost, and as I heard directly from the search committee and from students, faculty, and staff who met with Dr. Oparah, I became absolutely confident that she was the right person for USF. I have not wavered from that position. To me and to everyone at USF she has been professional and appropriate about Mills’ financial challenges and the tough decisions that were made in the face of multiyear enrollment trends.”

Fitzgerald did not comment on whether or not he was aware of Mills’ decision to cease being a degree-granting institution prior to offering Oparah the USF job in March. 

“Mills has struggled with serious financial issues for more than a decade; the decision to cease enrolling new first year students, which was ultimately made by the Board of Trustees, was not made lightly or without many years of seeking solutions. I recognize that many faculty, staff, students, and alums are hurt, anxious, and angry,” Oparah continued in her statement defending her actions. “But in acting as they did, the faculty leadership took a narrow and unfair view of my work and leadership. As provost, I diversified Mills’ faculty and expanded educational access opportunities for underserved students. Working in collaboration with faculty, I helped launch 17 new academic programs. I have made every effort to support shared governance, and to communicate with directness and transparency. I will bring this collaborative leadership style to my new role as provost at the University of San Francisco, and look forward, with great excitement, to getting started.”

According to one USF Faculty Association (USFFA) member, they’ve been notified by their counterparts at Mills of the recent developments. Though USF faculty members understand that Mills’ challenges began prior to Oparah’s time as provost, the member said “it is disappointing to hear that some of her leadership decisions parallel those of Don Heller. I was initially enthusiastic about her becoming Provost at USF, but now I am wary. I would say that this sentiment is widely shared among faculty, however the USFFA hasn’t decided to take any action yet.”

USF Part Time Faculty Association President Jill Schepmann, in an email, said that she did not know enough about the situation to comment on the vote of no confidence.

When the Foghorn spoke with Oparah in March, she said she understood concerns some USF community members have, but she emphasized that Mills College’s financial situation when she took over in 2017 was far different from the situation she will inherit at USF this summer, even with the challenge of COVID-19. She also said this experience taught her the importance of addressing financial challenges early. “I learned that first thing there, having been on the faculty, how important it is to address financial challenges as they come up and not wait until it’s absolutely at crisis point,” she said. 

Oparah added she’s aware of current USF issues like student anxiety over rising tuition and costs. “I really believe in opening up the doors and creating more accessibility to all of our private institutions. And so I think about that in relationship to first-gen students, low-income students, BIPOC students, and I would like to work really hard with both admissions teams and advancement teams to identify ways that we can actually foster financial aid so that we can support students.”

Miguel Arcayena is a junior politics major, Deputy News Editor, and a General Assignment Reporter at the Foghorn. He covers COVID-19-related campus news. He can be reached at marcayena@sffoghorn.com.

Ethan Tan is a junior politics major and the Foghorn’s News Editor. He covers the University’s administration and campus labor unions. He can be reached at etan@sffoghorn.com or on Twitter @tanethans.

2 thoughts on “Oparah shares about her background, defends actions at Mills

  1. Part of the problem the faculty, students, and alumni at Mills College have with Oparah, Hillman, and the Trustees is that they have not been forthcoming, communicative, or transparent about their actions and decision making processes. In fact, some of them have been quite rude and dismissive when asked questions. While Oparah may not have been part of the leadership that created the financial crisis at Mills, she is certainly responsible for the way the issues have been communicated to the students, faculty, alumni, and stakeholders; as well as partially responsible for a lack of vision and realistic problem solving skills. Mills College is not theirs (Oparah, Hillman, and the Trustees) to destroy. Their charge was to find a way forward and make it work. They failed. And they are being sued. Hopefully you will have a better experience with Oparah.

  2. Mills College is an icon of Bay Area culture and a huge part of the history of San Francisco and Oakland. This British person should be ashamed of herself for her complicity in the multi-year project to take over Mills and all the lies and gaslighting that have accompanied it.

    Moving to USF will not save her reputation which has been blemished forever. Beth Hillman is a failure and so is Julia Sudbury, who now goes by the alias “Chinyere Oparah”. She did NOTHING to address the financial challenges she claims she handled before they reached “crisis point”.

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