The Huntington News, Northeastern University Student Paper
Grace Comer, Campus Editor
When Mills College announced its imminent closure in March 2021 due to long-time financial struggles exacerbated by the pandemic, “Save Mills College” rallies spread across the Bay Area campus as students and alumni organized to recover the historic women’s college. A few months later, when Mills shared it was instead discussing a potential merger with Northeastern, many of the same students and alumni expressed concerns about the implications of the merger.
Located in the heart of Oakland, California, Mills College has operated for 170 years, becoming a mecca for students of color, LGBTQ+ students and students of other marginalized communities to study the liberal arts. In 2014, they became the first women’s college to create a formal admissions policy for transgender students, allowing anyone who identifies as a woman or is gender non-conforming to apply to their undergraduate programs.
“Walking into Mills is like an oasis from all of the crazy political stuff you see on TV,” said Meena Ramakrishnan, who graduated from Northeastern in 2013 before receiving her master of fine arts in creative nonfiction from Mills in 2022. “It is part and parcel of Mills’ DNA that marginalized folks are given an education. It’s part of the educational curriculum, the staff and the faculty they hire are people of color or disabled folk or gender non-conforming people. It’s been like that for a long time, and so there is a lot of disappointment on campus that Northeastern does not share that kind of ethos and those values, and that they’re going to come in and attempt to change the fabric of Mills.”
Some students have indicated that they are concerned by the historic fit between the student body and educational concentration of Northeastern and Mills. Not only does Northeastern have a reputation for science and business oriented studies, but it was considered a predominantly white institution until 2014 and white students still overwhelm other groups at Northeastern. Northeastern also did not allow women to enroll until 1943 — 45 years after it was founded in 1898 and more than 90 years after Mills was founded.
Racist incidents at Northeastern are a cause for concern for the students of color who call Mills their home. As recently as 2019, the #HereAtNU and #NUExperience student movement saw dozens of students of color sharing their experiences with racism and discrimination at the university, with #BlackAtNU forming for students to demand improvement.
“There were incidents where the campus police were targeting students of color, mainly Black males. So my question is — are you bringing that foolishness here?” said Tasha Poullard, who graduated from Mills with a master of fine arts in creative writing with a focus on poetry this year. “I’m not saying [Mills College is] perfect, I’m not saying we have no blemishes, but Mills College — in my personal opinion — is one of the calmest, most serene and safe campuses I’ve ever been on.”
Some students also share concerns about what might happen to Mills as the undergraduate population — which has been restricted to women and gender non-comforming students since their doors opened in 1852 — is opened to all genders during the merger. These students are worried first and foremost about safety issues on campus, as Northeastern students have publicly spoken out about the sexual assault they have experienced in Boston through the Sexual Assault Response Coalition’s NEU SpeakOut movement or the #NEUtoo group.
Aside from major worries about safety for women and gender non-conforming students on campus, Ramakrishnan said that, based on her experiences at Northeastern, even everyday dynamics at Mills might be altered by the change.
“It’s not only that adding cisgendered men does threaten the safety of women, but in the classroom, it’s very different being in a class with all women than it is to be in a co-ed class,” Ramakrishnan said. “That means, if you raise your hand, you have chances of being called on, chances of being able to finish your thoughts before somebody else interrupts you, having your say valued equally to the other peers in your program and your class. That was not my experience at Northeastern at all. It is at Mills, I do feel like I can contribute and be heard.”
Northeastern and Mills administration have indicated that they are both excited by the new partnership, and see it as a way to allow Mills to continue its mission while welcoming students from Northeastern’s N.U.in and NU Bound programs.
“The merger with Northeastern University offers concrete and meaningful opportunities for our students, faculty, staff, and alumnae — opportunities that Mills could not offer on its own,” Mills College president Elizbeth L. Hillman wrote in an email statement to The News May 25. “It also means that the Mills campus will remain a vibrant center of learning with deep connections with the broader Oakland community while becoming an essential part of Northeastern’s global, experiential learning network. … Moreover, we will be able to evolve and expand Mills’ mission and commitment to social justice, gender equity, and the cultivation of women’s leadership through both a degree-granting college (Mills College at Northeastern University) and the Mills Institute.”
Northeastern spokesperson Shannon Nargi said the developing Mills Institute is another way that Mills will be able to preserve its legacy for women, students of color, LGBTQ+ students and first-generation students.
“[The Mills Institute] will be created to further Mills’ historic focus on women’s leadership, equity, and social justice,” Nargi wrote in an email statement to The News May 31. “The Institute will be dedicated to advancing women’s leadership and empowering BIPOC and first-generation students.”
However, recent announcements about the next steps in the merger have some students, alumni and professors concerned that the mission of Mills has been abandoned altogether.
When Mills becomes the Mills Institute at Northeastern on July 1, some of the school’s signature degree programs, including dance and early education, will be eliminated as Northeastern does not have accreditation or other qualifications to offer the major. Northeastern representative Nargi said Northeastern and Mills are working together to integrate a new curriculum that will honor Mills’ legacy while strengthening Northeastern’s course offerings.
“Our collaborations will help existing Mills’ students complete their degree programs, and create exciting, new offerings once the merger is complete,” Nargi wrote in an email statement to The News May 31. “ In addition to Northeastern’s Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, students of Mills College at Northeastern University can enroll in History, Culture, and the Law, an interdisciplinary major at Northeastern that includes six culturally-focused concentrations: Gender and Sexuality; Africana Studies and Culture; Asian Studies and Culture; Culture and Colonialism; Digital Humanities; and Latino/a, Latin American, and Caribbean Studies and Culture.”
Current Mills students who spoke with The News said Northeastern advisers suggested comparable majors for them to switch to based on Northeastern’s current or future offerings.
For instance, students pursuing a bachelor of arts in dance or in art history were both redirected to a bachelor in fine arts. Students pursuing Mills’ education programs were suggested to switch to Northeastern’s communications studies major, as Northeastern does not meet California’s strict qualifications to offer teaching credentials.
“The fact that [accreditation] didn’t happen, it made it feel like Northeastern isn’t acquiring Mills because Northeastern is interested in what Mills has to offer,” said an alumni and a current staff member in Mills’ art and technology department who requested to be anonymous for fear of professional consequences. “It just felt like a land grab, and all of the stuff that you see on the website about caring about Mills and the mission of Mills, it’s like, well if you did care about the mission you would do everything in your power to keep these programs.”
This development has led to a recent class action lawsuit filed against Mills College administration by students for allegedly making false promises to students regarding their degrees.
Last September, prior to the public announcement about the elimination of majors, the Faculty Executive Committee of Mills College indicated that 86% of its members felt the merger with Northeastern was the best option for the university.
However, according to an April 21 letter from the Mills’ Adjunct Faculty Union, the removal of these majors has also resulted in 89 faculty members — over half of Mills’ professors — receiving news that their contracts would not be renewed for the next year, leading to a complaint with the National Labor Board.
Despite on-going legal battles and concerns about the future of Mills, students and alumni have a strong love for their school and hope that there is still time to preserve the legacy of Mills for future generations.
“There’s students who literally, since they were little, wanted to go to Mills because their grandmother went there,” said Claudia Mercado, a member of the Save Mills College Coalition and the treasurer of the Alumnae Association of Mills College who graduated from Mills in 2006. “That’s the kind of legacy we have for women and the kind of role models we’ve built throughout the ages. The fact that hundreds of students still chose to attend Mills, regardless of their unknown future, says a lot about the power that Mills has.”