When Mills College students received an email on Tuesday from the school’s president announcing that the merger with Northeastern University was a done deal, Mills second-year student Annalise Totten felt joy and relief.
“I was with my friends at the time when we got the email and we were all really excited,” the biochemistry and molecular biology major said. “We were all hugging and really excited and happy to finally have a decision made.”
Totten said she was looking forward to eventually becoming a part of a broader alumni network―“which is really important for future support of students”―as well as programs that the smaller Mills doesn’t have.
“The opportunity to take classes at Northeastern is also great, especially in STEM,” she added.
She said that the general sentiment on the Oakland, California, campus was that the merger was a positive step but that there were some people who had misgivings about it.
“We were promised a degree and, during my freshman year, to learn that your school is closing is really hard,” Totten said. “So a lot of us are supporting just the fact that we get to stay here” on a campus that has a “good vibe, is inclusive and a fun place to be.”
A sigh of relief that Mills remains a standing institution, coupled with a feeling of hope and optimism about the merger with Northeastern, were shared among Mills faculty members, including senior leaders who were involved in the months-long negotiations.
“This felt like a very good and viable option,” Wendi Williams, dean of the School of Education, said. After Mills announced earlier it would no longer be granting degrees, the merger “breathed new life” into the college with a partner that “has consistently expressed respect and appreciation for what we do at Mills and sees it as a value add.”
Williams described Mills as “fiercely committed” to social justice and racial and gender equality. “We’re beyond the curve in some ways,” she said. The partnership will allow the two institutions to become better versions of themselves, Williams added.
As a whole, the higher education landscape has shifted over the last few years, and the Northeastern-Mills merger may be a template for similar deals down the road in which institutions that share values join forces, Williams said.
In a message to the Northeastern community, Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, described the Mills deal as “an opportunity to create something truly unique in higher education.”
The combination will bring Mills College and its focus on access, equity, social justice, and women’s leadership into Northeastern’s global network, which includes campuses across North America and in London, England.
On the Boston campus, Michael Gonyeau, assistant dean of assessment and curriculum in the Bouvé School of Health Sciences, and who helms the Faculty Senate Agenda Committee, said he sees the merger as an opportunity to foster “a sense of community” across all of Northeastern’s campuses, something the faculty governing body has been focused on in recent months.
“With our growing global presence, we’ve been working to increase senate diversity on our standing committees,” Gonyeau, who is a clinical professor in the Department of Pharmacy and Health Systems Sciences. “We’ve also been working on our efficiencies around communication.”
Gonyeau added that the faculty senate will embrace their new colleagues, and that he looks forward to the collaboration.
“I see this is a great addition to the university,” he said. “It’ll complement a lot of what we have already, and I think the strengths of Mills are helping to align nicely with the strengths of Northeastern.”
Mills College will take its place alongside Northeastern’s existing colleges, and its educational programs will become gender inclusive. President Elizabeth Hillman will remain the leader of Mills and retain her title as president.
Totten, the Mills biochemistry student, is simultaneously pursuing a minor in women’s studies. She said that one of the things that she liked about Mills were the gender-exclusive STEM classes. She expressed optimism that female students will continue to have the opportunity to “be ourselves” at Northeastern.
The merger will establish the Mills Institute to advance women’s leadership and to empower Black, Indigenous, people of color and first-generation students. Northeastern will provide seed funding for the institute, along with support and infrastructure provided to Northeastern’s existing interdisciplinary centers and institutes.
“Even as Mills changes to accept all genders, the college and institute will continue to focus on women’s leadership,” said Dawn Cunningham, who graduated from Mills in 1985 and who formerly worked with the Alumnae Association.
“All genders, including cis [cisgender] men, will benefit from an educational setting where leadership by women and gender nonbinary people is centered and valued,” she added.
The bicoastal connection between Northeastern and Mills brings back good memories for Alexander Zendzian, executive director of Mills Performing Arts. In March 2009, he performed at Blackman Auditorium on Northeastern’s Boston campus when he was with a San Francisco-based dance theater company, the Joe Goode Performance Group.
Dancers were in residence for about a week teaching classes and workshops with Northeastern students and in the greater Boston community, Zendzian said.
He is looking forward to the opportunity to work in support of the merger and believes that there is exciting potential in this new chapter for Mills. He believes that the partnership may ensure that the work of supporting women’s leadership, racial and gender justice, and creative innovation and experimentation can continue.
“This is welcome news,” Zendzian said.
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