Northeastern Acquires Mills College

The long-awaited board vote follows a months-long legal fight and significant pushback from Mills alumnae groups.

September 16, 2021
 
Catsmith mills at English Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons
Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

Following three months of negotiations and intense debate and disagreement among alumnae over the future of Mills College, the women’s college’s trustees decided Tuesday to merge with Northeastern University.

The vote answers the long-standing question of how Mills will survive amid declining enrollment and growing lack of interest in single-gender education. Officials at the college had implemented a variety of ideas to boost revenue and cut costs over the years, including a tuition reset, layoffs and selling original works by Shakespeare and Mozart. None gave the college the financial security necessary to remain independent.

Mills will thus become the coed Mills College at Northeastern University in July 2022. The Boston-based university will assume all of Mills’s liabilities and assets, including the college’s 135-acre campus in Oakland, Calif., and its extensive art collection. Northeastern will also take on Mills’s students, employees and mission, said Elizabeth Hillman, president of Mills.

“The benefits that Mills is getting from this agreement are really extraordinary,” Hillman said. “Being able to continue to employ faculty and staff, to remain the anchor institution in East Oakland that we have long been, and to be able to support our students through their degree aspirations -- those are all things that we would not have been able to do without this.”

Northeastern already operates two campuses in California -- one in San Francisco and another in Silicon Valley. The Mills campus will become a West Coast anchor for the university’s global operations, Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern, said in a statement Tuesday.

“The beautiful Mills campus will become a flagship of Northeastern’s global network, and serve as a premier platform for our signature experiential education and use-inspired research programs. In the coming years, thousands of students and faculty will learn, teach, live, and make breakthrough discoveries on the Mills campus,” Aoun wrote.

Northeastern will also move forward with creation of the Mills Institute, which will be “dedicated to advancing women’s leadership and to empowering BIPOC and first-generation students,” Aoun said.

The university will also “honor and abide by the terms of tenure” for tenured Mills faculty members, according to an announcement by Hillman. It will also offer tenure-track and adjunct faculty members opportunities for employment, though it’s unclear how many Mills applicants will receive job offers from Northeastern.

Staff members who are employed by Mills when the merger is complete will also become Northeastern employees. Hillman said the college is not planning to lay off any staff members. Northeastern plans to provide additional details about employee salary increases in the coming weeks.

Students who are on track to graduate before June 30, 2022, will receive a degree from Mills College, and students who remain at the college posttransition will have their degrees conferred by Mills College at Northeastern University. Hillman anticipates that most current Mills students will remain at Mills through the merger.

Hillman plans to remain president through the transition and hopes to remain at Mills after the merger is complete.

“No one knows what the future holds, but I’m committed to seeing Mills through the transition so long as our board wants me to do that -- and they do,” Hillman said.

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The Mills-Northeastern deal could serve as a template for other institutions looking to sell or merge, said John MacIntosh, managing partner of SeaChange Capital Partners.

“It seems like a great outcome and a Rorschach test for presidents and trustees thinking about their own institutions,” MacIntosh said in an email. “Do they see it as a success or a failure? As an exciting wedding or a somber wake?”

A Bitter Divide

For many Mills alumnae, the board’s decision is a grim one. Prior to Tuesday’s board meeting, alumna Melissa Nunes said that after the vote, “We will know if our reunion will be a memorial.”

Shortly after Hillman announced in March that Mills would no longer admit new students, the Alumnae Association of Mills College rallied against the potential closure -- and later the merger -- of the 169-year-old women’s college.

Since then, hundreds of Mills alumnae have joined the opposition to the merger.

Viji Nakka-Cammauf, a Mills College trustee and president of the AAMC Board of Governors, has served as the face of the pushback. She filed several legal complaints against Mills in recent months to force administrators to hand over additional information about the college’s financial condition prior to voting on the merger.

The litigation, which is still ongoing, stalled the merger vote by several weeks but ultimately did not prevent the vote entirely.

“Today a majority of trustees voted to approve the Northeastern merger. 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,” Alexa Pagonas, vice president of the AAMC Board of Governors, wrote in a statement Tuesday. “Dr. Viji Nakka-Cammauf will continue to do everything in her power to uphold her fiduciary duties to the entire Mills community and protect the legacy of the College.”

Hillman has called repeatedly for Nakka-Cammauf and the AAMC to drop the lawsuit.

“The only people who are benefiting from this lawsuit are the lawyers,” she said Wednesday.

So far, both parties have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees. A July survey of alumnae revealed that about a quarter of respondents believe the AAMC should spend “as much as needed” on the lawsuit.

Alumnae attitudes about the merger were mixed in July. About 28 percent of survey respondents said they were opposed or strongly opposed to Mills engaging in exploratory conversations with Northeastern. Another 23 percent of respondents said they supported merger talks. Many respondents -- 37 percent -- said they needed more information to make a decision.

The Save Mills College Coalition, a separate group fighting to keep the college independent, filed a complaint with the California attorney general asking his office to intervene and to investigate Mills’s leadership.

Cynthia Mahood Levin, president of the Save Mills College board, slammed the college’s Board of Trustees in a statement issued Monday.

“The Board of Trustees should be ashamed that they’ve brought this historic college to this state. This is their failure,” the statement said. “They are selling out Mills College after years of poor financial mismanagement, and then claiming this sale as a ‘success.’”

Despite some alumnae opposition to the plan, most Mills faculty members support the merger. About 86 percent of faculty members said the merger with Northeastern was the “best available option to avoid closing the College altogether,” according to a faculty survey.

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