Mills College students fear losing a safe and “sacred” place in the merger with Northeastern.


Mills College junior Faith Thalacker, who identifies as gay, worries about the school’s announced merger with Northeastern University – especially how the admission of more cisgender men to the historic college for women could change the dynamics of women on campus.

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

Thalacker is one of over 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the East Oakland Liberal Arts School. Earlier this year, the school announced its closure due to financial issues, ending the enrollment of new students, with the intention of finalizing its degrees in 2023 and instead becoming the Mills Institute.

But on September 14, Mills management finalized an agreement to merge with Northeastern University in Boston and become co-ed, ending management of the college as a private women’s college. (Although the college’s graduate programs already admit men, the undergraduate programs, which make up the majority of the student body, do not.)

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

The news elicited mixed reactions from students and alumni. Many are upset that the merger will end Mills’ legacy as a liberal arts space primarily for women. This decision follows on from a trend towards the closure of women’s colleges for decades; in the 1960s, the United States had about 200 such schools, and that number will drop to 33 once the Mills merger is complete. However, others say they recognize the financial realities of the school and are happy that it survives in one form or another.

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

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

“I don’t find the merger to be such a horrible thing. If that saves school, then this is something we should open our minds to as we are trying to finish our degrees and finish what we started, ”said the 21-year-old dance major.

The college has faced financial challenges for years. Dozens of professors and staff have been made redundant or left since 2017. Due to the low enrollment rate, the school has reduced tuition fees by 36% to attract more applicants from 44 $ 765 in 2017 to just over $ 29,000 in 2020. In addition, 96% of undergraduates received financial aid. But registrations continued to decline.

Mills College president Elizabeth Hillman said the merger with Northeastern was the college’s saving grace.

“We couldn’t continue to operate as we were,” Hillman said. “We weren’t able to pay people competitively, we weren’t able to maintain the campus the way we need to and we weren’t able to attract enough students to really fill up. our mission. ”

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

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

The singing alumni have opposed the deal with Northeastern from the start. Members of the Mills College Alumni Association, who also sit on the school’s board of trustees, filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court in June for access to the college’s financial records. Although a judge granted an injunction on the merger decision in August, it was short-lived and Mills’ board of directors voted to finalize the merger the day after the injunction was lifted by the judge.

The Save Mills College Coalition, started by alumni, tried to come up with alternatives to the merger and called on California Attorney General Rob Bonta and Governor Gavin Newsom to intervene. Coalition chair Cynthia Mahood Levin said an independent analysis of Mills’ finances found the group would need to raise $ 24 million in donations to keep Mills a private women’s college. To date, the coalition’s pledge campaign has raised over $ 535,000.

Nadine Dixon, Coalition Member of the Class of 2009, resumed her studies when she enrolled at Mills. As an older student, mother and lesbian, she felt right at home 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 wanted to continue their education. They understand the history of 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 was positive about the merger as it means the college will remain open.

“It is important that the space is open to students of color who have the opportunity to pursue liberal arts training,” said Ajayi-Dopemu, whose father is from Nigeria. “These are the ones who are hurt by the Mills shutdown. Not the old ones.

Although the school has offered transition advice, students are not sure what it will mean for their individual circumstances. Northeastern will honor the scholarship and financial aid commitments offered by Mills, according to the school’s announcement. The full professors will remain and the staff will become employees of Northeastern. Professors from both schools will work together to develop graduate and undergraduate programs. Hillman will remain chairman.

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

“In the Bay, people love Mills and it will always continue,” she said.

This story has been updated to correct information about teacher layoffs at Mills.

This story was published in conjunction with The Oaklandside.

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