When Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc through New Orleans, it didn’t just kill an estimated 1,500 people, destroy houses and swamp entire neighborhoods. It also may have spelled doom for one of the most historically significant institutions of higher learning for women in the United States.
The school with its neck in the noose is Newcomb College. Now part of Tulane University in New Orleans, Newcomb College was the first degree-granting college for women in the United States and was a model for subsequent women’s colleges like Barnard College of Columbia University and arguably schools like Elmira College, Sarah Lawrence College and Scripps College.
Newcomb pioneered the idea of giving women an equivalent liberal-arts education to what their male counterparts were getting in the South, and was the birthplace of such varied innovations as the Newcomb Pottery experimental program — which trained women for jobs in the pottery industry — and the jump shot in basketball.
Many of its graduates were fiercely loyal to the school even well after matriculation, and its success even seemed to have overshadowed its co-ed counterpart at Tulane College.
While Newcomb students make up only about one-third of the 7,000-strong undergraduate body at the university, the endowment for Newcomb is estimated at $41 million. That for Tulane College is a surprisingly piddling $5 million.
So when successful Newcomb graduates flew back to New Orleans from around the country to tend to the wounded city and to help revive their alma mater, they were shocked when the university administration told them that the hurricane may have dealt their beloved school a fatal blow.
“Our losses have been estimated at between $95 million and $125 million this year. We were closed all last semester, our medical practices are pretty much closed down, and the population is down by 75 percent,” Tulane University spokeswoman and chief operating officer Yvette Jones said.
“Katrina knocked this university almost out of business, and I think in the wake of that, when you’re bleeding $125 million this year, and more for the foreseeable future — next year it would have been about $65 million a year in losses — you have to take some dramatic steps. We had to do some strategic planning quickly.”
The Tulane renewal plan, which has been unanimously approved by the university board and is to be phased in in fiscal year 2008, would essentially dissolve Newcomb and six other undergraduate schools at Tulane and merge them into a single entity.
The Newcomb name would be preserved on some institutions, programs and buildings, but the separate Newcomb College that Josephine Louise Newcomb envisioned as a memorial to her dead daughter Sophie in 1886 would vanish.
Jones said the plan would guarantee a quality education for all Tulane undergraduates, not just the Newcomb women — and save an estimated $55 million a year.
But no amount of money is worth destroying more than a century’s worth of history, according to angry Newcomb graduates like Marla Custard, who graduated in 1990 and now works as a businesswoman in Dallas, Texas, and is part of the Dean’s Advisory Council for Newcomb College.
“At the end of the day there’s a history of removing the women’s college, and you could throw out a lot of reasons, but they just want it gone,” she said. “It’s seems to me that they have some notion that women’s education is archaic and irrelevant, and that it should be equal for all. But then you’re eliminating that uniqueness and depth that Newcomb had.”
Current students are just as upset.
“That they’re just going to throw away 120 years of women’s history — and women’s history in the South is so few and far between — is just mind-blowing,” Jennifer Leslie, a 19-year-old Newcomb sophomore, said. “I think the administration has finally found a way to get at the Newcomb endowment in the guise of using the storm as an excuse.”
Irate Newcomb alumnae and students have bandied several proposals around, including one that would make all Tulane female undergrads Newcomb students, and others that would ensure that Newcomb remain a separate degree-granting institution. A task force assembled to decide what parts of Newcomb to preserve is still working on a final proposal to be presented March 16.
Jones dismissed speculation about the administration’s motives — that it wants to free up Newcomb’s endowment, that the university president dislikes the idea of women’s colleges — as conspiracy theories, and noted that half of Newcomb’s money is restricted to scholarships, awards and other very specific items.
But Jones said she couldn’t estimate how much dissolving Newcomb specifically would save the university.
“Newcomb has changed many times in its history, but this is not part of some scheme to get rid of Newcomb College once and for all. The Newcomb alumnae have a very strong attachment to their college, and it’s a very interesting and unique experience for a community of women, and I understand that they’re afraid that there won’t be leadership opportunities in the school and afterward — they’re feeling that loss,” Jones said. “And we’re trying to provide that experience for all the undergraduates at Tulane University.”
But for alumnae like Custard, doing so by sacrificing their own little academic Eden is unacceptable — and made worse, not better, when it’s tied to a catastrophe like Katrina.
“That’s just a bold-faced lie,” she said. “It’s offensive. It’s a women’s college with a 200-year history, a Southern history, and I could go on for hours on why we should preserve it, but does Newcomb have to be lost? No.”