Mills officials countersue alumnae association over merger plan

Dive Brief:

  • Several Mills College administrators and members of its Board of Trustees are suing the institution’s alumnae association, alleging it and two of its representatives publicly shared confidential information and are obstructing a deal for Northeastern University to absorb the college.
  • The two members of the Alumnae Association of Mills College, one of whom is also a voting trustee, sued in June, attempting to squelch the merger. They argue officials withheld financial information that prevented the board from fulfilling its responsibilities. The new lawsuit is in response to the association’s. 
  • A court order in the alumnae lawsuit has temporarily blocked Mills’ board from finalizing the arrangement with Northeastern. College leaders said further delay jeopardizes the institution’s financial position. 

Dive Insight:

Merger proposals in higher education often draw significant blowback from students, alumni and governing boards. Such was the case at Hampshire College, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts, where the college president stepped down in 2019 after suggesting it find a partner to remedy its financial woes.  

At Mills, college officials, including President Elizabeth Hillman, took the extraordinary step late last month of suing their own alumnae association in the latest of several public skirmishes. 

Hillman said in March the college would no longer enroll new first-year undergraduate students after fall 2021 and would likely confer its final degrees in 2023. In June, she announced Mills intended to consolidate with Northeastern. That same month the alumnae association members sued to halt the plan. 

The plaintiffs in that lawsuit successfully convinced a state judge to delay a vote on the merger. A temporary restraining order was due to expire Sept. 3, but a judge extended it until Thursday. 

Now, college administrators are asking the court to remove the alumnae association as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, arguing it did not follow its own bylaws when it joined the complaint. 

They also allege the association pressured some of its members, including the other two plaintiffs in the lawsuit — Viji Nakka-Cammauf, the alumnae association president and a college trustee, and Tara Singh, a former trustee — to share confidential background information about the institutions with which Mills was considering partnerships.

Nakka-Cammauf and Singh also violated board policy by disclosing this information to the association and in public court records, the lawsuit states. Mills officials said in court filings the duo breached their fiduciary duties to the college.

Several employees have left the college because of the association’s efforts, which imperiled Mills’ future, the lawsuit states. Postponing the merger vote prevented the college from giving raises to essential faculty and staff, and it could cause trustees to pursue more extreme measures, including selling off core assets or layoffs. 

“Throwing the College’s future into further uncertainty erodes its bargaining position in negotiations with creditors and threatens its very existence,” the complaint states. 

Lisa McCurdy, an attorney for Nakka-Cammauf, in an emailed statement called the countersuit “baseless” and said it “attacks Plaintiffs’ very pursuit of truth and transparence as it relates to the future of Mills College — a disappointing, albeit unsurprising, move given the College’s opaque approach to the issue.

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