The Huntington News, The Independent Newspaper of Northeastern University
by Sonel Cutler, campus editor
After 10 months of negotiation, a California judge approved a $1.25 million class-action settlement Tuesday for hundreds of former Mills College students who sued the school and Northeastern University last year, claiming Mills misled them about its 2021 merger with Northeastern.
The 408 students included in the May 2022 class action suit said the college disseminated “false promises, misinformation, and misrepresentations” regarding the merger, resulting in additional expenses and delayed graduation dates. Students will receive $655,000 of the settlement, or about $1,600 each, and the rest will pay for attorneys’ fees and costs, according to a statement from the students’ attorney.
Northeastern denies the claims made by former students, but wrote in a statement to The News that it found the settlement to be the best way to move on from the allegations and continue providing education to students at the Oakland campus.
“While Mills College and Northeastern do not believe that plaintiffs’ claims have merit, and deny all allegations made, the institutions have concluded that settlement is in the best interest of the parties to avoid the time and expense of drawn-out litigation,” wrote Renata Nyul, vice president of communications.
But former Mills students who spoke with The News were frustrated with the outcome of the settlement and the university’s lack of a public apology addressing the challenges the merger posed for students.
“It’s really disheartening to see that Northeastern said [we] didn’t have viable claims, but they just paid out to end the legal pursuit,” said Victoria Mayorga, a fifth-year history, culture, and law major at Northeastern and former Mills student who is part of the class action. “It feels like a payout. It feels like business as usual.”
Northeastern announced it would take over Mills College in September 2021 after Mills, plagued by financial hardship, faced impending closure. The school was renamed Mills College at Northeastern University and became co-ed after operating for 170 years as a college for women and non-binary people.
Since its inception, the merger has been fraught with controversy. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleged Mills leadership was “negligent, misleading, and deceitful” in their assurances about the status of degrees during the merger, only notifying students of consequential merger details after the deadline to receive a tuition refund, according to the law firms representing the students, Bryan Schwartz Law and Nichols Kaster PLLP.
“It kind of just feels like a, ‘Take your money and stop complaining’ kind of thing,” Zeltzin Mozo, a third-year history, culture, and law major, said of the settlement. “It was almost disrespectful because they don’t want to admit that the way they handled the merger was wrong. I don’t really think any amount of money can be an appropriate amount for what we went through.”
Mozo and Mayorga majored in ethnic studies and people, politics, economics, public policy and law at Mills, respectively. They were among many students whose majors were eliminated in the merger because it didn’t already exist at Northeastern’s Boston campus, despite a commitment from Mills leadership that they would be able to finish their degrees, according to the lawsuit. Other historic majors extinguished by the merger included child development and education, art history, dance and ethnic studies.
“They had us fighting for our education … I don’t think you should have to beg your university to tell you how your financial aid package is going to look, how your degree pathway is going to look,” Mozo said. “[The Mills administration] kind of left us to fend for ourselves. And to this day, we haven’t had any actual written apology.”
Mozo, a first-generation, low-income student, described the settlement as “hush money” and argued that, in addition to apologizing to former Mills students, the university could do more to assist students in paying tuition.
Bryan Schwartz and other lawyers representing the Mills plaintiffs celebrated the settlement as a success — a way to leave grievances in the past and focus on the future.
“We are glad that we are able to get some relief for students who came to us for help after so much unexpected turmoil to help them move on with the next chapters of their promising educational trajectories and careers,” Schwartz wrote in the statement.
But students say the settlement is far from a sign of reconciliation with the university.
“This is just the beginning,” Mayorga said. “Money, $1,000, honestly isn’t that much — it’s rent for one month. Northeastern still has a lot of work to do on retaining, supporting and caring for Mills legacy students who are left over.”
A final hearing for the settlement is scheduled for March 12, 2024.
Deputy Campus Editor Emily Spatz contributed reporting.
Photo Credit: Jeta Perjuci.