Barnett, Marguerite Ross 1942–1992

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Marguerite Ross Barnett 19421992

College president

Began Academic Career

Took Helm in Houston

Selected writings


Marguerite Ross Barnett was the first African-American woman to lead a major American university. Appointed president of the University of Houston in 1990, her dynamic life and career were cut short by cancer just two years later. Prior to taking the Texas job, Barnett had made significant improvements while overseeing the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and had also worked for the City University of New York as a vice chancellor. Hailed as a new generation of educational leader in her New York Times obituary by Anthony DePalma, Barnett urged that urban universities play a dominant role in spurring economic growth and solving social problems in the same way that land-grant colleges of a century ago did in developing Americas agricultural economy.

Barnett was a native of Charlottesville, Virginia, where she was born on May 22, 1942, to Dewey and Mary Ross. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, and after finishing high school in 1959 she entered Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with the goal of becoming a scientist. That course was altered when she read about modern Indias political history, in which native leaders like Mohatmas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru successfully negotiated with British colonial authorities to secure their countrys independence. Barnett became a political science major at Antioch and earned her undergraduate degree in 1964. She went on to the prestigious University of Chicago, which granted her an M.A. in 1966 and a Ph.D. in 1972. During her time at Chicago she met and married business anthropologist Stephen A. Barnett. Some of her doctoral research involved spending long stretches of time in India, and Barnett took her husband and infant daughter along.

Began Academic Career

Barnetts first job after leaving the University of Chicago was as an assistant professor of political science at Princeton University, in Princeton, New Jersey. She taught at the Ivy League school for six years, and went on to a stint at Howard University in Washington, D.C., which offered her a full professorship. She chaired Howards political science department from 1977 to 1980. In 1980, Barnett moved back to the Ivy League, teaching at New York Citys Columbia University for the next three years. At Columbia she was a professor

At a Glance

Born May 22, 1942 in Charlottesville, VA; died February 26, 1992, in Wailuku, HI; daughter of Dewey and Mary Ross; married Stephen A. Barnett (divorced); married Walter Eugene King (a politician and professional golfer), June 30, 1980; children; (with Barnett) Amy, Education: Antioch College, Yellow Springs, OH, AB, 1964; University of Chicago, MA, 1966, PhD, 1972.

Career: University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, lecturer, 1969-70; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, assistant professor of political science, 1970-76, and James Madison Bicentennial Preceptor, 1974-76; Howard University, Washington, DC, professor of political science, 1976-80, and chair of political science department, 1977-80; Columbia University, New York, professor of politics and education, professor of political science, and director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education, 1980-83; City University of New York, New York, professor of political science and vice-chancellor for academic affairs, 1983-86; University of Missouri-Saint Louis, chancellor and professor of political science, 1986-90; University of Houston, Houston, TX, president, 1990-92.

Memberships: Overseas Development Council; Council on Foreign Relations; Cleveland Council.

Awards: American Political Science Association book prize, 1981, for The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India; Bethune-Tubman-Truth Woman of the Year Award, 1983; Association of Black Women in Higher Education Award for Educational Excellence, 1986; American Political Science COBPS Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Service to the Profession, 1986; Project on Equal Education of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, Golden GAZELLE Award, 1987.

of politics and education and professor of political science, and also served as director of Columbias Institute for Urban and Minority Education. City University of New York (CUNY) invited her to become professor of political science and vice-chancellor for academic affairs in 1983, and she eagerly took the job. She was part of an administration team that oversaw 180,000 students enrolled in the CUNY systems 21 colleges. She was also able to launch a pet project: a program that worked with high schools in low-income communities to help prepare their graduates for college.

In 1986, Barnett moved to the Midwest to become chancellor and professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMXL). Her accomplishments there were so impressive that she was the subject of a 1989 New York Times profile titled, Chancellor Turns a Campus Around. UMSL had a largely part-time commuter student body, and was hard pressed for funds when Barnett came on board. It had long been overshadowed by its the University of Missouris main campus in Columbia. During her first weeks on the job, Barnett battled a future U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft, who was then Missouri governor at the time. Ashcroft vetoed a bill in the state legislature that would have given UMSL money for a badly needed new library building. He told Barnett if she raised $1.2 million, he would sign off on the other $4.8 million. Apparently there was an expectation in the state that we would not be able to raise that kind of money, Barnett noted dryly in an interview with Amy Stuart Wells in the New York Times, and indeed school had never raised more than $30,000 at one time in its history. But Barnett raised the money, and the library was built.

