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Mills College to Merge With Northeastern University, After Months-Long Court Battle

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The main entrance to the leafy Mills College campus, a rounded concrete wall with "Mills" written on it.
The main gate to Mills College in Oakland on March 24, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Mills College will merge with Northeastern University, after a vote by the Board of Trustees on Tuesday. The partnership between the schools is expected to take effect on or around July 2022. This comes after months in court with the school’s Alumnae Association of Mills College, which has sued to get more information about the proposed deal.

On Monday, the AAMC and Mills went to court over an ex parte application filed by an alumnae member of the board seeking to slow down the deal. The application would have extended a previously granted restraining order for another 60 days, preventing any vote from taking place. But an Alameda County judge denied that request, allowing the vote to go through.

"An alliance with Northeastern empowers Mills to continue doing what it has done since its founding in 1852: offer exceptional educational opportunities to students who want to make a difference," said Mills President Elizabeth Hillman in a statement Tuesday. "It also means that the Mills campus will remain a vibrant center of learning with deep and meaningful connections with the broader Oakland community."

Since Mills College announced it would no longer be granting degrees last March, ideas have swirled about what the future might hold for the historic women’s college. First, there was a potential partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, then a planned on-campus program between the two schools that would bring UC students to the school.

Now, there’s the deal with Northeastern. And on Tuesday, Hillman announced a few details about what the merger would entail. For students, Mills will continue to grant degrees up until the partnership date, at which point degrees will be from "Mills College at Northeastern University." For faculty, Northeastern says it will "honor and abide by the terms of tenure of Mills faculty who hold a tenured position or a continuous contract and will offer tenure-track faculty and adjunct faculty opportunities for employment." And staff will become employees of Northeastern in July 2022.

But getting to this point has been hard on the entire Mills College community. And some say the many vacillations that have taken place since the college announced its plans to close have had a detrimental impact on students and faculty.

'It couldn't have came at a worse time'

Shay Franco-Clausen says she never thought she’d be able to go to college. Growing up in Oakland and San José, her early education was interrupted due to being an incarcerated foster youth, and higher education always felt out of reach financially.

Then she found out about Mills College. It had smaller class sizes, which would be perfect for her learning style. And she was attracted to the college’s legacy of teaching progressive leaders, like East Bay Rep. Barbara Lee. Franco-Clausen is currently the vice-chairperson of the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority and says she has aspirations for national office, so Mills seemed to be the perfect fit.

"I said, 'I want to go to Mills because I'm an elected official. I'm going to be a future Assemblywoman. I want to learn from some of the best and some of the brightest and be in spaces with women as such,'" she said.

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So Franco-Clausen saved up money and worked out a schedule with her wife to care for their five kids. And when she applied for the school’s accelerated bachelor’s-to-master’s program in public policy, she got in.

Then halfway through her program, while she was sitting in class, Mills announced that it would stop granting degrees.

"It couldn't have came at a worse time. [For] students like myself — who work, have families and [are] trying to reach our academic goals — to be hit with an interruption of our journey in our path at Mills … it's blindsiding," she said.

And those distractions didn’t just affect students.

"I don't think anyone on the faculty or staff, aside from a few select higher-ups, knew anything about it coming down the pipeline," said Roger Sparks, professor and chair of the economics department.

There was more confusion for students and faculty when it looked like another Bay Area giant might swoop in and provide some answers: UC Berkeley.

But that deal didn’t materialize.

'It never got to that point'

Less than a week before Mills announced that it would be forced to close, officials at the Berkeley journalism school sent an email to faculty and lecturers. In it, Associate Dean Jeremy Rue had some exciting news: Berkeley was "exploring the purchase of Mills College campus in Oakland," and that potential acquisition could present opportunities for the journalism school — including "an entire relocation of the school."

There were plans to form a committee at the school to look into potential options and "​​explore its implications and desirability."

But that committee was never formed. Interim Dean Geeta Anand told KQED that relocating to the school was "never seriously considered by me or any of our faculty. It just never got to that point."

The rumored deal to purchase Mills also fell apart, though officials at both schools have declined to comment on why.

But according to Dr. Marilyn Schuster, an alumna of Mills and a member of the Board of Trustees who’s in favor of the deal with Northeastern, timeliness seems to have been a factor in the decision-making.

"Berkeley is part of the UC system. It's a very complicated decision structure, and there were just other details that were taking a very long time and just didn't work out," she said. "I'm sorry it didn't, frankly. I am a great admirer of what the university does. But when Northeastern started talking with us, the timing and the kinds of things that we could do in a partnership were quite attractive."

