Mills College trustees finalize merger with Northeastern after court order lifted

Mills College, the 169-year-old women’s institution in Oakland, California, will be absorbed by Boston-based Northeastern University next summer, in an arrangement that drew angst from student and alumnae groups and has been subject to a protracted legal battle.

The Mills Board of Trustees greenlit the merger Tuesday. It is expected to formally occur on or around July 1 next year after regulatory approvals. 

Trustees moved after a court order was lifted that had prevented them from voting on agreements regarding the college’s future. A current and former trustee sued the school in June, accusing Mills officials of withholding key financial information. 

The deal also brings to an end Mills’ role as a women’s institution, whose numbers have significantly diminished in the U.S. over time. The merger’s opponents believed Mills should remain independent and single-gender, even though the college allows men into its graduate programs and was the first women’s college to admit transgender students. But that model and Mills’ financial structures are now unviable, the college’s president, Elizabeth Hillman, said in an interview Wednesday.

Hillman announced in March that the college would no longer enroll new first-year undergraduate students after fall 2021. At the time, she explained the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated existing financial challenges that harmed Mills’ budget. 

In subsequent months, Hillman revealed the college was in talks to join Northeastern. 

While mergers are often the target of student, faculty and alumni ire, the saga at Mills took an extraordinary turn in June when members of its alumnae association sued to halt the deal. 

The plaintiffs in that lawsuit — alumnae association president and Mills trustee Viji Nakka-Cammauf, and former trustee Tara Singh — secured a court order temporarily preventing the governing board from a vote on the merger. A judge in the case also directed the institution to turn over troves of digitized financial documents to Nakka-Cammauf, who had previously only been permitted to review them in person, alone and without assistance from lawyers or financial analysts. 

Both sides released hostile statements disparaging the other’s efforts, with Hillman at one point saying the lawsuit was “a factually incorrect and legally mistaken effort to undermine confidence in the leadership of the College.” The college also countersued Nakka-Cammauf and Singh, alleging they had revealed confidential information publicly. 

A representative for the alumnae association did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Hillman said Wednesday both the lawsuit and countersuit stand, and while she wasn’t surprised that the merger proposal spurred community backlash, the “challenge to our governance” was unanticipated. Lawsuits are costly, she said, and she hopes that they will “go away” and the college can work with the alumnae association.

“The only people benefiting are the lawyers,” Hillman said. 

Despite the turbulence, the trustees moved swiftly after the court order was released this week, finalizing the merger Tuesday.

Hillman said she knew Mills was experiencing severe financial problems when she first arrived in 2016 and that “change would be required.” Mills declared a financial emergency in May 2017 after years of enrollment declines. It seemed to have a brief period of stability, but three years later sold two artifacts from its library collection that were valued at millions of dollars in an attempt to right its finances.

A merger proved to be the best option after the institution pursued austerity measures, Hillman said. Scaling back the breadth of degrees was difficult, too, as many programs “are enmeshed” with each other.

“It’s hard to decide to end legacy programs, which are expensive, but so meaningful to our community,” Hillman said “We weren’t able to find that calculus.”

Northeastern approached the institution after Hillman announced in March that Mills would stop enrolling new students. Northeastern “demonstrated respect” for Mills’ mission and proved it had the enrollment strength to turn the college around, she said. 

Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern, in a statement Tuesday lauded the “first-of-its-kind partnership” with Mills and said it would create an institute dedicated to advancing women’s leadership and empowering Black, Ingenious, first-generation students and those of color. 

Mills students who complete their studies before June 30, 2022 will graduate with a degree from the college. Those who do so after will earn a degree from “Mills College at Northeastern University.” The two institutions will provide “counseling and financial support” for existing students that should allow them to complete their degrees without cost increases. 

Northeastern will honor employment terms for tenured faculty or those with a continuous contract, and it will offer tenure-track professors and adjuncts “opportunities for employment,” Mills said in a statement.

Hillman, too, will stay on to lead the new Mills College at Northeastern, and said she would like to see the merger through completion. 

She said she values the model of women’s colleges, and there is room in higher education for such institutions. The Women’s College Coalition identifies 37 colleges, when there used to be more than 200 in the early 1970s. 

“It’s just not the right answer for Mills College,” Hillman said.

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