Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Being a "Newcomb Girl" Meant Something

The courtroom last week at the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals was filled with well dressed and coifed ladies, ages 40 and up, many of them wearing big, blue Save Newcomb College buttons.

For all intents and purposes, Newcomb is already gone, since Tulane University abruptly and without ceremony eliminated it post-Katrina and took off with the endowment. The powers that be didn't count on the alums to care and certainly didn't expect us to put up a three-year legal battle. They'd forgotten a large number of those smart, feisty women went to law school after graduation and didn't give up easily.

Didn't we know women no longer needed their own colleges? Didn't we know we were now equal to men, free to move about the world and up the corporation? Ironically, now that the exclusive girls' school has been swallowed up, female students dominate Tulane because their GPAs and exam scores exceed the boys'. They can't get dates because there are too many girls, but that's how it goes.

Some background: Josephine Louise Newcomb founded H. Sophie Newcomb College in 1886 as a memorial to her daughter who died as a teenager. Newcomb College became the first degree-granting coordinate college for women in the United States - before Vassar, Pembroke, Trinity and the rest. Over the next 15 years, Mrs. Newcomb gave almost $4 million (worth $75+ million today) dedicated to higher education for girls and young women. (You can read more history on the Newcomb Lives Web site.)

But, essentially, Tulane stole the money, replacing the college with a Women's Institute that holds lectures and film screenings. Since the legal battle began, they've made a few superficial changes, like naming the quad after Newcomb and putting the hyphenated name on every diploma - whoopie. Nobody is fooled.

Okay, back to the law suit. Tulane justifies its actions by pointing to ONE sentence in Mrs. Newcomb's will where she omitted wording from an earlier will, "for the sole use and benefit," that would have safeguarded the $92 million endowment for an independent women's college. The counsel who advised Mrs. Newcomb to remove that language, oddly, just "happened" to be Chairman of the Tulane Board of Administrators. When this tidbit was brought out in court, there were gales of laughter. One of the five judges pointed out that in today's legal environment, his role would clearly constitute a conflict of interest. ("that language stricken would have made it a prohibited substitution in the law of the time")

I've been to earlier hearings and, in my opinion, Tulane's lawyer was abominably unprepared and arrogant. He said things like: Tulane could have done anything it wanted with the endowment all along - like building a football stadium. (If you want to rile up an audience of women, that is the perfect thing to say!) He said Tulane made decisions all along about how the funds would be used. Translation: The University had been ignoring Mrs. Newcomb's will all along - to establish a graduate and music school. It "always considered her wishes, but did not consider them binding." Does this sound just a tad bit paternalistic? We know best what you should do with your money, little Missy.

At the very first public forum I attended back in 2006, I think, one of the older graduates stepped up to a microphone and quoted the Newcomb Dean from her time. "They only wanted us for our money," she said about Tulane's administration, her voice shaking with emotion. I was really converted that day as I listened to the older women speak so passionately and saw current students wearing traditional daisies in their hair after protesting on the quad. Their mothers, aunts and grandmothers had graduated from Newcomb College and they wanted to too.

But I regress. So, this same attorney tried to prove that Mrs. Newcomb didn't really care what became of her multi-million bequest - even though she had worked for years, until her death, in establishing a women's college. Ultimately, she figured, whatever!

"Preposterous!" is what Dan Caruso called that argument and it really did sound ridiculous to the point where I wondered how he had the nerve to say it in front of the five judges and all of us.

Mrs. Newcomb feared that her own family would take off with the money and she wanted to use Tulane to protect it from them. She didn't give a twit about Tulane otherwise. Little did she know, she couldn't trust them either!

Caruso called Mrs. Newcomb's efforts a "lifetime of giving to a specific purpose." She "gave, founded, helped grow, helped nurture a particular institution." She meant for it to endure.

Mr. Singh wears a Newcomb button.
We all trooped off to the Place d'Armes Hotel for cookies and lemonade and to plan the next move. Mine would be writing about it on my blog and hanging a flag outside the front of my house. On the way out, I saw a UPS driver loading his truck, wearing a Save Newcomb College Button. We've got a lot of support in this town; we just need to mobilize it. And fundraise to pay the law firm.

I just keep thinking about the phrase from "Gone with the Wind." It ain't fittin', it just ain't fittin'.


  1. Thank you, Mary! Ever since last week's hearing, the tide of opinion seems to have shifted in our favor, leading many of us to hope that Newcomb College will be reborn very soon.
    Newcomb Lives!
    Paige Gold
    Class of 1977

  2. WOW - you have written this so well! I couldn't agree more with everything you said! www.NewcombLives.com
    Sara Jane Klingaman
    Newcomb Class of 1991

  3. Thanks for a terrific recap of the hearing and for covering our great position in restoring Newcomb College. For the record, I was one of many younger alums (under 40!) present at the hearing - demonstrating that Newcomb matters to alums from all ages.

