- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007

The fury of Hurricane Katrina still engulfs New Orleans, and Tulane University is in the middle of a fight over its aftermath.

A Louisiana appeals court will hear arguments tomorrow over Tulane’s decision to dissolve a women’s school — the 120-year-old Sophie Newcomb College — as part of the university’s post-Katrina reorganization plan.

The college was founded with a $3.6 million donation from Josephine Newcomb in 1887 — $75 million in today’s money — as a women’s college to honor her daughter Sophie, who died at 15.

This week, two of Mrs. Newcomb’s descendants are taking Tulane University to court, arguing that Tulane officials violated Mrs. Newcomb’s intent when they dissolved Sophie Newcomb College and combined it into the larger university under its 2005 post-Katrina “Renewal Plan,” which went into effect last summer.

“Newcomb College is gone,” said Renee Sablatnigg, a Sophie Newcomb graduate and president of the Future of Newcomb College, a group that supports the lawsuit and is spearheading a national grass-roots effort to return the college to its prior status. “Mrs. Newcomb wanted her money to go to maintain the H. Sophie Newcomb College in memory of her daughter. That’s what she wanted, period.”

University officials say it’s not that simple.

Yvette Jones, chief operating officer and senior vice president for external affairs, said that Sophie Newcomb College already had evolved over the years, having started out with a faculty, but combining members with Tulane in the 1980s. It also initially housed only women with liberal arts majors, she noted.

After the hurricane, the university faced a $70 million to $90 million annual operating deficit and reorganized mainly for financial reasons, but also to bring the institution “into the future,” Ms. Jones said.

“We really needed to enhance undergraduate education at Tulane, and we did that by establishing Newcomb-Tulane,” she said.

Under the new setup, Tulane-Newcomb College oversees the advising, honor code and core curriculum for all university undergraduates, all of whom apply to and enroll in the Tulane-Newcomb College.

Once a major is chosen, the student also becomes a member of one of several schools maintained by the university, including schools for architecture, business, public health and social work. The women’s leadership programs that had been part of Sophie Newcomb College are now housed in a separate department called the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College Institute, which is available to all undergraduate women.

Other parts of the reorganization plan included firing several university faculty and reducing the number of Tulane’s sports programs.

Ms. Jones said Tulane has had “a very special commitment to women’s education” for 125 years because of Mrs. Newcomb, and that continues under the new Newcomb Institute.

“We’ve done it all within the context of providing women’s education,” Ms. Jones said. “We feel like we have not violated the donor’s intent.”

But Ms. Sablatnigg said that Tulane’s prevailing would make it easier for schools to do what they want with a donor’s designated money.

“It sets a very, very bad precedent,” she said. “It’s really ‘donor, beware.’ ”

The matter is now up to the court. Mrs. Newcomb’s relatives sought a temporary injunction to prevent the change, but were denied by the New Orleans civil district court last year. They appealed the decision, and the case will be argued this week to a three-judge panel of Louisiana’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lower court found that an injunction wasn’t merited by Mrs. Newcomb’s will and that the plaintiffs failed to prove “irreparable” harm would be suffered by the new setup. The court did say, however, that Mrs. Newcomb’s will shows that she wanted Tulane to “use the balance of her estate to maintain a women’s higher-education college.”

Ms. Sablatnigg’s group has fielded concerns from Sophie Newcomb graduates all over the country. Word-of-mouth spread and supporters planned events across the country, handed out “Save Newcomb College” yard signs about New Orleans and plan to gather at the courthouse.

Ms. Sablatnigg said Sophie Newcomb College was “a magnet to draw strong, bright young women” to the university and made the school stand apart from others.

“I think Tulane will only hurt itself if it’s successful in this,” she said.

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