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.
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.
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.
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.