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Judge grants Mills alumnae right to records

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An Alameda County Superior Court judge has ruled that Mills College alumnae will be able to view documents associated with the school's proposed merger with Northeastern University in Boston. Photo: Courtesy Mills College
An Alameda County Superior Court judge has ruled that Mills College alumnae will be able to view documents associated with the school's proposed merger with Northeastern University in Boston. Photo: Courtesy Mills College  

The Alameda County Superior Court judge who temporarily halted the planned merger of Oakland's Mills College with Boston's Northeastern University has ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by alumnae of the women's college demanding greater transparency.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, on June 7, Viji Nakka-Cammauf, Ph.D., who sits on the college's board by virtue of her position as president of the Alumnae Association of Mills College Board of Governors, filed a lawsuit against Mills College President Elizabeth L. Hillman alleging that the trustees have not been given the information they need to make an informed decision about the future of the college. Hillman, a lesbian, has led the college since 2016.

The lawsuit asked the college to provide "financial data, term sheets, due diligence, consultant reports and other reports, other materials ... and other information regarding the facts." It alleged that by restricting how Nakka-Cammauf could view the records (in person at the college, without counsel, and without making copies), it deprived her of the ability to make informed decisions. It also asked for a temporary restraining order for any merger discussions.

Judge Stephen Pulido granted the temporary restraining order August 5 and scheduled a hearing about the rest of the lawsuit on August 16. That afternoon, he ordered the school to provide Nakka-Cammauf the documents electronically by close of business Wednesday.

Pulido also extended the restraining order through September 3.

"Thankfully, the Alameda County Superior Court has intervened and ruled in favor of truth and transparency about the future of Mills College, which otherwise would continue moving forward with a merger that's been shrouded in secrecy," said Alexa Pagonas, a straight ally who is the vice president of the Alumnae Association of Mills College Board of Governors.

"I'm thankful the court realized the important and historic nature of this decision and will allow Dr. Nakka-Cammauf time to review thousands of pages of documents and make an informed decision about how we will best protect Mills' 169-year legacy of empowering creative, independent women in a safe environment," Pagonas added.

Hillman stated that the school will comply.

"We hold firm to our assertion that, as a member of the College's 23-member Board of Trustees, the plaintiff has had ongoing access to all information necessary to support and inform her fiduciary duties," Hillman stated. "The documents at issue do not contradict or alter information that has already been made available to the board, presented to the broader Mills community, or made publicly available on the college's website. Rather, the documents underscore the immediate need for a permanent solution to the tenuous financial situation that confronts Mills and the necessity for a successful alliance with a financially stronger academic institution."

Hillman also stated that she is "pleased" that the negotiations between Mills and Northeastern can continue. A vote on the merger will be held September 3 — the day the restraining order lifts.

"The continued pursuit of this association is vital to advancing the mission of Mills and to ensuring opportunities for our students, our faculty and staff, our alumnae and the broader Oakland community," she stated.

A private, liberal arts college in Oakland, Mills opened in 1871 and is among the oldest institutions of higher learning in the state.

The undergraduate program has been a women's college for its entire history, though gender-nonconforming people are also accepted. The graduate program has been open to people of all genders since the 1990s, following a two-week student strike against admitting undergraduate men.

According to official statistics, 58% of its 2020-2021 undergraduate body was LGBTQ. That same year, Mills boasted 961 total students, including 609 undergraduates and 352 graduate students. In March, the school announced that the fall 2021 semester would be the last time it would enroll new undergraduates, and that it would cease granting degrees, in all likelihood, in 2023.

After the school announced earlier this year that it would close amid severe financial issues, Mills was to be used for its classroom and dormitory space by UC Berkeley, located just a few miles away.

But in July, Hillman announced a change of plans: the school was in talks to be acquired by co-ed Northeastern University, a much larger private research university in Boston.

When reached for comment, Northeastern declined to give a new statement but reiterated what spokeswoman Renata Nyul stated after the alumnae won the temporary restraining order August 6.

"Change is rarely unanimous, but we believe that a Mills-Northeastern alliance will expand the capacity of both institutions to serve students and society for generations to come," Nyul stated.


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