“I’m a public interest lawyer gone bad,” says Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity (Washington) University, class of ’74. “I never intended to become president of my college. I went to law school, I wanted to save the world.” The woman who once camped outside of Henry Kissinger’s house hoping to get an interview is now at the helm of an institution much lauded for its remarkable turnaround. The Washington Post’s Don Graham recently said of McGuire, “She not only saved her school, she did it in a way to make a lasting difference to hundreds of families in Washington.”
McGuire in the school’s new sports center, which she describes as an auxiliary enterprise. She was captain of Trinity’s basketball team and remembers playing in the chapel basement. “It was before Title IX; the women at UMD didn’t have it any better.”
One of seven children born to first generation Americans, McGuire came to Trinity on full scholarship. From Trinity, she went to Georgetown Law where she taught the laws of the land to juvenile delinquents in DC public schools with the hope that the knowledge of Miranda rights would keep them out of the big house. McGuire eventually became head of the Street Law program and chief fundraiser for the law school. “I learned that money really does fuel everything, even the good things.” McGuire believed she would continue on the same path, but instead pulled a Robert Frost and took the one less traveled by.
With students Rosa Martinez, Anna Feliciano and Alexandra Green. Unlike many college presidents, McGuire does not have a house on campus. “I do have an orange cone, though,” she tells us, motioning to the parking lot.
While at Georgetown, Patricia was on Trinity’s board of trustees and president of the alumni association. “Trinity was having lots of challenges in the 80s,” she tells us. When McGuire came on as president in ’89, she was the sixth in 8 years. “I was 36 and had never been an executive of anything. But Trinity had such great needs that they were looking for an advocate who would preach the gospel of Trinity.”
Instead of trying to revive the old model, she took the college in a completely different direction. When she began her tenure, the women’s college was 90% Caucasian, and predominately Catholic and from the east coast. There were only 280 Arts and Sciences students at that time. What was carrying the college was the weekend program for primarily African-American adult students along with a teacher education program. “I said to myself, why are we stressed that middle class white girls from the east coast don’t want to come here? There are so many girls who do want to come here, but they won’t look like us. They might not be 18 years old, they might have children. But this school was founded to give women an education.”
“When I became president I really learned about people’s fear of change,” adds McGuire, who had trouble being accepted in the early years. “There were a lot of people upset about the shift in demographics - race, social class and age.” She notes that many schools looked at what she was doing and shuddered. Turning an upper-middle class institution into one that serves a minority population is certainly not the trend among colleges. Today, 45% of Trinity’s students come from DC public schools. 85% of the student body is African-American and Latino. The incoming class for the college of Arts and Sciences, its largest since 1967, hails from 20 states and 19 nations, speaking 15 different languages.
“Women from the local population who have been disenfranchised love the idea of a women’s college and women’s empowerment. They’re not afraid they won’t have enough dates, they worry about getting a good job and how their lives will be different from their mother’s lives.” In the main hall of Trinity a huge banner hangs down past a long spiral staircase saluting speaker Nancy Pelosi, class of 1962. McGuire mentions that Pelosi has not only been an inspiration for students but a champion of Trinity’s transformation and renaissance. “Now our alums are on board 100%. They love what has happened to Trinity. There is such a sense of purpose in life here.