Mills College Alumnae Fight Northeastern Merger

Mills College Alumnae Fight Northeastern Merger
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on August 27, 2021

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Last June, Northeastern University in Boston and Mills College in Oakland, California, announced a planned merger. The East Coast institution known for its co-op programs is throwing a lifeline to a West Coast liberal arts college for women that is struggling to survive. Without this merger, Mills will likely close.

But not everyone associated with Mills thinks the merger is a good idea, and alumnae are suing their alma mater to prevent it.

Mills College on the Brink of Closure

At first glance, Mills College appears to have a lot going for it. The college boasts a stately campus in Oakland, an enviable location close to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Founded in 1852, it's the oldest women's college in the West and has enjoyed a strong academic reputation for generations as a West Coast version of the Seven Sisters colleges.

A progressive institution, Mills made news in 2014 when it became the first single-sex college to institute a policy welcoming transgender students.

But dig a little deeper and you'll find signs of trouble brewing for more than a decade. Enrollment has dropped 40% since 2013. The college has experienced budget deficits, a high tuition-discount rate, an overspending of endowment returns, decaying facilities, low faculty morale, and a poor bond rating.

Mills faces additional challenges as a single-sex institution. Nationwide, only 2% of female high school seniors say they'd consider attending a women's college. It's no surprise the number of women's colleges has declined 80% over the past half-century, with schools such as Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, Bennington, Connecticut College, and Skidmore going co-ed along the way.

Only 2% of female high school seniors say they'd consider attending a women's college.

In 1990, the college decided to admit men, though student and alumnae protests and a staff strike forced the trustees to reverse their decision. Today, the college does admit men to its graduate programs but not to its undergraduate programs.

But there just aren't enough potential students. Enrollment has dwindled to 961 in fall 2020. Absent a drastic turn of events, this 169-year-old institution will likely close.

The Potential Merger With Northeastern

Enter Northeastern University with its offer to merge. Once known as a commuter school, Northeastern is now a destination for top students and is renowned for its pioneering co-op curriculum.

Based in Boston, Northeastern has steadily been expanding its footprint for the past decade. Its roster of campuses reads like a multinational corporation: Burlington, Charlotte, London, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Silicon Valley, Toronto, and Vancouver. The university also operates a marine science center in Nahant, Massachusetts.

A closer review of this list reveals that Northeastern already has two California campuses — San Francisco and Silicon Valley — both near Mills' location in Oakland. Why another Bay Area campus? Perhaps it's because Northeastern's other satellite campuses offer only graduate degrees and certificates, while Mills provides additional undergraduate options.

“Northeastern has been looking to increase its presence around the country, and Mills is anxious to preserve the institution”
Terry Hartle, Senior vice president of government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education

Under the terms of the merger, Mills would grant degrees as "Mills College at Northeastern University." Current Mills students would have the choice of staying or transferring to Northeastern. The move also would create the Mills Institute, a "hub for research and advocacy that will advance women's leadership, equity, inclusion, and social justice."

One more detail. A few hundred first-year Northeastern students would be offered the opportunity to study at the California campus in a program focused on community-engaged learning. That would require Mills' undergraduate program to become co-ed.

"Northeastern has been looking to increase its presence around the country, and Mills is anxious to preserve the institution," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "I think this has the potential to be enormously beneficial for both institutions."

Mills Alumnae Rally to Preserve Their Alma Mater

Not all Mills constituencies agree with that assessment. The Alumnae Association of Mills College and two emergent groups — the UC Mills Campaign and the Save Mills College Coalition — wish to preserve the college's status as an independent institution.

The UC Mills Campaign envisions Mills as a stand-alone college that's part of the University of California system, much like UC Hastings, a state-supported law school in San Francisco. Its solution would require a takeover by the state and would turn Mills co-ed while retaining its commitment to BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students. The group admits its proposal is a "Hail Mary Pass" that will require "Herculean efforts."

The Save Mills College Coalition — a broader representation including not only alumnae but also students, faculty, staff, and parents — is petitioning the college's board of trustees for access to documents related to Mills' finances, fundraising, and admissions tactics. In concert with the Mills Alumnae Association, Save Mills wishes to explore "alternate models" as a degree-granting institution.

“We at Save Mills are saying, ‘Stop. Let us see what's really going on here’”
Kieran Turan, a member of the group Save Mills

Save Mills has a sound argument. It points to a recent accreditation report noting Mills has "sufficient reserves to support operational deficits for several years." The college has a sizable endowment (about $200 million), receives philanthropic donations, and owns a large art collection that could be sold if needed.

The "sudden and drastic change to Mills College's historic mission" isn't yet required, the group contends, and "options for the College to continue remain available."

"We at Save Mills are saying, 'Stop. Let us see what's really going on here,'" said Kieran Turan, a Save Mills member.

The group engaged the consulting firm Berkeley Research Group to assess the college's situation and options. Stefano Falconi, managing director of the firm's higher education practice, concluded the college can overcome its challenges and thrive.

"This is not the time to make a decision on the future of the college," Falconi said, "and even less to condemn it to possible oblivion and no future."

Save Mills took its case to the California attorney general, asking that steps be taken to "replace Mills College's current officers and trustees as part of an overall effort to stabilize Mills and put it back on the path to true sustainability."

Meanwhile, Viji Nakka-Cammauf, a current member of the college's board of trustees and president of the Mills Alumnae Association, is pursuing legal action against the college along with another former member of the board of trustees. They demanded that Mills share financial information they claim has been withheld and requested a 60-day restraining order to keep the merger from moving forward during the review of records.

Colleges Saved From Extinction by Alumni Efforts

The various alumnae groups and individuals hoping to preserve Mills have precedents to buoy their spirits.

In 2015, Sweet Briar College in Virginia, another women's college, announced plans to close because of low enrollment and financial difficulties. Alumnae immediately galvanized, forming the group Saving Sweet Briar. The group raised $28.5 million in short order, filed lawsuits, and convinced the Virginia attorney general to release $16 million of Sweet Briar's endowment as operating funds.

The effort succeeded. Sweet Briar is alive and well and remains a single-sex college.

Antioch College, based in Ohio with five branch campuses around the country, closed in 2008. But the college's alumni bought the campus and assets, raised money, and resuscitated the institution three years later. Today, Antioch, like Sweet Briar, is open for business.

Whether or not Mills College alumnae similarly succeed remains to be seen.

What's Next for Mills?

On August 16, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Stephen Pulido ordered Mills to provide financial documents to plaintiff Viji Nakka-Cammauf. The ruling includes a restraining order preventing any former merger activities until September 3, though conversations between the two institutions can proceed.

Will Mills College eventually become part of the growing Northeastern University empire? Will it be forced to go co-ed to survive? Or will Mills alumnae preserve their alma mater in its current form for future generations?

The bicoastal saga promises to unfold throughout the fall, and perhaps beyond. Stay tuned for updates.

Feature Image: MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images / Contributor / MediaNews Group / Getty Images

Learn more about the history of women's colleges and their impact on women pursuing a quality college education. Today, women make up the majority of bachelor's degree-holders — a victory that was only made possible after centuries of battling a sexist education system. College campuses are political hot spots. Students are more political — and more politically divided — than ever, but together push for progressive reforms.