One issue that has caused friction is the lack of communication between the Mills administration and the wider community. But, according to those familiar with higher education mergers of this type, keeping a deal like this under wraps isn’t unheard of.

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"This is a case where the college announced: We are going to have serious conversations with Northeastern. We have a rough framework for what a deal might look like … and they revealed that they were going to have these conversations," said Larry Ladd, senior consultant for The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. "So I think I consider that transparency."

In fact, Ladd said, in some scenarios, potential partnerships aren’t even made public until a deal has already been worked out, like in 2018 when Boston University merged with Wheelock College to create a new school of education.

And because of the tenuous nature of the deals, it’s typical for schools to be stingy with the specifics while they’re in the midst of negotiations.

"Now [Mills and Northeastern] are going to have negotiations, you don't have transparency during negotiations … they have to be done quietly and deals are made with each side doing the best to maximize its own interest," Ladd said. "So you don't have that public."

Ladd says from what he’s seen from both sides, it appears the two colleges are attempting an "identity-protecting merger."

"Its students would still be able to get a Mills College degree. The college would continue to advocate for its unique mission of representing women and supporting women, representing social justice issues and supporting social justice issues," he said. "There will be various ways to preserve the stated mission of Mills, but it will not be a separate entity anymore."

As the Mills community is trying to envision what their future with Northeastern might look like, the best insight into its future could lie across the pond.


Northeastern in London

Back in 2019, Northeastern announced that it had finalized a partnership with the New College of the Humanities in London. The small, privately owned school served about 200 students when it entered into the partnership. The new relationship added the London school’s campus to Northeastern’s network, giving students the opportunity to study across the U.S. and abroad, and allowed the school to confer degrees in the United Kingdom. It also opened up research opportunities for faculty and created new academic programs at NCH.

In the announcement, Northeastern officials said that under the partnership terms, "NCH at Northeastern will maintain its own faculty and staff, and will continue to oversee student admission and enrollment to the college. Its one-to-one tutorial model of personalized instruction will not change."

But according to at least one former NCH professor, the school did go through some changes — particularly for faculty.

Monojit Chatterji taught economics at the school. He says when Northeastern came into the picture, the work increased dramatically.

"During the course of the year they were told, suddenly, to do things which they had never done before, which really added to their workloads," he said. "Their salary wasn't cut, that's true, but their workloads went up."

Chatterji said that’s largely due to the vast increase in class sizes when Northeastern students began attending the small school.

Professors saw their class assignments change as well, Chatterji said, as a result of the leadership changes. And he said the contracts offered to faculty contained so many teaching hours that doing research felt nearly impossible.

Ultimately, Chatterji decided not to pursue a new contract at the school.

"So if faculty at Mills think that they're going to be in the same working conditions that they were in before, they should think again," he said.

Northeastern did not respond to a request for comment.

According to Ladd, changes are to be expected to some degree when mergers of this type take place, particularly for schools in the situation that Mills is currently in.

"Unfortunately, the circumstances that Mills has experienced mean change is inevitable," he said. "Even if the college stayed independent, it does not have the resources to continue to operate the way it has."

But for those who want to keep the college intact as it is, the relationship with Northeastern felt like it was rushed, without much insight into why this option was the only viable one on the table.

What's the best path forward?

While the Mills administration has moved forward on this deal, some alumnae have questioned whether or not the school could look into other financial options, like fundraising or restructuring the debt to find an outcome that would keep the school intact as-is. They said they even formally proposed some of these ideas to members of the Board of Trustees but felt their ideas were being brushed off.

"The Board of Trustees should be ashamed that they’ve brought this historic college to this state. This is their failure," said Cynthia Mahood Levin, president of the board of Save Mills College Coalition, in a statement regarding the Northeastern deal. "They are selling out Mills College after years of poor financial mismanagement, and then claiming this sale as a 'success.'"

From Larry Ladd’s perspective, however, this deal may have been the best thing on the table for long-term sustainability — although, he said, that doesn’t mean the process isn’t painful for current and former students.

"Their heart has been broken. ... They loved it when they went there. They've given money to it. They feel very loyal to it. It's a part of their own identity. And then it's going to change in radical ways," he said. "It's not going to be the college they remember."

And it's clear that the uncertainty of Mills’s future has already had an impact on students.

All of the turmoil at the college convinced Shay Franco-Clausen to switch out of the accelerated program and just pursue her bachelor’s degree. She’s now on track to finish in May 2022.

"I applied because I wanted to be a Mills graduate and because of the space it provided," she said. "It's been just a completely disappointing experience."


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