Mills College merger with Northeastern University raises unanswered questions, concerns
June 6, 2022
On July 1, Mills College is scheduled to end its 170-year run as a women’s college following its merger with Northeastern University. Since formal discussions about the merger began June 17, 2021, current students and alumni of the Oakland-based university have raised concerns about what this means for the school’s mission and students — and some of these complaints have been taken up in court.
Most recently, students have filed for a class action lawsuit against the Mills College administration, with plaintiffs alleging that false promises were made during the merger that impacted the cost, quality and timeliness of students’ education.
According to the official complaint, some students’ current majors will be removed as part of the merger, while others will only be able to continue their course of study if they transfer to the Boston campus.
“Students are frustrated. Students are upset. Students are sad,” Matthew Helland, a lawyer at Nichols Kaster who is involved in filing the lawsuit, said. “Students love Mills and they attended Mills for a reason. There’s been a lot of disruption to students’ lives as they’ve tried to figure out what they do next. … That level of frustration just ratcheted up when [Mills administrators] weren’t providing timely information.”
In class action lawsuit, Mills College students allege administration made false promises during merger
The lawsuit was filed by Bryan Schwartz Law and Nichols Kaster on behalf of two plaintiffs whose majors were eliminated in the merger — Jenny Varner, a student who withdrew from Mills College after the Fall 2021 semester, and Willa Cordrey, who would have to take up to 50 additional credit hours to graduate with a different Northeastern degree. As a class action suit, any damages or relief paid by Mills College would also be provided to anyone in the punitive class, which is defined in the official complaint as any student who was enrolled at Mills as of March 17, 2021 and who re-enrolled for the fall 2022 semester.
In the complaint, the lawyers lay out a timeline of events and allege that false claims were made in the process.
In an email March 17, 2021, students were told that Mills College would be closing as a degree-granting university due to financial difficulties and might instead rebrand as the Mills Institute. The last round of new students would enter in fall 2021 and the final degrees with the Mills name would be conferred in the spring of 2023.
“At the same time, Mills is pursuing promising discussions with other academic institutions to continue the College’s mission,” Mills President Elizabeth L. Hillman wrote in a press release the same day.
Official talks began between Northeastern and Mills administration June 2021 about the possibility of merging the two universities, giving Northeastern the opportunity to expand its existing Bay Area presence and Mills the ability to continue operating as a university.
“This new alliance would allow for continued conferral of degrees on the Mills campus with the Mills name as part of those degrees; enhanced support for Mills’ current students, faculty, and staff; and the future development of new educational programs,” Hillman wrote in a June 2021 press release about the merger.
A June 17 email about the potential Northeastern merger allegedly reaffirmed spring 2023 as the final date for degrees with the Mills name and stated that Northeastern would honor all existing scholarship and financial aid commitments, the lawsuit says. Students were also allegedly told that updated degree maps would be provided in fall 2021.
Immediately following the Sept. 14, 2021, vote that officially merged Northeastern and Mills, students received an email informing them that any degrees issued after June 30, 2022 — nearly a year earlier than the earlier emails stated — would be from the Mills College at Northeastern University. This news came six days after the Sept. 8 deadline to withdraw from the college and receive a tuition refund.
Students were allegedly reassured in both the Sept. 14 email and a later Sept. 22 email that they would not experience any increased costs due to the merger, and at a Sept. 14 town hall meeting, Mills administration allegedly affirmed that students would receive updated degree plans by the end of the month. According to the official complaint, students did not receive degree audits until the spring 2022 semester — and many of these contained classes that had yet to be evaluated for transfer credit.
At the beginning of the spring 2022 semester, prior to students receiving these degree audits, Mills College held a town hall meeting Jan. 19, where students were notified for the first time that all majors and programs that did not already exist at Northeastern would be eliminated.
I felt very betrayed and I also felt like I was tricked because [Mills advisors] told me to come early and they assured me that I would be in the last graduating class of Mills, and so I made the choice to go there. … I’ve been robbed of the experience that I paid for, because I wanted to go for Mills, for the writing program and to be in a community of writers.
— Angelica Erskine
“I felt very betrayed and I also felt like I was tricked because [Mills advisors] told me to come early and they assured me that I would be in the last graduating class of Mills, and so I made the choice to go there,” said Angelica Erskine, a transfer student who was pursuing an master of fine arts in creative writing at Mills prior to the degree being eliminated and replaced with a bachelor’s in English. “I’ve been robbed of the experience that I paid for, because I wanted to go for Mills, for the writing program and to be in a community of writers.”
