Northeastern move for Mills meets big Silicon Valley demand

While not complete or explained, Boston-Oakland partnership may ease major technology-university bottleneck

June 29, 2021
Android Pie sculpture located at at the entrance to Googleplex in Silicon Valley, south San Francisco bay area
Source: iStock

Northeastern University’s move to bail out Mills College in Oakland was projected by experts to answer a huge demand for technical training around Silicon Valley that online education so far has proven unable to fully serve.

Northeastern, an ambitious fast-growing research institution, has been limited in explaining its intentions for Mills, a women-only liberal arts campus covering land twice the size of Northeastern’s home in Boston.

But experts on education and Silicon Valley saw it as a long-awaited antidote to the chronic failure of local universities and largely online outside entrants to meet the massive appetite for workers in the top US technology centre.

“We could have three more of these without tapping the demand that’s there,” Michael Kirst, emeritus professor of education at Stanford University, said of Northeastern’s expected reorienting of the Mills campus toward technology industry needs.

“It’s smart, and I was delighted to see them do it,” said Professor Kirst, co-author of Higher Education and Silicon Valley: Connected but Conflicteda 2017 book cataloguing the failures of colleges to serve the local industry.

The need for a big new institution with undergraduate and graduate programmes “has been obvious for some time”, said Henry Etzkowitz, president of the International Triple Helix Institute, which promotes university-industry-government collaboration around Silicon Valley.

Mills, founded in 1852 and the first women’s college on the West Coast, had long been seeking a partner to help address persistent financial troubles. And Northeastern has a clear record of adding campuses in locations where it sees demand for the training it provides. The Mills campus will be its 10th outside Boston and third around Silicon Valley.

Even with the clear market-driven case for a physical expansion of technology-related higher education in the iconic San Francisco Bay area, Northeastern was seen by experts as a rarity in its ability to consider doing it.

Most other colleges and universities either could not afford such an expansion, or could not overcome the likely faculty opposition to large-scale investments outside their home campus, said Donald Kilburn, chief executive of University of Massachusetts Online.

“There’s only a few places that have both the resources and the culture to actually attempt something like this,” he said. "Northeastern is one of those places."

Mr Kilburn is the head of one of several efforts by traditional institutions – other such non-profit operators include Carnegie Mellon, Arizona State, and Southern New Hampshire universities – to meet local demand in places such as Silicon Valley.

That supply problem has endured in the renowned Silicon Valley, Dr Etzkowitz said, for reasons that include Stanford’s reluctance to expand in size and state restrictions on growth of the University of California system.

Some campuses – such as San José State University, which can take only about a third of its 60,000 applicants, and Northeastern’s two existing campuses in the area – lack the room to expand affordably, Professor Kirst said. Mills was a great opportunity, he said, because its Oakland location provides 135 acres in a relatively low-cost part of the Bay area.

While Mr Kilburn works to offer online solutions from his own base in Massachusetts – including a partnership with Brandman University in southern California – he acknowledged that there were some types of teaching and students for whom the option of in-person instruction will make the Northeastern-Mills option a valuable attraction.

“The jury is out on the question” of how essential that will prove to be, he said.

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