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Mills College students fear loss of safe and ‘sacred’ place in merger with Northeastern.

on September 28, 2021

Mills College junior Faith Thalacker, who identifies as queer, is worried about the school’s announced merger with Northeastern University — especially how the admission of more cisgender men at the historic women’s college may change the dynamic for women on campus. 

“Mills feels like a really safe place, and it feels sacred to me,” she said. “I’ve been sexually harassed at other colleges, and I’m able to let go when I’m on campus now. I feel like I’m going to lose that.” 

Thalacker is among the nearly 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the liberal arts school in East Oakland. Earlier this year, the school announced it would be closing due to financial woes, halting the enrollment of new students, with plans to give out its last degrees in 2023 and become the Mills Institute instead. 

But then on Sept. 14, Mills leadership finalized a deal to merge with Northeastern University in Boston and become co-ed, ending the college’s run as a private women’s college. (Although the college’s graduate programs already admit men, undergraduate programs, which account for a majority of the student body, do not.)

The merger will create Mills College at Northeastern University starting in July, in addition to the Mills Institute, a research wing within the new college focused on empowering women, BIPOC, and first-generation students. 

The news brought mixed reactions from students and alumnae. Many are upset the merger will end Mills’ legacy as a liberal arts space primarily for women. The move continues a decades-long trend of women’s colleges shuttering; in the 1960s, the U.S. had roughly 200 such schools, and that number will dwindle to 33 once the Mills merger is complete. However, others say they recognize the school’s financial realities and are happy it will survive in some form.

Students enjoy a late summer day on Mills College campus in Oakland. (MJ Johnson)

Moriah Costa, who accepted a transfer to Mills just as news of the school’s closure broke earlier this year, is just glad to have some security. 

“I don’t find the merger to be something that is so horrible. If it saves the school, then that’s something we should open our minds to, because we’re trying to finish with our degrees and finish what we started,” the 21-year-old dance major said. 

The college has faced financial challenges for years. Dozens of faculty and staff members were either laid off or have left since 2017. Because of low enrollment, the school cut tuition by 36% to attract more applicants, taking it from $44,765 in 2017 to just over $29,000 in 2020. In addition, 96% of undergraduates received financial aid. But enrollment continued to decline. 

Mills College President Elizabeth Hillman said the merger with Northeastern is the college’s saving grace. 

“We couldn’t continue to operate the way that we were,” Hillman said. “We weren’t able to pay people competitively, we aren’t able to keep up the campus in the ways that we need to, and we aren’t able to attract enough students to really fulfill our mission.” 

But many don’t see it that way. The merger has been widely criticized by students and alumnae for eliminating what many see as a safe space for women and gender nonbinary people to receive a liberal arts education.

Thalacker said she believes the school’s decision to become co-ed threatens the inclusive and diverse community Mills has created, something both Northeastern and Mills administrators say they won’t let happen. Currently, 58% of Mills students are LGBTQ identifying and 65% are students of color. Hillman pointed to the new Mills Institute to show the school’s commitment to maintain its mission. Northeastern is providing seed money for the institute’s creation. 

Vocal alumnae have been against the deal with Northeastern from the start. Members of the Alumnae Association of Mills College who also sit on the school’s board of trustees filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court in June to gain access to the college’s financial documents. Although a judge granted an injunction on the merger decision in August, it was short-lived, and Mills’ board voted to finalize the merger the day after the judge lifted the injunction. 

The Save Mills College Coalition, started by alumnae, has tried to put forth alternatives to the merger and are petitioning California Attorney General Rob Bonta and Gov. Gavin Newsom to intervene. Cynthia Mahood Levin, president of the coalition, said an independent analysis of Mills’ financials found the group would need to raise $24 million in donations to keep Mills as a private women’s college. So far the coalition’s pledge drive has raised over $535,000. 

Nadine Dixon, a coalition member from the class of 2009, resumed her education when she enrolled at Mills. As an older student, a mother and a lesbian, she felt comfortable on campus. “All of those things fit in there,” she said. “Now, I understand that Mills has been flattened. But we can bring it back.” 

However, some students said they just want to continue their education. They understand the history of the college and the implication of what would be lost, but for them, Mills will never change. 

Feyi Ajayi-Dopemu, a graduate student who attends Mills on a scholarship, said she feels positive about the merger since it means the college will stay open. 

“It’s important to have the space be open for students of color that are given the opportunity to get a liberal arts education,” said Ajayi-Dopemu, whose father is from Nigeria. “Those are the ones that are hurt by Mills closing. Not the alumni.” 

Although the school has offered some guidance on the transition, students aren’t sure exactly what it will mean for their individual situations. Northeastern will honor scholarship and financial aid commitments offered by Mills, according to the school’s announcement. Tenured faculty will remain and staff will become employees of Northeastern. The two schools’ faculty will work together to develop graduate and undergraduate programs. Hillman will remain as president. 

For Ajayi-Dopemu, it’s personal. Her family history is rooted in Mills College — her grandparents met on campus.

“In the Bay, people value Mills and that will always continue,” she said. 

This story was updated to correct information about faculty layoffs at Mills.

This story was published in collaboration with The Oaklandside.

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