Jenny Varner, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told The News that a list of equivalent majors provided by Northeastern suggested that she change her major to fine arts — a major that is only tangentially related to her previous art history major.
“An art degree would not get me far in what I’m trying to do,” she said. “I want to do museum education and the history part of that is the most important part. I think [Mills] is overlooking that as well — we can’t actually explain to employers or grad schools what we studied, so it’s what the diploma says that really matters.”
Similarly, students currently pursuing child development or early education majors were encouraged to enroll in Northeastern’s human services or communications majors, and students enrolled in the dance program were instead encouraged to join Northeastern’s art or theater programs.
Some of these majors were removed from Mills’ catalog because Northeastern does not have accreditation required to offer the degrees, said an alumni and current staff member in Mills’ arts and technology department who requested to be anonymous for fear of professional consequences. Accreditation is a process that involves registering the coursework with a national group, such as the National Association of Schools of Music for music programs, and completing a series of evaluations from the group.
“If they don’t have the accreditation, why is this merger happening this summer and not in 2023 when the school first announced it would happen?” the staff member said. “It made more sense to me to wait a little longer for the official merger and do things the right way rather than the fast way, and to do that research into the accreditation and how to do that properly.”
Northeastern spokesperson Shannon Nargi said in an email that Northeastern is working with Mills’ administration to create new courses that will incorporate Mills’ academic legacy into new course offerings for Northeastern and Mills students alike.
“Colleagues from Northeastern and Mills are working together to integrate the curricula in ways that honor and strengthen both institutions,” Nargi wrote in an email statement to The News May 31. “Our collaborations will help existing Mills’ students complete their degree programs, and create exciting, new offerings once the merger is complete.”
However, even for students whose major or fitting alternative is offered by Northeastern, many course credits do not transfer. Savannah McCoy, a junior at Mills College referenced in the lawsuit, could continue pursuing her bachelor of science in biology, but was not informed until spring 2022 that not all of her credits were transferable.
Some students are also having difficulty determining their future course schedule, as classes have not been announced yet.
“No one knows anything until July 1 when things change, like what classes are being offered. I can’t even see if those classes that I need to take are even going to be there,” Erskine said. “It’s just really hard to plan, and I didn’t even have enough time to transfer if I wanted to because I was waiting to hear what was going on with everything to see if I needed to transfer.”
According to the official complaint, Mills’ failure to inform students of these changes earlier constitutes misrepresentation by omission.
Lack of transparency plagues NU-Mills merger process in legal battles
Some who spoke to The News think Mills has not been forthcoming in providing information that they feel should be readily available to the public, with current students and alumni alike having difficulty obtaining information about the closure and the merger. In fact, this lawsuit has not been the first filed against Mills College for allegedly withholding information.
When Mills College chose to close in spring 2021, the decision was made by its Board of Trustees in a March 4 meeting. According to an official legal complaint filed by alumni June 7, these members were asked to make this vote on a consent agenda, which is typically used for routine and procedural decisions that will not need debate, with no prior discussion.
“Some of the alums that were part of the trustees came to the [Alumnae Association of Mills College, or] AAMC, and they felt they didn’t have the financial records to actually make a decision at that level,” said Claudia Mercado, a member of the Save Mills College Coalition, or SMCC, and the treasurer of the AAMC who graduated from Mills in 2006.
According to the complaint, this consent agenda asked the trustees to approve the development of a “teach-out plan” for the last classes of students and the design of a “Mills Institute,” which would be implemented in the event of a closure in the future.
“The actual announcement of closure actually came as a shock to these trustees, they didn’t believe they had voted ever to close the college,” said Kieran Turan, the vice president of SMCC who graduated from Mills in 1990. “It wasn’t an actual agreement to a teach-out, it was like ‘we will develop a teach-out, and we will also develop an idea or concept for an institute,’ but it wasn’t like ‘yes, we are deciding we will close Mills College in two years.’”
Following the closure announcement in March, some alumni began organizing an official court filing to request access to documents including financial data, term sheets and consultant reports that would have allowed them to make a more informed decision regarding the teach-out and formation of an institute. The official complaint was submitted by representatives of the AAMC June 7.
