Mills Merger Provides New Higher Education Model

Demographic and economic forces demand that colleges and universities increasingly consider bold partnerships

By Elizabeth L. Hillman, president of Mills College

As published by The Mercury News and East Bay Times on Thursday, September 30, 2021

Mills College, a force in women’s education and leadership for nearly 170 years, is stepping onto a larger stage. Through a historic merger, our beloved East Oakland college is bringing its magic to Northeastern University’s global network of campuses.

The demographic and economic forces that brought our two institutions together demand that colleges and universities increasingly consider bold partnerships. Ongoing decline in the number of traditional college-age students, increasing costs of a college education, the imperative for equity and access, and the changing needs of the labor force are fueling a mosaic of threats and opportunities. For an increasing number of excellent, but vulnerable, institutions similar to Mills, the alternative to change is closure.

Mills and Northeastern each possess strengths needed to meet the challenges upending higher education. Together, we are stronger and will create robust, flexible, and diverse networks for lifelong learning and innovation, accessible to students from all backgrounds. Together, we will offer students, faculty and staff opportunities that were impossible without our alliance.

Mills College, the first women’s college west of the Rockies, is rooted in women’s leadership and committed to equity, access, antiracism and community engagement. Mills is known for its academic excellence, with core strengths in the fine arts, creative writing, the natural sciences and education. Northeastern, based in Boston and with campuses in other U.S. cities, Canada and the United Kingdom, is a top-tier private research university known for linking research and learning and for a model of experiential learning that accelerates a student’s ability to make an impact after graduation.

Colleges and universities are sometimes skeptical of mergers because integrating cultures, programs and people can be difficult and because smaller institutions can get lost. Mills has a different mindset. We are joining Northeastern to leverage both our strengths in response to the forces pressuring change in higher education. An example: Northeastern, informed by the learnings Mills has acquired while serving women, communities of color and first generation and LGBTQ+ students, seeks to bolster its commitment to growing inclusion and empowering people from all backgrounds. Mills, informed by the experiential learning that is a hallmark of a Northeastern education, can further expand its community and business connections to broaden the learning experiences of its students and enhance their career opportunities.

Northeastern is creating a global university system of campuses and partners that each provide valuable experiences critical to navigating, understanding and solving the complex problems facing our world. Mills is now an essential part of this network, able to offer its rich educational experiences to a new and larger community of learners. The Northeastern-Mills network is now open to Mills students, faculty, staff and graduates, inviting them to engage in, and contribute to, a dynamic range of educational opportunities.

Not to be overlooked is the immediate benefit of the Mills-Northeastern alliance in ending Mills’ financial challenges. The legacy of Cyrus and Susan Mills will live on through Mills College at Northeastern University and a Mills Institute that will advance women’s leadership and gender and racial justice. The campus will remain a vibrant, degree-granting institution with strong ties to Bay Area communities. The mission of Mills — the empowerment of women and students not well served by traditional colleges and universities — can expand beyond its Oakland base to Northeastern’s global network of campuses.

The alliance between Mills and Northeastern was created to help higher education evolve and better prepare the leaders of tomorrow. It will fortify the Bay Area’s rich higher education landscape as it reveals what’s possible when we embrace a future of what’s needed vs. a past of what has always been.

Elizabeth L. Hillman is president of Mills College

As published by The Mercury News and East Bay Times on Thursday, September 30, 2021

Mercury News
East Bay Times