Mills College will merge with Northeastern University rather than close

Mills College in Oakland, which had previously planned to close by 2023 because of financial woes and falling enrollment, has announced a merger with Northeastern University in Boston that would keep the campus open.

The new plan would allow the historic college campus to stay alive indefinitely but would cease its tradition of serving only women in its undergraduate programs and would end its independence. The college, which last year enrolled about 960 students, would become known as Mills College at Northeastern University, and current Mills students could stay or possibly transfer to Northeastern's main campus in Boston, according to an announcement.

The deal is not finalized and much remains open to negations. The Mills College board has authorized the talks with Northeastern "because we share a vision of what education can and must be in the coming decades. The missions of Mills and Northeastern are aligned through our shared commitment to access, social justice and urban education," according to a statement from Mills President Elizabeth Hillman.

Northeastern already has satellite programs in San Francisco and San Jose.  The university has five other satellite campuses, including two in Canada -- Toronto and Vancouver.

Men would be allowed to enroll as undergraduates, Hillman said. "Mills will become gender inclusive on the undergraduate level, but will forever be shaped by our legacy as a historically women's college," her statement said.

Mills College began as a religious school in 1852 and moved in 1871 to its current location on 135 lushly landscaped acres. It kept its tradition of having a women-only undergraduate student body, although it admitted men to graduate programs. In 1990, Mills leaders proposed to start admitting undergraduate men as a solution to financial problems. But Mills rescinded that attempt and undergraduate men were never enrolled after an uproar among alumnae and a two-week-long student strike.

Enrollment of Mills has declined more recently, falling 14% from 1,122 in fall 2019 to 961 in fall 2020.

Northeastern enrolls about 19,000 undergraduates and 8,600 graduate students. It is unclear how the announcement would affect its existing programs in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, where it offers graduate programs in computer science and biotechnology and a semester in the West for undergraduate internships. The university is known for its so-called cooperative form of education, which combines on-the-job experience and internships with classroom learning.

In March, Mills said it would stop enrolling new undergraduates after fall 2021 and that it would "most likely" grant its last degrees of any sort in 2023. That triggered protests from alumni and students who contended the value of  campus land could help the college survive.

Clearly, now three months later, Mills' governing board has had second thoughts about totally shutting down. It was not revealed Thursday whether Northeastern reached out to Mills first or the other way around or whether mergers with other universities were examined as well. Also undisclosed were financial details, including the fate of Mills' endowment, which was reported to be about $190 million last year.

Soon after the March announcement about Mills closing, UC Berkeley said it would rent dorms and classroom space at Mills next fall. UC Berkeley, just nine miles away and crunched for space, announced plans for 200 freshman to live on Mills' Oakland campus and take many of their introductory classes there.

That plan for UC to expand into Mills now appears to be dead. "While we have worked collaboratively over many decades with UC Berkeley, we have been unable to establish a public/private partnership that would further expand our association at this time," a statement on the Mills College website said.

Under the merger being negotiated, Northeastern would honor scholarship and financial aid commitments already made by Mills to current students, and "a significant number" of Mills faculty and staff would be offered continued employment at the Oakland campus or other Northeastern locations, the announcement said.

The news of the college's survival, albeit as a satellite of a larger university, may be encouraging to small, private nonprofit colleges. Some of those schools have struggled financially for decades, and the pandemic has worsened those difficulties, experts said.