Suit Seeks to Save Women’s College
Amid the continuing debate over the role of women’s education in American colleges, six Tulane University alumnae and nine students filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to block the school from dismantling a historic women’s college as part of a sweeping restructuring plan launched after Hurricane Katrina.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, seeks an injunction blocking Tulane from closing its 120-year-old H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, one of the nation’s first degree-granting colleges for women. The suit also seeks to bar the university from tinkering with Newcomb’s endowment, which has been estimated at $40 million and is separate from Tulane’s $745-million endowment.
The lawsuit accuses Tulane, one of the most important institutions in Louisiana and the largest private employer in New Orleans, of violating the terms of the contract that established Newcomb.
Josephine Louise Newcomb made the original donation in 1886, establishing a school that would be a “work of the spirit” for young women and naming the institution for her daughter, H. Sophie, who had died as a teenager.
“They have breached the contract,” said plaintiff Paige Gold, a Los Angeles attorney who graduated from Newcomb in 1977. “You can’t do that.”
Tulane spokesman Mike Strecker said he had not seen the suit and could not comment.
Tulane President Scott S. Cowen proposed eliminating Newcomb College as a standalone institution as part of the restructuring plan.
Tulane seems to be swimming with the tide. Most women’s colleges were founded as alternatives to men-only institutions, but as coeducation has become the rule -- and as women have become the majority of college students -- the number of women’s colleges has dropped from 200 in the 1960s to 60.
But the plan outraged many students and alumnae, who called it a cynical grab at Newcomb’s endowment and said it would mark the end of a Southern sisterhood whose credentials were not class or gentility, but academic achievement and corporate citizenry.
“This is something that stays with you for life. It is a mark of distinction and something to be proud of, particularly in the South,” said 1991 graduate Christina Jacobs, a healthcare company consultant in Georgia. “This isn’t about preserving the past. It’s about preserving the future.”
The debate has shaken the foundation of an institution that had long been seen as stolid and aloof in New Orleans. A campaign of petitions and letters and lobbying in at least 10 states culminates today, when a task force charged with preserving Newcomb’s legacy makes its report to the university’s Board of Administrators.
Many alumnae predict a whitewash, but Yvette Jones, the university’s chief operating officer and a task force member, said Tulane was taking concerns seriously.
“I think that the university, by even forming this task force, recognizes the important legacy of women’s education at this institution,” she said. “We value that.”
Tulane’s campus -- 110 acres of timeworn academy halls, live oaks and azaleas, hidden in New Orleans’ Uptown district -- suffered mightily from Katrina. Most of the campus was left under 4 feet of water, damage estimates were as high as $250 million, and the university closed for a semester.
In December, Cowen unveiled a Renewal Plan to shrink and save the university, including the firing of hundreds of faculty and staff members. Eight sports were eliminated; so were clinical programs at the medical center.
Then a strange thing happened: Nearly 90% of Tulane’s 12,500 undergraduate and graduate students returned for the spring semester, far more than had been anticipated. Although it was clear the storm would have a lasting impact, Cowen’s proposals suddenly seemed to many on campus to be excessive and arbitrary.
None of the cuts have generated as much passion as the plan to eliminate Newcomb College.
Despite substantial changes over the years, including a 1987 merger of Newcomb and Tulane faculties, Newcomb’s fundamental mission remained unchanged.
The college has a separate student government and a host of programs geared toward women’s education, including mentoring programs and a Center for Research on Women.
“We had the best of both worlds,” Jacobs said. “We had the opportunity to learn to compete in a coeducational environment because we were within the larger university structure, while still having feminine role models and expectations to take leadership roles. I use that knowledge every day in management.”
Tulane administrators have suggested, gingerly, that perhaps Newcomb’s role has become less essential in recent years. After all, women now comprise 55% of Tulane’s student body -- mirroring, roughly, the national average.
“It’s not about access today,” Jones said.
But many women’s rights advocates say women’s colleges are more vital today than ever. .
Advocates point to studies showing that women’s colleges bestow a disproportionately high number of degrees in fields in which women have been historically underrepresented, such as mathematics and sciences. Other studies have shown that graduates of women’s colleges enter into the workforce with higher levels of self-esteem and a greater desire to give back to their community.
“There could not be a more important time for women’s education than today,” said Susan E. Lennon, executive director of the Women’s College Coalition, a nonprofit group in Washington to which Newcomb belongs.
Today the task force is expected to propose ideas including maintaining a separate alumnae association and retaining the Center for Research on Women. But to many students, anything less than a full-fledged college will be a loss to Tulane.