Though Barnett raised money from the traditional sources like alumni ranks, she also went after the heavy-hitters: St. Louis-area Fortune 500 companies. Linking their involvement in the school to a sense of civic duty and pride, she culled donations from Anheuser-Busch, Monsanto, and other major employers in the city and surrounding suburbs, and her efforts brought $6 million in donations to UMSL and funded some of first new construction on campus since the early 1960s. Enrollment increased ten percent in just a few short years.

Took Helm in Houston

Barnett also founded Partnerships for Progress at UMSL, a program that linked urban high schools with the Universitys education department. Her commitment to urban education was well articulated and, with her proven track record, her name was even mentioned as possible New York City public schools chancellor in 1989. But in 1990 Barnett left St. Louis for a job as president of the University of Houston. She was the first woman and the first African American to head the four-campus system, and also the first black of either gender to lead a major research university. At the time, she was just one of three female university presidents in the United States who presided over campuses with 30,000 students or more. Interviewed by Essence a month later, Barnett asserted her goal in Texas was to increase the pool of minority youngsters attending college, she told journalist David Thigpen, and to get them to enter the burgeoning technological fields of the twenty-first century.

The University of Houston had 33,000 students and a budget of $240 million when Barnett started on the job. It also conducted $45 million in research annually, some of it in the field of superconductivity, its specialty. Not surprisingly, Barnett undertook another fundraising campaign there with great success: the school received a $50 million gift from software billionaire John Moores and his wife, one of largest grants ever made to an American public university by an alumnus. Barnett also helped establish the Texas Center for Environmental Studies, and was the driving force behind the creation of the nationally recognized Bridge Program, which helped disadvantaged students make a successful transition from high school to college. As in St. Louis, Barnett was well liked on campus and among local leaders. When she was diagnosed with cancer in late 1991, the news stunned and saddened the academic community. With her second husband, Walter King, a former professional golfer and politician from the island nation of Bermuda, Barnett went to Hawaii, where the pair had once honeymooned. She died at a hospital there on February 26, 1992, from metastatic cancer and hypoglycemia, a blood disorder.

At the time of her death, the only woman to oversee a larger U.S. college campus than Barnett at Houston was Donna Shalala at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. A collection of Barnetts papers is held at the University of Houston library, and the university established a memorial scholarship in her honor.

Selected writings

(With others) Electoral Politics in Indian States: Party Systems and Cleavages, Manohar Book Service, 1975.

Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India, Princeton University Press, 1976.

(Editor, with James A. Hefner) Public Policy for the Black Community: Strategies and Perspectives, Alfred Press, 1976.



Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 21, Gale, 2001.

Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.


Essence, October 1990, p. 50.

New York Times, June 14, 1989, p. B9; February 27, 1992, p. B7.

Carol Brennan

Marguerite Ross Barnett

views updated May 17 2018

Marguerite Ross Barnett

When Marguerite Ross Barnett (1942-1992) was appointed president of the University of Houston, she became the first black and the first woman chief administrator of the flagship of the four-campus Houston system. She had already made her mark at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where she was chancellor and tenured professor in political science. The distinguished political scientist has boosted the prestige of both institutions—at St. Louis as one of its most successful fundraisers and at Houston as a major player in a $350 million fund-raising campaign.

Born May 22, 1942, in Charlottesville, Virginia, Barnett is the daughter of Dewey Ross and Mary (Douglass) Barnett. She completed elementary school and in 1959 graduated from Bennett High School, both in Buffalo, New York. In 1964, she graduated from Antioch College with an A.B. degree in political science. She continued her studies in political science at the University of Chicago where, in 1966, she received an M.A. degree and, in 1972, a Ph.D.

As a child Barnett planned to become a scientist. While studying a course on Indian politics, she changed her career interests. As a part of her doctoral studies, she conducted research in south India for two years. For her subsequent book on ethnic and cultural pluralism, The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), the American Political Science Association awarded her its top book prize in 1981.

