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The Devoted: She spent her life transforming Trinity. So where does Pat McGuire -- and the university she rebuilt -- go from here?

For two decades, Pat McGuire has been consumed by turning a Catholic college into a model for urban higher education.

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By Daniel de Vise
Sunday, February 14, 2010

A dusting of snow had thinned the crowd that turned out to watch the Trinity Washington University women's basketball team play Valley Forge Military College on a gloomy Saturday afternoon. But one fan at the far end of the court made the most of the game, and followed the players patiently with her camera lens as she cheered a bit louder than everyone else.

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The visiting team might have wondered who this woman was, roving the stands in an untucked button-down shirt, laboring with her camera, very nearly the only white figure in the crowd of black and Hispanic faces. But among Trinity students -- her students -- Pat McGuire needed no introduction.

McGuire, who is in her 21st year as president of this college in the Brookland section of Northeast Washington, is not only the university's academic leader: She's the smiling face of Trinity at nearly every game, performance or campus event. She gives out the freshman medals at orientation; she hands seniors their diplomas at graduation. To many of these students, Pat McGuire is Trinity.

"She's out there hooting your name, chest-bumping, giving you a high-five," said Charity Blackwell, 22, a freshman on the team. "Stuff like that makes you feel like you're cared about."

But McGuire, a 57-year-old Trinity alumna, is more than an endearing chief executive admired by her students and staff. She is known throughout the region as the woman who saved Trinity, by rebuilding a dying Catholic women's college into a multifaceted university that has reached out to the black and Hispanic women of Washington. She is among the longest-serving college presidents in the area -- having marked her 20th anniversary last summer. And, during those two decades, she has overcome the distrust and push-back of some alumnae over a bankrupt business model to teach Washington an object lesson in the education of urban students.

"All right, Trinity, we can put it over the top this time!" the president cried, watching the team from the stands on the snowy Saturday. The squad, mostly promising freshmen, was trailing. "Part of the problem," she confided quietly, "is we don't have any really tall people."

Then, she was back in the game. "Lots of hustle! Lots of fight! We like that!" A few seats away, a toddler was crying. His mother was on the court.

The game ended in a painfully narrow defeat. McGuire swept in among the players, consoler to the vanquished: "You were great! Absolutely fantastic! You were great!"

***

"If I were the administration, if I were [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan, I would say that this is the poster child for what we need to do in the next 20 years," said David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "She has made Trinity University, it strikes me, a national model and an inspiring place."

Friends and admirers say that McGuire has succeeded by making Trinity her life. She is on campus at 7 every morning. Her evenings are a procession of board meetings, receptions and speaking engagements. She works through weekends. She lives alone. She vacations alone: two weeks every summer in the Adirondacks with her camera and her kayak.

She is an introvert at heart and has had to learn to cope with the very public demands of the job. Yet, publicly, she is outspoken -- lashing out last May in a commencement address at the "religious vigilantism" of fellow Catholics who had tried to disrupt President Obama's speech at Notre Dame, and pushing the limits of what a university president is permitted to say in blog postings and op-ed pieces about such delicate matters as collegiate rankings and graduation rates.


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