Mills College alumnae sue to halt possible merger

by Jeremy

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Dive Brief:

  • Four members of the Mills College Board of Trustees are suing to block the historically women’s school in California from merging with another institution or shutting down. 

  • The plaintiffs, who are also board members of the college’s alumnae association, filed a lawsuit last month alleging school officials withheld key financial documents that prevented them from meeting their fiduciary duties. 

  • The trustees want a state judge to block Mills leaders from moving forward with their plans for the college until at least 60 days after they have been provided the requested financial records.

Dive Insight:

The lawsuit could derail plans for Northeastern University, a private institution in Boston, to acquire Mills and offer co-ed classes at the historically women’s college in Oakland, California. It offers another example of higher education mergers, where leaders often encounter blowback from students, alumni and their own board members. 

The four trustees argued in court filings that though the college is grappling with financial uncertainties, it maintains “significant” assets and a roughly $200 million endowment. An online FAQ from Mills notes that nearly 600 different funds comprise the endowment and legally cannot be used to pay for the college’s operations.

An agreement with the alumnae association also permits them to review financial documents that so far have been withheld, they argued. 

“Mills as an institution is being harmed in that its governing body (at a minimum, the trustee Plaintiffs here) is, simply put, not being allowed to properly do its job,” the lawsuit states. 

The alumnae trustees also allege the board in March did not explicitly approve the plan to wind down the college’s operations. It came as a “shock,” the lawsuit states, when Mills President Elizabeth Hillman announced in March that the 169-year-old college would no longer enroll new first-year undergraduate students after fall 2021 and would likely confer its final degrees in 2023, a decision that was attributed to the trustee board. 

The coronavirus pandemic compounded “structural changes” in the higher ed sector, and Mills’ declining enrollment and budget woes drove the college toward becoming an institute, Hillman said. 

The news prompted student and alumnae protests and a vote of no confidence in administrators in May.  

Last month, however, Hillman said the college was moving to combine with Northeastern. This arrangement would create a co-ed campus that would still grant undergraduate and graduate degrees. Mills currently only admits women and nonbinary students into its undergraduate programs. 

Hillman in a statement this week shared more information about the deal with Northeastern. Faculty members have already discussed between 200 and 300 Northeastern students, including men, studying at the Mills campus in the fall, she said. And Mills intends to announce further details about a campus research and career development hub for women, gender nonbinary individuals, and historically marginalized racial and ethnic communities, Hillman said. 

Given the new partnership with Northeastern, Mills intends to give faculty and staff a 3% salary bump, she said.

Hillman, in an emailed statement to Higher Ed Dive, described the lawsuit as a “factually incorrect and legally mistaken effort to undermine confidence in the leadership of the College.” 

She urged the alumnae association “to rededicate its resources to supporting students and Mills College rather than funding a costly and legal fight.”

Mills isn’t the only institution to face a lawsuit for its merger plan this year. Faculty at Wesley College unsuccessfully sued to stop Delaware State University from acquiring it. That consolidation was effective July 1.

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