Academic Appointments

Barnett's career as teacher of political science began with her appointment as lecturer at the University of Chicago, a position that she held from September 1969 to September 1970. She was then assistant professor of political science, 1970-1976, and James Madison Bicentennial Preceptor, 1974-1976, at Princeton University. Barnett became professor of political science at Howard University in 1976, and chaired the department of political science there from July 1977 to June 1980. In 1980, while still at Howard, Barnett was co-director of the Ethnic Heritage Project, which studied the historic black community of Gum Springs, Virginia. The U.S. Department of Education funded this project. Barnett moved to Columbia University and from August 1980 to August 1983 she was professor of politics and education, professor of political science, and director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. In 1982-83 she was co-principal investigator on the Constitution and American Culture and the training program for special project directors, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. From February to August 1983, Barnett was also consultant for the Presbyterian Church of the United States. She was appointed professor of political science and vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the City University of New York, for the twenty-one college system that serves 180,000 students. She remained there from September 1983 to May 1986. Barnett was then named chancellor and professor of political science, University of Missouri-St. Louis. She held the post from June 1986 to September 1990. During the spring of 1990 she was appointed president of the University of Houston.

University of Houston

Barnett became the first black and the first woman to head the University of Houston. Her appointment resulted in widespread press coverage. An article in the March 6, 1991, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education put her in the national spotlight as head of an institution that she says is "literally on the cusp of greatness" (Mangan, A-3). Barnett is one of three women to lead universities with more than thirty thousand students. The fact that she is the only black leading a major research institution is less significant to her than her agenda at the University of Houson and her belief in the role that public urban universities should play in addressing a wide range of issues, from homelessness to space exploration. Barnett believes that urban research universities should help society "solve its key conundrums," They must do so "in the same way land-grant institutions helped solve the problems of the 19th century" (Mangan, A-3).

Barnett has been described as "an animated women" who outpaces her highly energetic colleagues, an effective school booster, and a woman with strong views as well as a willingness to hear the views of others before making a decision (Mangan, A-3). Self-confident, though not conceited, Barnett is as comfortable in the corporate board-room as she is in her staff meetings and has been praised equally by business people and academics.

During her career Barnett has been involved with numerous community activities and has served on a number of boards. Her board memberships have included the Monsanto Company, the Educational Testing Services, the Student Loan Marketing Association (SALLIE MAE), the American Council on Education, and the Committee on Economic Development. Her cultural affiliations have included membership on the board of directors of the Houston Grand Opera and the board of advisors of the Houston Symphony. In addition to her involvement with various political science and South Asian studies associations, Barnett is a member of the Overseas Development Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Cleveland Council.

A Noted Author

The author of fifty articles, Barnett is also the author or editor of five books. In addition to her award-winning book on South India she co-edited Public Policy for the Black Community: Strategies and Perspectives (Los Angeles: Alfred Press, 1976); Readings on Equal Education, vol. 7 (New York: AMS Press, 1984); Comparing Race, Sex, and National Origin Desegregation: Public Attitudes of Desegregation, Readings on Equal Education, vol. 8 (AMS Press, 1985); and Educational Policy in an Era of Conservative Reform, Readings on Equal Education, Vol. 9 (AMS Press, 1986).

Her awards include Bethune-Tubman-Truth Women of the Year Award, 1983; Association of Black Women in Higher Education Award for Educational Excellence, 1986; American Political Science COBPS Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Service to the Profession, 1986; Golden GAZELLE Award from the Project on Equal Education of the NOW Legal Defense Fund (1987); and Award of Achievement, Jefferson City NAACP, 1988. The St. Louis Variety Club named Barnett Woman of the Year in 1989. In 1990 the Women's International Leadership Forum presented her with the Woman Who Has Made a Difference Award. While at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, she designed and implemented the Partnerships for Progress Program and, in 1991, the American Council on Education recognized the program and awarded it the Anderson Medal. Barnett developed a similar program at the University of Houston called the Texas Center for University-School Partnerships.

Marguerite Ross Barnett was the mother of one daughter, Amy (Douglass) Barnett, born on December 18, 1962, during a previous marriage to Stephen A. Barnett. On June 30, 1980, Barnett married Walter Eugene King, a former member of Parliament in Bermuda and a former professional golfer. In November 1991 Barnett took a medical leave of absence to seek treatment for cancer. She died on February 26, 1992 in Wailuku, Hawaii.


Who's Who Among Black Americans, 1990/91, 6th ed. Gale Research, 1990.

Who's Who in America. 46th ed. Marquis, 1990.

Who's Who of American Women. 16th ed. Marquis, 1988.


Chronicle of Higher Education 37, March 6, 1991. □

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