Mills Must Explore Options

The administration’s current deal with Northeastern is truly nonsensical

Many in the Mills community were shocked in March when Beth Hillman, the president of Mills College, hastily announced that after the fall of 2021, Mills College will no longer enroll new first-year students. Adding insult to injury, we learned that in the following years, Mills will cease to be a degree-granting institution, effectively shutting down the college that I and other notable women—including Congresswoman Barbara Lee—call their alma mater.

Since that day in March, President Hillman and the college administration have continued to blind-side stakeholders by first announcing that the College would enter into a partnership with UC Berkeley, only to change course yet again two months later, announcing that Mills will be acquired by Northeastern University. Hillman calls it an “alliance,” which I find both misleading and disingenuous, particularly given Northeastern’s past record of absorbing smaller colleges.

Sadly, the way the president and current administration are handling every decision regarding the future of Mills is disappointing and destructive. There is neither truth, transparency nor consideration toward the Mills community. Instead, the Alumnae association is now alienated, as are the current students. Frankly, I’m unsure if the crucial decisions about the future of Mills are being made because of incompetent leadership or because the administration has something to gain from the closure. In either case, the approach is unacceptable.

I am deeply invested in this pivotal moment for Mills. In addition to being a graduate of Mills College, I served as ASMC Vice President for the 1991–1992 academic year and as a leader of our Black student union, known then as the Black Women’s Collective, throughout my four years at Mills. In 2013, Mills honored me with the Distinguished Alumna Award. I am a Campanile Club donor. I am also what we Mills alums with family members for grads call a “bent twig”; my sister Daisha Mshaka became an alum in 2014. My daughter could attend Mills as early as 2029—and I want that option to be available to her.

I am also a strong, self-defined and strategic thinker, and for this I have Mills to thank in large part. Mills prides itself on nurturing activists. Ironically, this aptitude comes to students through their protests of and demands for accountability from the Mills administration. During my time at Mills, I participated in anti-apartheid protests calling for Mills to divest from companies that supported apartheid South Africa. I also fought for a more diverse curriculum and faculty, and proudly participated in the 1990 strike against the administration. After the strike, I faced direct antagonism from the college leadership, which certainly prepared me for today’s fight to preserve the academic mission of the institution that President Hillman has intensely forsaken.

A formative experience in my time at Mills was witnessing the administration and faculty harass, ostracize and deny tenure to my Ethnic Studies professor, the brilliant and incomparable Dr. Dorothy Tsuruta. Now a shining star at San Francisco State, Mills could have supported the scholarship and contributions of this renowned professor, but the administration, as is their custom when it comes to racial equity, failed to understand her value and pushed Dr. Tsuruta out. That was over 20 years ago. Mills’ track record in the DEI space was abysmal then—and currently, remains largely symbolic—but it doesn’t have to be.

In 2020, Mills finally began addressing its long history of racism, ratifying a “commitment to Anti-racism.” Less than a year later, Mills leadership is adamant about allowing Northeastern University to acquire Mills, which suggests that their commitment to anti-racism rings hollow. Northeastern is a private University in New England where only a little more than 3% of the student body is Black. With a student body comprised of 65% students of color, 44% first-generation college students, 58% LGBTQ-identified students and 17% non-traditional aged students, Mills is in a much stronger position to take on the teaching, exploration and perhaps even the conference of degrees in anti-racism without Northeastern. Furthermore, we cannot abandon these students by selling ourselves to a school that does not share Mills’ commitment to diversity and equal opportunity for all. 

Let’s take a closer look at the current deal the administration has with Northeastern. It is truly nonsensical. First, it is troubling that the AAMC has yet to be presented with a strategic plan or detailed proposal for this “alliance” in practice. From what I gather, Northeastern is trying to absorb Mills. This is not a partnership or an alliance, but an acquisition that could lead to the dissolution of Mills in a very short time, similar to the situation with NCH, without any third party oversight to hold NU to its end of the bargain. In no universe but Hillman’s does it make sense for an institution that owns 135 acres of prime Oakland land estimated to be worth billions to be sold in any package that begins and ends with the $200 million price tag initially floated by NU.

At this point, many are not convinced that Mills is in “dire financial straits” as President Hillman keeps saying; it appears that Mills is closer to cash-strapped and poorly budgeted, while improperly leveraging its assets and options. Which means Mills can course correct, stabilize and thrive. At the bare minimum, Beth Hillman owes the stakeholders to whom she is accountable as president full transparency about Mills’ financials and assets. The willful refusal to provide transparency by Mills leadership has me wondering: what do Hillman and her allies stand to gain from this acquisition? For someone whose job description is to advance the mission of Mills College, she has done very much the opposite: cut off new student enrollment revenue; alienated the alumnae, who loaned Mills $2 million; and spread disinformation about the state of the college to the point where the faculty issued a no confidence vote of President Hillman in May of this year.

The administration and President Beth Hillman have shown time and time again that they lack the competence and desire to lead Mills in alignment with its 169-year academic mission. I, too, have no confidence in this administration, and believe they have much to hide. My hope is that the Alameda County court and other leaders of the state of California are able to help concerned alumnae like myself to follow the money and empower the entire Mills community to explore options that will secure the future of Mills College, educating and conferring degrees upon changemakers, creatives and disruptors for generations to come.

Thembisa S. Mshaka is a business author, filmmaker and award-winning advertising and marketing creative. She earned her undergraduate degree in International Relations and Ethnic Studies from Mills College in 1992.
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