Barnett, Marguerite Ross

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Barnett, Marguerite Ross

(b. 22 May 1942 in Charlottesville, Virginia; d. 26 February 1992 in Wailuku, Hawaii), political scientist and educator; the first African-American woman to become the president of a major university.

Barnett, the only child of Dewey Ross Barnett and Mary Douglass, grew up in Buffalo, New York, and graduated from Bennett High School in 1959. She earned a B.A. degree in political science from Antioch College in 1964 and subsequently pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where she was awarded M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in political science in 1966 and 1972, respectively.

As a graduate student, Barnett’s academic interests centered on Indian politics. With financial support from two University of Chicago sponsors (the Committee on Southern Asian Studies and the Committee on Comparative Politics), as well as the Princeton University Fund for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, she conducted research in India between 1967 and 1969 for her doctoral dissertation. This study of ethnic and cultural pluralism in the modern Indian state of Tamil Nadu later became the foundation for Barnett’s highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India (1976), which received the American Political Science Association’s top book prize in 1981.

After graduate school Barnett became an educator and held many teaching positions throughout her distinguished career. She began as a lecturer at the University of Chicago in 1969 and joined the Princeton University faculty as an assistant professor in 1970. Barnett was the James Madison Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton from 1974 to 1976 and then taught at Howard University, where she chaired the Department of Political Science between 1977 and 1980. In 1980, while still at Howard, Barnett became codirector of the Ethnic Heritage Project: Study of an Historic Black Community, Gum Springs, Virginia, funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

From August 1980 to August 1983 Barnett was a member of the faculty at Columbia University in New York City, serving as professor of politics and education, professor of political science, and director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. In 1982 she became the coprincipal investigator on the Constitution and American Culture and the Training Program for Special Project Directors, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

After years in the classroom, Barnett’s interests turned to university administration, the area in which she would establish her place in American history. In 1983 she was appointed vice chancellor for academic affairs at City University of New York (CUNY), a twenty-one college system of 180,000 students. During her tenure at CUNY, she established a program to assist disadvantaged high school students in their transition from high school to college. In 1986 she was named chancellor and professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. There she established numerous new degree programs, oversaw an 18-percent increase in enrollment, and made a significant contribution to the fiscal well-being of the university by doubling federal grant monies and raising more than $9 million in new donations. Additionally, she implemented the transition program for disadvantaged students that she had so successfully developed at CUNY.

Barnett left the University of Missouri at St. Louis in 1990 to become the president of the University of Houston, a post she held for one and one-half years until her death in 1992. Her appointment at that institution was groundbreaking, as she became the first African American woman to head a major American research university. Barnett arrived at the University of Houston, which she considered to be on the “cusp of greatness,” with innovative changes in mind. Her agenda focused on the leading role she believed public urban universities should play in addressing a wide range of economic and social issues, from homelessness to environmental quality to space exploration.

Shortly after Barnett’s arrival at the university, she established the Texas Center for University-School Partnership, a cooperative venture among business, education, and community leaders to study and promote school reform. Barnett also instituted her outreach program for underprivileged students, to become known at the University of Houston as the Bridge Program. This endeavor was awarded the Anderson Medal from the American Council on Education as the outstanding public school initiative in the United States in 1991. Barnett’s other accomplishments at the University of Houston during her brief tenure included the creation of the Texas Center for Environmental Studies, the recruitment of nationally prominent faculty members, and a fund-raising campaign that generated more than $150 million for the university.

Recognized as a scholar in the field of political science and a leader in the field of education, Barnett pursued research and writing throughout her career. She is the author or editor of six books on contemporary black politics, education policy, and Indian politics, as well as dozens of articles.

Barnett served on numerous boards and commissions, including the President’s Commission on Environmental Quality, Educational Testing Service, Council on Foreign Relations, Overseas Development Council, Student Loan Marketing Association, American Council on Education, Committee on Economic Development, Monsanto Company, Houston Grand Opera, and Houston Symphony.

Barnett had one child by a marriage (18 December 1962) to Stephen A. Barnett. That marriage ended in divorce. On 30 June 1980 Barnett married Walter Eugene King, a former member of the parliament of Bermuda and a former professional golfer. In November 1991 Barnett took a medical leave of absence from the University of Houston to seek treatment for a neuroendocrinological disorder. She died on 26 February 1992 in Wailuku, Hawaii, of a blood disorder involving hypoglycemia with metastatic cancer.

Described as an “animated woman whose pace exhausted even her most energetic colleagues,” Marguerite Ross Barnett, political scientist, educator, and administrator, was a woman of many “firsts.” She was the first female and the first African American to head the University of Houston and the first black woman to lead a major research university. These accomplishments, however, were not as significant to her as was her agenda at the University of Houston and the role she believed research universities must play as they move into the twenty-first century—that of “helping society solve its key conundrums … in the same way land-grant institutions helped solve the problems of the 19th century.”

The collection of Barnett’s personal papers is housed in the M. D. Anderson Library, Department of Special Collections and Archives, University of Houston. While no full-scale biography of Barnett exists, her life is detailed in several biographical encyclopedia essays. The most notable are Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Notable Black American Women (1992); Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Blacky Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (vol. 1, 1993); and Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Epic Lives: One Hundred Blacky Women Who Made a Difference (1993). Katherine S. Mangan, “President Sees University of Houston on “the Cusp of Greatness,”” Chronicle of Higher Education 37, issue 25 (6 Mar. 1991): A3, focuses on Barnett’s position at the University of Houston. An obituary is in the New York Times (27 Feb. 1992).

Pamela W. Bellows

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Barnett, Marguerite Ross

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