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UPDATE: Some Mills Alumni Critical of Merger with Northeastern University

OAKLAND (KPIX) -- On Tuesday, Mills College in Oakland voted to merge with Northeastern University and will now officially be known as Mills College at Northeastern University.

School leaders say it was necessary for financial reasons, but some alumni think it means the end of the college's historic mission.

For most of its 169 years, Mills College has been a college for women only. But Mills President Beth Hillman said excluding half the population hasn't been a successful business model of late.

"Student haven't sought to study at Mills in the numbers that would enable us to continue that same formulation that we have today long into the future, so we had to consider different models. And this is an extraordinary opportunity," said Hillman.

She said the new merger with Northeastern University will bolster the college financially, giving it a future it would not have had. Cross-enrollment means Mills students could study in Boston if they choose.

Students can also access Northeastern's innovative "co-op" program, allowing students to alternate full-time studies with professional work experience.

But what will be lost is Mills' status as an all-women school, something even its leaders say is important.

"Women can experience leadership opportunities that sometimes bypass them in a co-ed environment," said Mills College VP of Academic Affairs Patricia Hardaway.

So will that be lost in the merger?

"It's not going to be lost because Northeastern has committed to encouraging and keeping the essence that is Mills," Hardaway said.

Because Northeastern's charter requires equal access, when school starts next fall, Mills will be a completely co-ed college.

"It will no longer be what we remember Mills College to be," said Cynthia Mahood Levin, an alum of the college and president of the "Save Mills Coalition." She believes Mills' historic legacy of prioritizing the education of women cannot be maintained when all genders are allowed in.

"I just don't see how that's possible at all," she said, "when you're completely focusing on a woman's education and you change it to coed, they can't retain it. It's impossible."

"I understand the loss they're feeling because Mills won't continue to be the same as what it's been in the past," said President Hillman.

But she said the move will allow them to continue offering graduate and undergraduate degrees. And she said the establishment of a "Mills Institute" on campus will further the school's commitment to issues of gender equity.

"Embracing the future in higher education and solving the problems and crises that face us today require that we think about new models," she said.

It will be a new model for a new generation of students. But for those who cherish its past, the question remains: will it really be Mills at all?

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