OAKLAND — After 169 years as a women’s college, Mills College is slated to be subsumed by Boston-based Northeastern University next year, after the schools’ respective governing boards approved a merger this week.
Mills announced the agreement Tuesday afternoon, noting in a letter to the school community that on or about July 1, 2022 — pending regulatory approvals — the college will be a gender-inclusive campus of Northeastern and will be called “Mills College at Northeastern University.”
It would bring an end to Mills’ position as one of few women’s colleges left in the U.S., a distinction that made waves in 1990 when students famously swayed the college administrators to reverse a decision to make the college co-ed.
Now, it seems, the college will operate as an outpost of Northeastern, which “will assume all of Mills’ financial assets, liabilities, and contractual obligations,” according to a press release from Northeastern.
Mills College President Elizabeth Hillman would not reveal what that package costs — the school leaders have been mum about Mills’ financials other than calling them “dire”.
Hillman insists that the merger is not a discontinuation of Mills but rather a chance to save the school after years of financial crisis.
“We have not been able to do everything we want to do for our students,” Hillman said in an interview Tuesday. “This gives us hope that we’ll be able to retain Mills mission.”
Between now and next summer, the faculty and staff of the two schools will work on developing the academic programs that will be offered under the Mills-Northeastern umbrella. And until then, Mills will continue to operate as an accredited degree-granting institution under its current leadership.
Students who graduate before June 30 2022 will have a diploma from Mills College, while students who finish their studies after then will have a degree from “Mills College at Northeastern University.” Northeastern says it will honor existing financial aid commitments for Mills students.
Staff will become employees of Northeastern on July 1, and according to the announcement from Mills, Northeastern will “abide by the terms of the tenure” for Mills faculty who have a tenured position. The future for other faculty is less certain, but a news release from Northeastern said faculty and staff would all become faculty and staff of Northeastern.
The leaders of both schools also said they will form an entity called the “Mills Institute,” which Northeastern described as “dedicated to advancing women’s leadership and to empowering BIPOC and first-generation students.”
But further details about what that institute is haven’t been revealed. Hillman said the schools will work to clarify the plan and programming of that institute, but said the goal she sees for it is to “help students at transformative times”. That could include the transition from high school to college, as well as for graduate students heading into careers. She said she also sees the institute offering programs in anti-racism and gender equity education.
It’s part of many details that have not been publicly revealed. And the lack of transparency about Mills’ plans and the college’s financial situation have stirred concern among alumni and other supporters of the college.
In June, Viji Nakka-Cammauf, a Mills College trustee and president of the Alumnae Association of Mills College Board of Governors filed a lawsuit against the college administration to halt the merger until Mills let her and other alumnae trustees view the college’s financial information related to the merger. After temporarily halting the merger, a superior court judge ruled Monday that the trustees’ vote could move forward.
“Many Alumnae and those in the Mills community are disheartened that the trustees decided to forego their fiduciary duties by blindly voting to approve this merger without a full and clear picture of Mills’ financial situation or a finalized term sheet as it relates to the deal,” said Alexa Pagonas, vice president of the Alumnae Association of Mills College Board of Governors in a written statement Tuesday.
Darcy Totten, an alumna who graduated from Mills in 2003, said she was concerned that the Board of Trustees’ vote gave total control over the merger to the school administration, who is tasked with working out the details between now and next summer.
“This is the board of trustees that is charged with stewarding an organization ostensibly no longer do that,” Totten said. “The board has abdicated its oversight mission. There is no sense that we’re being well taken care of.”
The lack of transparency has bothered alumnae and students from the moment that the school administration announced last spring that the liberal arts college would cease granting degrees. At the time, the administration provided no plan beyond a vague vision for an “institute,” and did not provide details about the school’s financial situation beyond noting that enrollment had declined.
Students, alumnae and others galvanized a campaign to “Save Mills” as they knew it. Recently, a coalition of alumnae and students have launched an online “pledge” to drum up financial support for keeping Mills independent.
Hillman reiterated on Tuesday that declining enrollment was the root cause for the school’s financial distress, but said its problems run deep and a one-time infusion of cash won’t save hte school.
“Mills has been in financial emergency since 2017. The idea that Mills needs more support from people who want Mills to be independent isn’t new, but it doesn’t get fixed with a single influx of funds,” she said. “We have a physical (campus) that needs attention, we have students who deserve the best of technology and faculty and staff, and we haven’t been able to invest in Mills itself. We have had to layoff people to try to make ends meet.”
Hillman believes the Northeastern merger will help with that. But some are concerned about how the culture of the historic women’s college will change when it’s absorbed by the university.
Mills has become known for its progressive education and focus on gender, race and social justice. It was the first independent college to offer an ethnic studies program in 1969 and launched the nation’s first transgender admission policy at a women’s college.
More than 58% of undergraduates identify as part of the LGBTQ community and 65% are students of color.
“Mills is incredibly unique. It’s the only thing that could have been born in the Bay Area the way it was — a beacon of progressive thought.”” said Totten, who described her time there as “four years that I got as a queer person in the late 90s and early 2000s — before I could legally get married, before I could feel safe going just anywhere — I got to live four years where nobody cared, where I wasn’t fighting for the right to be out or to live my life. I got four years to just be. … Mills made that happen.”
She is skeptical that Northeastern’s influence would keep that culture alive.
“What’s being lost is something that’s hard to create.”