“It raised a lot of red flags, the way that [President Beth Hillman] and senior leadership on the board were basically, I would say, concealing access to certain financial documents and conflict of interest statements from certain trustees,” Turan said.
According to the AAMC’s timeline, the legal process was delayed several times, with each delay accompanied by a temporary restraining order that prevented any further action to be made about the college, including voting on partnerships or signing agreements.
The first court ruling was made Aug. 5, 2021, and indicated Mills College was required to turn over a large swath of documents requested by the AAMC by Aug. 18. An Aug. 26 ex parte application from the AAMC requested an additional restraining order and alleged Mills was in contempt of court for failing to provide all necessary documents.
“When [Mills College] finally did consent, the judge had to basically force them, they dumped like 20,000 documents onto this remaining trustee,” Turan said. “[The documents] were in total disarray, and they had to spend a lot of money just piecing through all of it. They also didn’t provide at least half of the documents requested — none of the conflict of interest stuff, not up-to-date financials, no projections.”
Mills filed a cross-complaint alongside a public statement, alleging that the college had provided over 21,000 pages of the required documents and confirming that the college was still in talks with Northeastern, with plans to vote on the merger as soon as the restraining order was lifted.
According to the AAMC, the Alameda County Superior Court reaffirmed that Mills must provide the documents that had not been shared, and lifted the restraining order on September 13, 2021. The day after, Mills College proceeded with the vote to officially merge with Northeastern.
The legal battle eventually came to a standstill following several more motions, with a joint stipulation mutually ending the cases. According to AAMC treasurer Mercado, the proceedings were simply becoming too expensive for the alumni to continue.
The financial state of Mills College: Could it have been saved?
Despite dropping the legal case, members of the AAMC and SMCC continue to raise concerns about the financial state of Mills College. However, Mills’ president indicated that, based on both internal and external assessments of the situation, she believes the solution to their financial issues — due to decreasing enrollment, pandemic struggles and more — is complex and difficult to solve.
“Annual audits have been supplemented by additional external assessments over the past decade that helped the College consider enrollment strategies, partnership and monetization opportunities, and campus development,” President Hillman wrote in an email statement to The News May 26. “Trustees, faculty, and staff have been at the center of these efforts, with community and alumnae leaders as well as donors also receiving regular briefings and updates. Despite these multipronged efforts, Mills was unable to increase enrollments or achieve positive revenues over the last ten years.”
Revenue losses, exacerbated by the pandemic, have forced Mills administration to make cuts to institutional spending, including to their education budget, according to .
“The merger with Northeastern University offers concrete and meaningful opportunities for our students, faculty, staff, and alumnae — opportunities that Mills could not offer on its own,” President Hillman wrote in an email statement to The News May 25. “Mills is already benefiting from Northeastern’s support: After signing the merger agreement last fall, Mills’ workforce received its first across-the-board compensation increase since 2009.”
Faculty and staff appear to be more supportive of the merger than many students and alumni — as of last September, a poll of the Faculty Executive Committee of Mills College showed that 86% of faculty felt the merger with Northeastern is the best available option for the college.
However, according to an April 21 letter from the Mills Faculty Adjunct Union, many of these staff members may not be teaching after the merger — 89 faculty members, which is over half of Mills current faculty, were told in a letter April 15 that their contracts would not be fully renewed for the 2022-23 academic year. The union has filed a complaint with the National Labor Board against Mills.
“Needless to say, the Mills Faculty Adjunct Union stands in opposition to such cavalier terminations, done with little or no consultation with department chairs, in a moment of transition to a partnership with NU that could only stand to benefit from continued inclusion of diverse, beloved and loyal faculty, who have devoted years of service to Mills,” wrote David Buuck, an adjunct professor of English at Mills and the union’s steward, in the letter. “This action shows little regard or respect for the work, talents, and job security of the faculty who have helped make Mills what it is today.”
The future for students and professors alike is up in the air until July 1, when the merger will be officially completed. But according to Mills’ alumni and students, the fight isn’t over yet.
“There’s one thing about Mills alums, and that’s that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” said Stacy Varner, an alum who graduated in 1993 with a degree in book art — another degree that will be removed in the merger. “I think that’s the attitude that many of us have — this deal is not final, there’s always room to hopefully do something, either to, frankly, stop it entirely or improve the way it’s being handled and improve the outcome for current Mills students.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated June 8 at 9:50 a.m. to correct a date related to the class action lawsuit.