August 28, 2006
The name of the game when it came to women's education in the late 19th- and early 20th centuries was access -- or, rather, the lack of access. So it was a radical move in 1887 when wealthy widow Josephine Louise Newcomb provided $100,000 to Tulane University to, in her words, "advance the cause of female education in Louisiana." Over the years, as educational opportunities became more common for women, Newcomb came to mean not so much educational access but a sisterhood and support group within the larger educational structure.
Which all led to the questions and highly wrought emotions surrounding the Tulane Board of Administrators' Dec. 8 announcement that, starting in the fall of 2006, all incoming first-year students would be admitted to a single undergraduate college rather than into one of seven colleges, including the 119-year-old Newcomb College.
The Tulane board's decision to merge Newcomb and Tulane colleges came as part of a much larger Renewal Plan, developed following more than $250 million in financial blows dealt the university by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The plan aimed at both financial viability and a re-fashioned Tulane, making it a smaller, more streamlined and marketable institution. Under the plan, all undergraduates entering Tulane University will matriculate through a single undergraduate college.
When the announcement was made in December, eliciting the first expressions of protest from some current Newcomb students and college alumnae, a task force of board members and alumni had already been formed to recommend how the endowment and name of both Newcomb and Tulane colleges might be carried forward into the future.
The Newcomb-Tulane Task Force comprised eight board members, all of whom are alumni of Tulane University. Heading the task force were Linda Smith Wilson (NC '57) and Darryl Berger (L '72); joining them were Carol Cudd (NC '59), Sybil Favrot (NC '56), Jay Lapeyre (B '78, L '78), Jeanne Olivier (NC '75), Richard Schmidt (E '66, G '67) and Matthew Gorson (A&S '76).
As the task force worked on its plan through the winter and early spring, the university community provided input through an open forum, an interactive website, e-mails and one-on-one communications between the task force and constituency groups.
After months of suspense, the recommendations made by the Newcomb-Tulane Task Force were approved by the Tulane board on March 16. The approved actions included:
The task force found the process difficult but ultimately rewarding, Wilson said. "The new undergraduate college is a major, substantive move forward for women's education at Tulane. The Newcomb College Institute, in particular, is designed to be an academic center with the purpose of advancing women's education -- it will have a very clear focus and will be interdisciplinary in nature."
Even after the board's decision was made, the issue remained divisive for some; disagreements generally center around whether or not Josephine Louise Newcomb's desire for women's education is being honored.
University administrators and board members say the new structure is in keeping with Josephine Louise Newcomb's original intent to make women's education more accessible by including undergraduate women in business, architecture, engineering and public health. Those students were excluded from Newcomb College, which only included women in the liberal arts and sciences.
"Mrs. Newcomb's legacy originally was to provide education for young women at a time when young women did not have the opportunity to get an education," said Cathy Pierson (G '78, SW '89), chair of the Tulane board. "If you fast-forward 120 years, women have plenty of opportunity to be in the workforce. We still want to focus on opportunities for women while also better integrating men's and women's education at Tulane. We are using the same legacy but operating in a different time."
Other arguments for the unified undergraduate college include: providing a common undergraduate experience for all students regardless of gender or major; providing cost-savings by eliminating duplication of administrative efforts; and making new degree requirements such as community-service elements easier and more cost-effective to coordinate and administer.
Those who disagree with the changes include a group of nine students and seven alumnae who sought to prevent Newcomb's closure in federal district court in late March, arguing that Josephine Louise Newcomb's original intent for her endowment has been lost, and that the women of Tulane will suffer from the loss of the Newcomb identity and traditions.
Retired political science professor and former Honors Program director Jean Danielson testified on behalf of the Newcomb plaintiffs: "I have great skepticism that an institute can provide the loyalty that a collegiate experience can. To put the programs in an institute trivializes them."
University officials, however, insist that the new structure will not trivialize the Newcomb programs, but will strengthen them by making them more accessible. "We are talking about taking what is special about Newcomb and making it available to all undergraduates," said Yvette Jones, Tulane's chief operating officer and senior vice president for external affairs. "The idea of the undergraduate college is that all of our undergraduates can have a much better experience, a common set of advising and programming experiences, and the opportunity to take advantage of many of the things that have been only available to the women of Newcomb College."
In the end, the court ruled in Tulane's favor, affirming that the decision to merge Newcomb and Tulane colleges into a single undergraduate structure did not violate the terms of the original Newcomb gift, which left how women students' educational needs would be met to the discretion of the Tulane board.
Fall 2006 will witness the rollout of the new Newcomb-Tulane College for undergraduates, into which all incoming first-year students will enter the university.
Those first-years, the Class of 2010, will begin creating their own memories and establishing what will eventually become traditions. And four years down the road, they will be the first class of graduates to carry forward in a new way the legacy established by Josephine Louise Newcomb and Paul Tulane so many years ago.
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