A Dangerous Precedent in Higher Education

Unique small colleges across the United States face great challenges right now, not the least of which is the continuing global pandemic.


The sale of a financially viable small college without rigorous inquiry – especially one with the historic distinction of being founded at the same time as the State of California, and as rich in assets as Mills College - would send a chilling sign across the United States: that small colleges, especially those with fewer resources than Mills, don’t stand a chance.


Based on U.S. Department of Education’s IPEDS data, Mills has better revenue than 94% of its peer colleges in the United States - the 136 private nonprofit BA, MA, and PhD granting schools enrolling between 800 and 1200 students.

If Mills College must close, then 94% of private small colleges in the United States should too.

We believe the California Attorney General’s office must exercise its duty to stop this dangerous precedent from being set - that will put all small private colleges in the US on the potential chopping block for other institutions to absorb and essentially liquidate.


The AG and Legislators must take a stand to defend non-profit Higher Education from the kind of hostile takeovers that happen in the For-Profit world, so that this historic College’s mission and assets are not derailed by an unethical administration that wants to take it in a different direction entirely – just because it seems like a “better deal” to them.


Mills College’s founding documents and articles of incorporation are clear: The College’s assets and real property are impressed with the charitable purpose of operating an independent degree-granting college for “educating women.”


The Trustees’ decisions and financially irresponsible behavior radically departs from that mission. They have violated their legal duty to responsibly govern Mills College, and to control the spending and poor decisions of its administration.

The Trustees have also reneged on promises made to generations of donors - and to the College’s current and incoming students.

Non-profit institutions benefit from their tax-exempt status in exchange for a duty to be transparent with and accountable to the communities they serve. The Board has not been transparent even to its own students, faculty, or donors, not to mention the public.


If the Trustees of Mills had grounds to believe the College was no longer viable, they are legally compelled to explain publicly why it has become impossible to carry out the College’s historic mission.

Instead, the Board has skirted transparency and public accountability by secretively forging ahead with an unlawful plan.

They also had a strong ethical responsibility to come clean to the school’s auditors and accrediting body, if they in fact believed they faced the dire financial state which they claimed to the public. But the administration did not state they faced any significant concerns or were taking any risk-mitigating measures; they remained silent.


Meanwhile, Mills' auditors independently gave the College's financial health an almost perfect score in the US Department of Education's Financial Responsibility Composite Score, and showed that Mills had profited even despite COVID (one of the 3 major reasons Hillman stated Mills had to close). The accrediting body also had just reaccredited Mills for another 8 years, in part due to its financial viability for at least that many years.


In addition, the College’s executive board arguably actively misrepresented its financial position in the press and in court-sworn statements, creating a sense that the College was in imminent meltdown and that that was beyond their control. It has misled students many times over, with multiple broken promises regarding their paths forward. The College has arguably strung its faculty and staff along with false promises, with multiple union protests taking place on campus.


Again, mergers of this type normally take 2 to 3 years, allowing at least some time for discourse between stakeholders. But this administration - and Northeastern - are ramming this lengthy process into the space of only 10 months, making transparency and accountability almost impossible. We do not know what will happen or what is being lost, but what we do know means an utter devastation of Mills, not an enhancement.


This fire-sale of Mills College has been orchestrated by this administration and, based on its financials and the independent analysis of two financial experts in higher education, it does not need to happen.


Oakland and California would lose an historic women’s college that just seven years before Hillman’s closure announcement had had its highest enrollment numbers in history.(1)


As of 2022, Mills still ranks #1 in Best Value Schools, #10 in Regional Universities West, and #19 in Best Undergraduate Teaching in USNews Rankings (2).


If Mills College is sacrificed, the State of California will lose much more than just this college.

Mills’ sale to Northeastern, if allowed to go forward, would not only be catastrophic for this historic women’s college, it would be a tragic injustice against equity, access, and diversity in higher education, as well as the principles of law.



(1) IPEDS data for Mills, select “Reported Data” for 2014, 12-month enrollment, summary at bottom of page: https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/Facsimile.aspx?unitid=118888 (2) US News College Rankings: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/mills-college-1238

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