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Students Sue Mills College

Updated: May 12, 2022

Saying it misled them about Northeastern takeover

San Francisco Chronicle

May 12, 2022

Mills College in Oakland, which will end its 170-year run as a school for women this summer, bungled its merger with an East coast university and illegally misled hundreds of students — costing them money and delaying their education, a new class-action lawsuit claims.

The suit filed Wednesday in Alameda Superior Court on behalf of 800 students comes days before Mills’ final graduation and weeks before private, Boston-based Northeastern University is set to transform the 135-acre site into its tenth campus. Mills bills the transition as a merger in which students can complete their degrees at the combined institution, “Mills College at Northeastern University,” at no extra cost.

The students allege that the college violated the state’s fair commerce laws through false and misleading statements, and are seeking unspecified monetary compensation. Their suit says Mills encouraged students to remain enrolled, only afterwards telling them that the final Mills degrees would be awarded in 2022, not 2023, and that many degree programs would be eliminated after Northeastern took over this summer. As a result, students missed deadlines to transfer out, delaying their academic progress and costing them thousands of dollars.

“The administration had an obligation to their current students, and they have failed us,” plaintiff Willa Cordrey said in a statement.

A Mills spokesperson said the college’s lawyers have not yet reviewed the lawsuit. In a statement, Mills reiterated that students who attend Mills College at Northeastern University “will not pay more to complete their degrees, even in instances when additional time may be required to complete the course work due to different accrediting bodies.”

But students suing the school say Mills has made it all but impossible for them to remain.

Cordrey enrolled in Mills’ five-year education program in 2019, execting to earn a bachelors, master’s and teaching credential. She re-enrolled even after the college announced in March 2021 that it would close in 2023 because she was encouraged by repeated statements from Mills officials and her advisers that she could complete her studies, the suit says.

But in January, Mills announced it was eliminating all programs that did not already exist at Northeastern — including Cordrey’s program.

The college “repeatedly misled Ms. Cordrey,” said a statement from the firms representing the students, Bryan Schwartz Law and Nichols Kaster, PLLP. “The best they could do is allow her to receive her bachelor’s in communications or a similarly unrelated major through Northeastern University, with no path to receive her teaching credential.”

Jenny Varner, an art history major, also expected to graduate in 2023, but learned in January that her program would be eliminated.

Jenny Varner was an art history major at Mills College who intended to finish her degree there until the school announced in January it was eliminating the program. Varner, standing here before a portrait of Aurelia Henry Reinhardt, an advocate for women’s education and Mills president from 1916 to 1943, is among the students who filed a class-action lawsuit this week.

Provided by Stacy Varner

“Varner would not have enrolled at Mills for fall 2021 had she known she would not have been able to graduate in 2023 with a Mills degree,” according to the lawsuit, which says Varner couldn’t get a refund for the $15,421 she spent that semester. The suit says Varner and others have been forced to leave and spend thousands of dollars to satisfy transfer requirements.

Mills said it and Northeastern “are working diligently to mitigate any issues that Mills students may encounter as a result of the pending merger of the two institutions.”

In July, Mills graduates — including a trustee and former trustee — sued the college in an attempt to stop what they called its “acquisition,” which triggered a countersuit from the college. Both sides dropped their lawsuits in January after an undisclosed settlement.

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @NanetteAsimov

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