Investigate Mills College

Investigate Mills College

26 March 2022
Signatures: 2,906Next Goal: 5,000
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Why this petition matters

Started by Grace Enos

Attention: Members of Congress, Department of Education, Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the law makers of California and Massachusetts.

We are deeply concerned over the impending sale of Mills College, in Oakland, California. Given that the value of Mills’ assets is estimated be in excess of $1billion, this “deal” is not an acquisition—and certainly not a merger—it is purely a gift. Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, will acquire Mills for no more than the value of its debt—just over $30 million. In light of data documenting Mills’ solid financial standing, we believe the Mills College Board of Trustees has been misled by President Elizabeth Hillman and, in allowing this “merger” to move forward, has subsequently failed to execute its full duties.

We ask that you join us in fighting for Mills, before it’s too late.

It is the sworn duty of our Trustees to preserve, protect, and promote the mission of Mills College—which first and foremost is the education of its students. It is also their fiduciary duty to ensure that the financial interests of the College are sound and protected. We do not believe either of these responsibilities has been met over the past year. At the March 4, 2021, Board meeting, President Hillman concealed her request to develop “teach-out” plans within a routine consent agenda. In tandem with this, some Trustees were denied access to the relevant financial documents necessary to justify such a request. Nevertheless, against Mills bylaws, the Board of Trustees voted it through without full explanation, understanding, or discussion. In fact, many Trustees later expressed shock at President Hillman’s March 17th announcement that Mills College would be closing as of 2023. This same announcement effectively destroyed any chance of a healthy enrollment for the coming year, not to mention the opportunity for meaningful dialogue with stakeholders. Rather than addressing the impact of her actions, President Hillman focused her attention on the idea of a private Mills Institute—a non-degree granting institution that would serve no student body.

On May 4, 2021, 73% of Mills College faculty approved a resolution of no confidence calling “for the immediate resignation of the President and Provost, as well as the replacement of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees.” They cited twelve particulars of mismanagement, including that closure of the College was, “a decision made without warning and without faculty consultation;” and that, “the College will be transformed into a still undefined Institute, funded by Mills’ endowment in an illegal violation of founders’ and donors’ intent.”

Just over six weeks later, on June 17, 2021, President Hillman stunned the community again with news that Northeastern University would be acquiring Mills. We now know that exploratory talks had already been underway for quite some time—very possibly starting well before the March 4th board vote. Furthermore, a variety of potential partnerships with other universities and colleges, which could have kept Mills intact, were ignored on President Hillman’s sole authority—including those with the University of California and Arizona State.

The Alumnae Association of Mills College (AAMC) supported legal action taken by Alumnae Trustees who sought access to financial and other relevant documents that the College had refused to provide to the Board of Trustees prior to, during, and after the administration’s dramatic decisions regarding the future of Mills. Thanks to the work of Dr. Matthew Hendricks, Departmental Chair of Economics at The University of Tulsa—an expert in analyzing the financial picture of private colleges and universities across the country—we now know that many of President Hillman’s and Trustee Eric Roberts’ statements to Trustees, and the Alameda County court, were factually inaccurate and purposefully misleading with regard to Mills College’s financial health. 

In truth, according to Dr. Hendricks, Mills has a relatively large endowment as compared to similar schools, as well as a very healthy donor base. And far from being underfunded, in 2019 and 2020, Mills’ revenue ranked 8th out of 138 private 4-year colleges and universities enrolling 800-1200 students, and it was well above the median for all 4-year private colleges and universities of any size. 

However, rather than engaging with experts to gain the most comprehensive understanding of Mills College’s situation and options, Trustees simply took President Hillman at her word and followed her directives. Per Board of Trustees Chair Katie Sanborn, no experts were consulted and no studies or independent reviews were commissioned by either the College or the Board to assess the allegedly dire financial situation. 

In September 2021, the trustees voted to hand over all of their decision-making authority to President Hillman. This is unfathomable to us, as it was to the judge presiding over the September hearing. He questioned whether the Trustees would be disavowing their fiduciary duty if they gave President Hillman full and unchecked power to manage an acquisition deal for which they had not seen the complete details or terms. The College assured the judge that no material changes would be made to the 9-page agreement he had read and yet, the very next day, a “poison pill” was added, declaring that Mills College would pay Northeastern University a $50-million-dollar penalty if—for any reason—Northeastern decided to back away from the deal.

To make matters worse, with no justification or rationale provided, President Hillman then moved the acquisition date up from summer of 2023 to summer of 2022, thereby shortening the transition by one full academic year. This inexplicable decision has left hundreds of current students stranded without the ability to finish degrees in their declared majors, such as Early Childhood Development, Dance, Biopsychology and other areas for which Mills has been renowned. The “teach-out” process typically takes a year to develop and then lasts as long as fulltime upper-class students need to complete their major requirements, if not their degrees. Instead, there is a rush to close the deal—at which point Mills loses its accreditation—less than 10 months after voting on the Northeastern agreement. 

None of this makes sense to us, prompting the questions: “What do Hillman and others have to gain? Or what are they hiding?” All we know so far is that she is contracted as head of the new “Mills Institute,” with control over its funding and administration, and she will continue to reside in the on-campus President’s House if this moves forward. 

Somehow, in a matter of weeks, a college president was able to upend the legacy of a 170-year-old historically women’s college, and Hispanic-serving institution, with a rich and documented history of educating and elevating women of color as well as LGBTQ+ and first-generation college students. President Hillman did all of this on a deceptive consent agenda vote without providing any real evidence of dire financial straits. She insisted the only option was, quite literally, giving Mills College away to a large, predatory, out-of-state university on a mission to expand their global network of campuses, while at the same time funding her own pet project—an institute.

We must ask, “Why?” 

We must seek the answers.

We respectfully request an investigation of President Elizabeth Hillman, the Mills College officers, and Board of Trustees for their breach of fiduciary duties to the College, charitable trusts, the state of California, and the United States of America.


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Signatures: 2,906Next Goal: 5,000
Support now