Published January 13, 2015
A great-great-great-niece of the founder of one of the nation's oldest degree-granting colleges for women filed a new challenge Wednesday to Tulane University's merger of H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College with its six other undergraduate colleges.
Susan Henderson Montgomery of Franklin, Mass., argues she has the legal right to file a challenge under an opinion handed down in July by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The university merged all its undergraduate colleges into Newcomb-Tulane College about two years ago, as part of a reorganization after Hurricane Katrina. The university also cut 27 of its 45 doctoral programs, suspended eight athletic teams and laid off about 230 faculty members, mostly from the medical school.
Challenges have contended the merger was a way for the university to use Newcomb's $41 million endowment for other purposes.
Two great-great-nieces of Josephine Newcomb, who founded the college as a memorial to her daughter, lost an attempt to keep Newcomb open but won a state Supreme Court ruling that "would-be heirs" may sue to enforce conditions of a will.
The 5-2 decision said Parma Howard of Greenville, N.C., and Jane Smith of Columbia, S.C., had to prove they were not just relatives, but heirs.
Howard and Smith weren't "successors" under Louisiana law because their great-grandmother left everything she had to her fourth husband, said John Shreves, the lawyer representing Montgomery.
He said Montgomery meets the opinion's definition of a successor because she is in a direct line of inheritance as well as blood.
The petition asks the Orleans Parish Civil District Court to rule that Montgomery can challenge Tulane's actions, that Newcomb wanted the money left to Tulane used only for the women's college, and to order it reopened.
A news release from Tulane said the new lawsuit brings up the same issues as the earlier one. "Tulane's response is the same: the University has honored Mrs. Newcomb's wishes for more than 100 years and continues to do so through the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College Institute," it said.
"The Newcomb Institute is funded by the Newcomb endowment and continues to sponsor many of the same women's programs and traditions of the College. Women's education continues to thrive at Tulane with women outnumbering men in this year's incoming class."
Newcomb outlived her brother, sister and children, but her sister's four children survived her, Shreves said. If she had died without a will, they would have inherited, Shreves said.
Tulane attorney Edward Bergin has argued Newcomb's will specifically left use of the money up to university administrators, and that the people trying to undo the university's decision are descendants of people who tried to overturn the will.
Aside from a few small bequests, Newcomb left everything she owned to the Tulane Educational Fund, writing that she had "implicit confidence" that its administrators would use the money "for the present and future development of this department of the University known as the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College which engrosses my thoughts and purposes, and is endeared to me by such hallowed associations."