A House Divided

The Alumnae Association of Mills College has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a lawsuit against the women’s college that many alumnae don’t support.

August 18, 2021
 
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Mills College in Oakland, Calif., could sign a deal with Northeastern University in September.

Yvonne Daniel is dismayed.

A dispute between her alma mater, Mills College, and its alumnae association has led to a bitter disagreement about the college’s plans to merge with another university and a lawsuit that is costing both parties money and time. And Daniel has had enough.

“When I think about the legal fees that are racking up right now, I see bankruptcy for both institutions,” said Daniel, a 1975 graduate of the college and a former member of the college’s Board of Trustees. “We care about Mills. And we want Mills to survive. And we’re not interested in fighting to the point where neither institution survives.”

Daniel has spent many years serving the women’s college in Oakland, Calif., first as a dance instructor and later as a member of the alumnae association’s Board of Governors. She represents one side of an increasingly acrimonious split between alumnae who support the lawsuit and those who do not.

Four alumnae trustees filed the lawsuit in June against several college officials, including college president Elizabeth Hillman. The suit alleged that the trustees had not received numerous requested financial documents and could not make an informed decision about the future of the women’s college without the information. The plaintiffs asked the court to issue a restraining order against the college until the documents were provided in an accessible way.

Shortly after the complaint was filed, two of the alumnae trustees -- Deborah Wood and Adrienne Foster -- backed out with little public explanation. The remaining plaintiffs, Viji Nakka-Cammauf and Tara Singh, continued with the suit.

Meanwhile, the college’s administrators are in the middle of negotiations with Northeastern University. If the college trustees vote to move ahead with the deal, the Boston institution would acquire Mills and allow the college to stay open, albeit under a new name and new governance.

The lawsuit is the only thing stopping the college from voting on the deal, and it has become a proxy for the larger fight over Mills’s future.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Stephen Pulido ruled Monday that Mills must electronically hand over hundreds of requested financial documents to Nakka-Cammauf, president of the Alumnae Association of Mills College. Pulido also extended a restraining order that prevents the college from voting on or signing a deal with Northeastern until Sept. 3 at the earliest.

AAMC leaders touted Pulido’s ruling as a win for the association and Mills alumnae.

“Thankfully, the Alameda County Superior Court has intervened and ruled in favor of truth and transparency about the future of Mills College, which otherwise would continue moving forward with a merger that’s been shrouded in secrecy,” Alexa Pagonas, vice president of the AAMC board, said in a statement Monday. “I’m thankful the Court realized the important and historic nature of this decision and will allow Dr. Nakka-Cammauf time to review thousands of pages of documents and make an informed decision.”

The AAMC, which did not respond to a request for comment, has said for weeks that its membership supports the lawsuit. The association conducted a survey of its members in June to gauge alumnae interest in such an action. More than four in five alumnae said they “wanted the AAMC to halt the process of dismantling Mills as a degree-granting college,” according to survey results on the AAMC website. Just over half of survey respondents said they wanted the association to “spend as much as needed” to do so, and only a quarter of respondents said they supported the AAMC spending as much as half of its assets on the effort.

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The AAMC has spent at least $165,000 on the lawsuit, though that total hasn’t been updated since May. The June bill is “substantial,” the website states, as most of the legal work was completed in June. It does not mention legal fees for July or August.

Daniel criticized the survey, saying that the questions were leading and that the sample size was small. Just over 1,200 alumnae responded to the survey, according to the AAMC website.

“The survey that was sent out had preconceived questions, and it was just pushing forward an agenda that apparently the AAMC leadership took,” Daniel said.

The AAMC does not have the support of many alumnae, said Estrellita Redus, a 1965 graduate of Mills, former college trustee and former member of the AAMC Board of Governors. Redus and Daniel recently co-wrote a letter to Mills alumnae explaining their opposition to the lawsuit.

“We don’t think our alumni association is representing us when they’re going to sue the college we love,” Redus said.

A group of 13 alumnae trustees of the college released a statement last week slamming the lawsuit before Judge Pulido ruled on it.

“We object to the claim made by the officers of the AAMC that their organization represents all 26,000 graduates of the College. We believe that the lawsuit brought by the AAMC against the College is ill-considered, divisive and detrimental to the future of Mills,” the trustees wrote. “While we expect Mills alumnae to have strong and diverse views, we are appalled at the disregard the AAMC leadership is showing to our students, faculty, and staff and find the claims of a few vocal individuals to be harmful to the overall alumnae body and our community more broadly.”

The Alumnae of Color Committee, a committee within the AAMC, also spoke out Monday against the lawsuit. The group said the alumnae association should focus on fundraising rather than spending its assets on legal fees. It also took issue with an alleged effort by AAMC leaders to remove Wood and Foster -- the two alumnae trustees who backed out of the lawsuit -- from their positions on the association Board of Governors.

“There is nothing to be gained through the proposed recall of and public attacks against alumnae trustees Adrienne Foster and Debi Wood,” the committee wrote. “Trustees Foster and Wood have served AOCC and AAMC exceedingly well during their tenures, and we support their right to rethink their initial roles as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, in the context of Mills’ and AAMC’s needs and their own integrity.”

Daniel and Redus hope the AAMC will soon change its tactics and work with Mills officials to help determine the best path forward for students and employees at the 169-year-old institution.

“At the rate we’re going, we’re going to have two financially failed institutions -- Mills College and the AAMC,” Daniel said. “The alumnae association is a positive institution normally, but its role is to support and collaborate and to make sure that students and alumnae have a connection together.”

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