In class action lawsuit, Mills College students allege administration made false promises during merger

June 6, 2022

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.

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