The H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College of Tulane University was founded in 1886 in New Orleans as the first degree-granting coordinate college for women in the United States.
The H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College of Tulane University was founded in 1886 in New Orleans, and opened its doors to students in October 1887, as the first degree-granting coordinate college for women in the United States. Although other coordinate colleges for women preceded Newcomb College’s founding, notably Radcliffe College of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Newcomb was the first to grant the baccalaureate degree and to define the “coordinate plan.” This arrangement provided for a separate college president and faculty to whom were given the power to determine policy and curriculum, as though the women’s institution were entirely independent.
The college’s benefactress, Josephine Louise Le Monnier Newcomb, entrusted to the administrators of the Tulane Educational Fund the execution of this design, along with her considerable fortune, to memorialize her deceased daughter Sophie. Mrs. Newcomb gave little guidance as to the educational philosophy of the college other than to request that worship and instruction be of a nonsectarian or nondenominational character and that “the education given shall look to the practical side of life as well as to literary excellence.”
Equal Education for Women
Newcomb’s early administrators specifically noted that they intended the college to provide women with the same education given to men at Tulane’s College of Arts and Sciences and an education comparable to that provided at the better women’s colleges in the Northeast. At this time, the South had not benefited from the experiments with coeducation taking place in the Midwest and western states. Thus, the coordinate system within Tulane was one that appeased parents and community leaders while offering young women throughout the region the opportunity for advanced study that otherwise was unavailable to them.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the person charged with transforming Mrs. Newcomb’s memorial wish into a viable academic institution was Brandt V. B. Dixon, the college’s first and only president. Subsequent college administrators held the title of dean, consistent with the other colleges of the university. Within fifteen years of its founding, Newcomb College had gained national recognition for its art school, headed by William Woodward, particularly the award-winning and still highly sought Newcomb Pottery; for its physical education program headed by Clara Baer, who created Newcomb ball (a variation of volleyball) and rules of basketball for women and girls; and its science program, which trained and employed a network of stellar women scientists. It also educated a host of women who became teachers throughout the state of Louisiana, including forming much of the core faculty at Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Setting a High Standard
Although the majority of Newcomb’s students, until the 1950s, came from New Orleans, the college quickly came to stand for the best in women’s education in the South. By 1916 Newcomb had become one of seven Southern schools to hold a standard college designation within the Southern Association of College Women. At the same time, Newcomb was considered to have a more diverse and sophisticated student body than that of other colleges in the region. The student body always included Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant women, and rules and social practices were much more lenient than at other Southern women’s colleges. In time, Newcomb began to attract women from throughout the United States.
Later distinctions included the founding of the Newcomb Nursery School in 1946; the establishment of the Junior Year Abroad Program in 1954; and the founding of the Newcomb Women’s Center, now the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women, in 1975.
Changes in the Twenty-First Century
Many changes to the original coordinate plan took place over the years. A single curriculum for Newcomb College and Tulane’s College of Arts and Sciences was adopted in 1979, and their faculties merged in 1987. Newcomb College retained its own student body, dean, and staff until June 30, 2006. Under the Renewal Plan developed in response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Tulane board of administrators closed Newcomb College.
The H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College Institute began operating on July 1, 2006, to carry forth the mission of Newcomb College and to enhance women’s education at Tulane University. Comprised of the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women, Newcomb Fellows Program, Newcomb Student Programs, and the Office of Newcomb Alumnae, the institute supports undergraduate women and the Tulane community by funding student research projects and faculty initiatives; hosting an ambitious schedule of symposia, international summits, and speakers; advising student organizations; and participating in community rebuilding.
Among Newcomb’s notable alumnae are artists Lynda Benglis, Caroline Durieux, Angela Gregory, and Ida Kohlmeyer; artist and jewelry designer Mignon Faget; recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1965), Shirley Ann Grau; US Congresswoman (1973–1991) and Ambassador to the Vatican, Corinne Claiborne “Lindy” Boggs; and scientists Willey Glover Denis, Marion Spencer Fay, and Ruth Rogan Benerito.