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Students complain of culture shock as Northeastern University settles into Calif. outpost

Aug 17, 2023

By Hilary Burns, The Boston Globe

OAKLAND — Mills College is known as the first women's college west of the Rockies, a small private school on 135 lush acres that specializes in the humanities and was an early adopter of admissions policies for transgender women. But after years of losing students and money, the college in 2021 announced plans to close.

While others saw just another example of a failing small college, Northeastern University — 3,000 miles away in Boston — saw an opportunity. And it engineered a merger, completed in June, that would bring it valuable real estate and a residential campus to expand its physical footprint in a desirable part of the country.

In touting the union, Northeastern has described it as "a transformational step forward for our global community," and it posted stories and photos of its new campus, showing Spanish colonial buildings and smiling students. But a recent visit to the campus shows that not all students are happy about the deal so far.

Some spoke of an abrupt change in culture resulting from an influx of first-year coed students on the campus that was considered a safe haven for the LGBTQ community. Others expressed frustration with shifting degree requirements, COVID-19 safety, communication, and financial aid administration in the months following the merger announcement.

"It's not a merger; it is an acquisition," said Victoria Ixchel Mayorga, a student who started at Mills in 2019 and now is enrolled at Northeastern, in an interview on a recent brisk afternoon in Oakland. "I would say it is academic colonization with the wiping away of our history and culture."

The tension at the school, now known as Mills College at Northeastern University, reflects the challenges that colleges face when merging campus cultures and balancing the loyalties of students, faculty, and alumni. Hundreds of colleges around the country are facing financial hardship due to declining enrollment, demographic changes, and online competitors — struggles that higher-education experts say could prompt more mergers and closures.

Adding physical locations gives Northeastern, which also has a campus in London, the capacity to enroll more students, including some off its waiting list, at a time when slots at its main campus are increasingly hard to come by. While many colleges struggle to attract students, Northeastern said this month it had received a record 96,371 applications for the fall semester. It posted a record-low 6.7 percent acceptance rate last year.

Northeastern says it has taken steps to make the merger as seamless as possible for Mills students.

Mary Ludden, who oversees eight of Northeastern's campuses including Oakland, said change is "incredibly difficult" but feels the university has been available to address student concerns through "listening sessions." Mills was going to close before Northeastern came along, Ludden pointed out, but now the college has more resources than it did as an independent school, including more health and wellness services.

"I’m actually really proud of the level of access that we created for questions and conversations to take place," Ludden said.

Ludden said certain issues, including confusion over financial aid distribution, were due to delays in receiving approval to allocate federal financial aid to students in Oakland.

About 500 first-year Northeastern students enrolled on the Oakland campus last fall. About half already have relocated to the main Boston campus as part of a program called, which sends hundreds of students to other Northeastern campuses for their first semester with the understanding they will come to Boston in the spring "more intellectually curious and ready to jump into the next adventure," according to the university's website. Students accepted into that program can choose from a list of available campus locations on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The rest of the Northeastern students currently in Oakland are participating in a similar, year-long program called NU Bound, which sends students to locations other than Boston for two semesters.

The two programs include students who may not have chosen Oakland as their first choice but enrolled to relocate to Boston after a semester or two. This dynamic frustrates some Mills students who realize that some of the Northeastern students would rather be elsewhere.

After the merger was announced, Mills students were given the option of transferring to other colleges or continuing their education with Northeastern at no additional cost. Northeastern estimated total costs for the upcoming academic year of $81,472, while Mills's sticker price was about $49,000.

About 40 percent of the roughly 800 students who had been at Mills when the deal closed continued at the Oakland campus last fall; the rest graduated, withdrew, or transferred.

Northeastern said it plans to grow enrollment at the Oakland campus and extend its signature co-op program to students there down the road.

On the recent campus visit, it was clear that Mills students take great pride in the campus, which is dotted with fir and eucalyptus trees. Crossing the campus green, three students wearing combat boots and graphic T-shirts mused about the school's history and reminisced about life before the merger.

