Watson Kindles Newcomb Spirit

June 1, 1997

Mary Ann Travis

"The Newcomb spirit lives." Jeanie Watson, outgoing dean of Newcomb College, spoke confidently as she assessed her stint at the college since 1993. Encountering that almost indefinable, but nonetheless real, Newcomb spirit was "one of the most interesting parts of the job," said Watson.

"Newcomb women are a unique and special group of strong and powerful women," she said. For the first time in her career as an English professor and administrator at several other universities, Watson worked closely with alumni, an experience that she said she "thoroughly enjoyed."

Similarities across the generations, rather than differences, are what strike her about Newcomb alumnae. Newcomb women "have respect for themselves. They are intelligent. They are people who are not afraid to have a voice and to be heard on issues that are important," she said. Drawn to the top administrative post at Newcomb because of her strong belief in women's education and in the mission of women's colleges, Watson had never before had the opportunity to attend or work at a women's college.

Tulane's reputation as an outstanding institution also attracted her. She came to Tulane from the position of dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., a job she'd held since 1989. Watson sees no conflict between the interests of Tulane University and Newcomb, the largest of the university's schools and colleges, only mutual good progress. She said, "The stronger the college is, the stronger the university will be."

And vice versa. "The stronger the university is, the stronger the college is." During her four years as Newcomb's dean, Watson said her goal has been "to increase the visibility of the college and to increase its strength, especially financially, to set the stage for new directions in the future." Watson headed up Newcomb's first comprehensive capital campaign, part of the university's fundraising campaign, Tulane for the New Century, which was completed in July 1996.

Newcomb raised more than $29 million and has two major new buildings to show for it--Woldenberg Art Center and Elleonora P. McWilliams Hall--as well as endowed scholarships, endowed professorships and chairs, and increased funding for academic programs, the annual fund and the endowment. The Newcomb for the New Century campaign gave the college "a voice that might not have come without the campaign," Watson said. "I think it was important for that reason as well as for raising money for things that we needed for Newcomb and Newcomb students."

Another financial milestone during Watson's tenure not directly related to the fundraising campaign but just as significant was the reimbursement of the H. Sophie Newcomb Endowed Fund by the Tulane Board of Administrators in July 1996. The board voted to return $11.9 million to Newcomb's funds functioning as endowment to reimburse money spent by the university during 1974-79.

"It's important because it does give some financial stability to the college, " said Watson of the board's action, which was instigated by Newcomb alumnae and board members Carol Cudd, Sybil Favrot, Joyce Menschel and Virginia Roddy. "I think it's win-win for the college and the university because it's budget relieving, and it makes a statement about the commitment of the university to the college for the future. I was really pleased that the board of administrators voted unanimously to reinstate the money. We had the support of the board and the president."
While it will be up to the next dean to direct Newcomb toward new horizons, Watson said she had no doubt that "one direction that will never change is a commitment to undergraduate liberal arts education for women. What form that takes may change over time, but certainly that's the primary direction." A direction that leads to educating feminists, Watson hopes, using a term that she admits some young women are reluctant to use.

"A feminist," said Watson, "is a person who believes in and acts on equality of access and opportunity and rights for women as well as for men. It's that simple." Watson cites the press's focus on some extreme positions associated with feminism with making some people shy away from that identification. But, she says, "If it had not been for the feminist movement of the last 25 years, women would not have open to them the doors that they do have open to them and the opportunities that are beginning to be there. I think the feminist movement is something in which we can take pride, and I do take pride in that."

Newcomb is, indeed, educating the next generation of superwomen. "All you have to do is talk to them, and it's clear," said Watson. "These are incredibly bright, engaged, wonderful people, and women who will do everything. That includes careers and families, and doing families well. It means being leaders in their communities. The students are great."

Watson leaves Newcomb July 1 to become president of Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Neb. Valerie Greenberg, associate professor of German, will serve as interim dean for the 1997-98 school year. A search for a permanent new dean will begin this fall.

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