Tulane U. Wins Donor-Intent Lawsuit Over Closing of Women's College

February 21, 2011

A five-year legal battle to reinstate Newcomb College ended on Monday for alumnae and supporters of the women's college, which Tulane University absorbed into its undergraduate college in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The Louisiana Supreme Court voted, 4 to 2, with one abstention, to let a lower court's ruling in favor of Tulane stand.

The decision marked the end of the road for a case that had galvanized Newcomb's alumnae and supporters and focused attention on the concept of donors' intent.

A group called the Future of Newcomb College released a statement on Monday saying the court's decision on Friday disregarded the wishes of Josephine Louise Newcomb, the 19th-century donor whose will established Newcomb College in honor of her daughter. The lawsuit against Tulane was brought on behalf of one of Ms. Newcomb's descendants.

"By refusing to hear the appeal," the statement said, "the Supreme Court has relegated Newcomb College to the realm of memories and denied the future of a perpetual, living memorial to Sophie Newcomb as Mrs. Newcomb so clearly intended."

Tulane merged its separate undergraduate colleges for men and for women in 2006 as part of a sweeping restructuring plan after Hurricane Katrina caused widespread damage to the campus and forced it to close for a semester. Tulane established the Newcomb College Institute to offer leadership and research programs for undergraduate women, but eliminated Newcomb College as a separate, degree-granting institution.

In a written statement on Monday attributed to Tulane University, officials said they expected the fall-2011 first-year class would be 56 percent female. "Women's education continues to flourish at Tulane, thanks to the programs and opportunities available to all undergraduate women through the Newcomb College Institute," the statement said.

In 2009 a Louisiana state judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to force Tulane to reopen H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College as a separate college for women.

An appeals court upheld that decision. The Newcomb College group pressed on, buoyed by donations and pro-bono legal help from its alumnae.

The group's president, Renée F. Seblatnigg, said that Louisiana law did not allow it to refile the case with the state's highest court and that the dispute lacked a federal issue needed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The case is at an end, which is unfortunate both for Tulane and for women's education," she said in an interview on Monday. "And it sends a sad message to donors everywhere."

The Newcomb group thanked its supporters in its statement.

"Throughout this long and arduous battle, we never doubted that those who fought for the continued existence of Newcomb College were on the right side of history," it said. "While the college that she established has been lost, due to the misguided efforts of a few, the legacy of Mrs. Newcomb's courage as a 19th-century woman will never be forgotten by those of us who care about honor and respect."