They pointed to Mills Hall, where presidential portraits hang from the walls near a display of teapots from one of the college's founders. Mills, which started as the "Young Ladies Seminary" in 1852, in recent years attracted more first-generation and low-income students by offering a lower price than other private colleges.

Mayorga, 21, who moved from Yonkers, N.Y., to attend Mills, said she never would have applied if she had known it would transform into a Boston-based institution.

At Mills, she said, she found a welcoming community of like-minded women and gender-nonconforming friends. She spoke of the exhaustion and disappointment she has experienced in recent months as she has tried to advocate for herself and other continuing Mills students struggling with the changes.

"They’re saying, ‘Here are pictures of students and they’re doing great and everything's fine,’ " Mayorga said of Northeastern's portrayal. "That's just not what's happened. Northeastern is the opposite of what Mills was."

Eshan Gupta, a first-year Northeastern student, spent the most recent fall semester on the Oakland campus through the program, where he enjoyed his classes and professors. Gupta was accepted off the waiting list and was happy to stay close to family and friends in Palo Alto for the fall before moving to the main Boston campus for the spring semester.

But he said he was aware of tension between continuing Mills students and some incoming Northeastern students who weren't wearing masks indoors and were not "as appreciative of Mills's legacy."

"For me, it was like going to Northeastern University at their Oakland campus rather than going to Mills College," Gupta said.

Carrie Maultsby-Lute, a business professor at Mills who now is employed by Northeastern, said it's understandable that the merger created tension. The women's college has trained young people "to find their voice, advocate for the most marginalized peoples, and to speak their truth to power."

"The merger cast a light on socioeconomic realities as we moved from a campus with many first-generation students to a more affluent student body and a campus ladened with resources," Maultsby-Lute added.

Ludden said that the university is developing programming and research areas for the newly created Mills Institute at Northeastern, which Northeastern invested $30 million in to launch and is meant to advance "women's leadership, gender equity, and racial justice," and carry on Mills's legacy.

To seal the merger, Northeastern loaned Mills another $30 million to cover expenses in 2022. The university, which will have 14 locations around the world when its latest in Miami opens, then assumed Mills's debts of about $65.2 million and its assets, mostly land, buildings, artwork, and endowment investments, totaling $767.8 million.

Several current and former Mills students said they saw more money being invested on the Oakland campus after the deal closed last summer. Crews showed up to clean and repaint campus buildings, and replace furniture in common areas. Food trucks appeared on campus and continuing Mills students were given iPads as gifts.

There are also plans to add more faculty and staff over time. For professors, who are now Northeastern employees, the merger brought the first pay raise in 10 years and more opportunities for research and scholarship.

The infusion of capital, however, did not compensate for the loss of a beloved community. Perhaps most upsetting was the decision to eliminate several classes and majors including book arts, ethnic studies, and dance.

Abigail Selby, a former Mills creative writing student, transferred to Sonoma State University after learning that Northeastern would end some of Mills's liberal arts programs and classes. Selby described a stressful period seeking information and answers from professors and campus administrators in the months before the merger was finalized.

"We just felt like we were being swept under the rug and forgotten about," Selby said.

Ludden said that Mills lost accreditation for its programs and Northeastern was helping students transition to comparable Northeastern programs.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of two Mills students last May in Alameda County alleges that Mills misled students about being able to finish their degree programs after the merger.

In October, about 15 Mills students organized a protest during a fund-raiser attended by Northeastern leaders, faculty, students, and alumni. The protesters passed out fliers that said, "Stop the erasure of the Mills community."

Soon afterward, Lilian Gonzalez, an alum and administrator at Mills, started meeting with organizers to address concerns. Gonzalez, who feels there is "a lot to gain in this merger," said she has tried to help students understand how to navigate new systems and processes, and clear up "misinformation." They also agreed to start a biweekly newsletter to keep Oakland students better informed.

"It takes a little time," Gonzalez said. "I do believe while [Mills students] are receptive to change, it moves at the speed of trust. We work daily to blend the cultures."