  4. Whoa! I'm not 40 and I was there! Don't think you have to be middle-aged to want Newcomb to win. Even the UPS guy gets it!

  5. That it STILL means something is clear, from the UPS driver, to the women who were at court, to our fabulous lawyers, to all the women who wish they had been there, too.

    Sue, N'68

  6. What a passionate blog, full of information and insight. Yes, there's still a place for women's colleges; thank you for informing your readers of this tragedy and travesty. Because of the donor intent issue, this is a precedent setting case.

  7. I certainly did not intend to say that you have to be over 40 to care! But if you are over 40, you are more likely to have the time and freedom to take the day off and be at the courthouse. Many of the women present would have been flattered to be thought 40. Besides, we're mostly concerned about the state of Newcomb, aren't we?

  8. Wish I'd been there. Everybody knows Tulane has a no-win argument that they are stuck with. When I was at Tulane (8 years ago) Newcomb was the most together college in the university, which is probably why Cowen wanted it gone.

    Bob C,

  9. Jan Postove Ortego, Newcomb 1974September 29, 2010 at 10:29 AM

    This is one of the most succinct and well-written summaries regarding the saga of Newcomb College post-Katrina (and obviously before.) Thank you and let's hope some of our Tulane male graduates join the bandwagon.

  10. Margo B. Newcomb 1974September 29, 2010 at 9:21 PM

    Mary Grace, thank you, this is excellent. I don't know what to think of Scott Cowan's administration. He now has branches of Tulane University in shopping centers, offering degrees in casino gambling. In our day, a Newcomb student couldn't get a degree in accounting. "They only wanted us for our money," our fellow alumna says her Dean said of Tulane in her day. Plus ca change ...

  11. I am over 40 and still working and couldn't be there, but my heart was! I am flying my Newcomb Lives flag in Ohio, and am sending the $$ I owould have spent to fly to New Orleans for the hearing to the Legal Fund! Thanks for this wonderful insight into what happened! My 4 years at Newcomb were some of the best of my life and were very instrumental in making me who I am today. SCOTT COWEN, I WANT MY COLLEGE BACK! I care about Tulane, but I LOVE Newcomb and what it meant to so many of us, and can mean for 21st century women! I WANT MY COLLEGE BACK FOR THEM!! Indeed, what the Tulane Board did is the epitome of paternalism!

    Come on, Daisies---keep making that chain stronger!

    Karen, N'64

  12. Oh - I forgot this priceless part of Tulane's legal defense. At one point, one of the lawyers said, essentially, besides - the endowment is all gone. They spent it!

  13. I am just getting ready to attend my 20th reunion next week and it was great to read your blog and update. I still have my T-shirt from my Freshman year, that said "Keep Newcomb Strong"--the First Century is Not the Last--think I'll bring those for some vintage wear. Thank you for your support and passion
    Laura Stanley Van de Planque

  14. I am wondering if there should be a protest at Homecoming? Stand along Freret Street with flags and T-shirts?

  15. I think it would be fitting to protest with a daisy chain.

    Wonderful blog, thank you.

    Karina Gentinetta, Newcomb '90

  16. Wanda Williamson Giraldi, Newcomb '64October 1, 2010 at 9:20 PM

    Newcomb College was a unique, special learning enviroment. It cannot be replaced as an educational, social and intellectual springboard for achievement by fostering the best in young women. I too love Newcomb and find it sad and cynical that this opportunity is denied to our daughters because of today's credo of greed.

  17. It isn't often you get the chance to use the word, "preposterous." In fact, this might be my very first time, but it really applies here.

  18. There are many rooting for Newcomb who recognize the value of a woman's college as did Josephine ... great job fighting this issue that is so important also to affirm donor bequest. Good luck from a fan from Florida adn Virginia.

  19. Mary Grace, your "about me" says you graduated from Tulane. Could that be updated to say that you graduated from Newcomb College of Tulane University? That's been my mantra; proud to be part of the university, but more so to be a Newcomb graduate...hard to get into Newcomb, demanding and challenging while there, and an accomplishment to graduate.

  20. Okay, sure. I think I started saying Tulane when I lived 15 years on the West Coast. But nobody there had ever heard of Tulane either!

  21. Mireille Modenbach GrovierOctober 30, 2010 at 11:37 PM

    I am a '60 graduate of Newcomb, and a native of New Orleans. I wanted to be a Newcomb girl ever since my Newcomb graduate doctor saved my life when I was seven years old. I have been a columnist for two publications, am a writer, artist and German Translator, having just self-published my first book. Until this mess started (and the similar theft Tulane tried about 20 years ago) I always listed myself as a graduate of "Newcomb College of Tulane University." I now have dropped the "of Tulane University." I'm proud of Newcomb and ashamed of the Tulanian theft.