Unlike many college presidents, Patricia McGuire rarely hesitates to speak her mind on the issues of the day in higher education. If another college leader, for instance, likens struggling freshmen to bunnies who ought to be drowned or shot, the longtime president of Trinity Washington University will call him out.
McGuire did exactly that a few weeks ago after reports surfaced that Simon Newman, then president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, had made such an analogy and then punished critics at the school who questioned his policy on student retention.
“President Newman’s ill-considered words about students and callous actions toward dissenting colleagues betray the Mount’s two centuries of Roman Catholic mission as well as the essential value of academic freedom in higher education,” McGuire wrote Feb. 10 in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “… Being Catholic does not shroud a university in some invisible cloak of protection against the customary exercise of faculty rights and academic freedom, including the right to be critical of the administration.”
Her words were notable because they appeared at a time when few other top administrators in Catholic higher education were willing to speak out on the turmoil at Mount St. Mary’s. Newman has since resigned.
On Monday, McGuire was honored with the Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence. The award from the TIAA Institute, which sponsors research on financial security issues, is named for the late president of the University of Notre Dame. Known to many as Father Ted, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh — who died last year — was one of the most influential university presidents of the 20th century and was famed for his outspoken views on civil rights and other social and international issues.
After he retired, Hesburgh lamented that college and university presidents seemed too reluctant to use their platform to address public issues. McGuire clearly does not have that problem. She has spoken out against campus sexual assault, has questioned the Obama administration’s tactics on rating colleges and on helping low-income students get into college, and has criticized administration efforts to regulate teacher education as “Orwellian.”
In 2009, McGuire defended Notre Dame’s decision to allow President Obama to speak at its commencement. Obama’s appearance at the university in South Bend, Ind., caused great controversy in the Catholic world because his position in favor of abortion rights was at odds with church doctrine. But McGuire declared it a scandal that “ostensibly Catholic mobs” were “camping out at Notre Dame for the specific purpose of disrupting the commencement address of the nation’s first African American president. This ugly spectacle is an embarrassment to all Catholics.”
Trinity, in Northeast Washington, is a Catholic women’s school with about 2,200 students. Among its alumnae are House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius. It has some co-ed graduate programs. In undergraduate education, it focuses on teaching disadvantaged women — single moms, first-generation students, children of immigrants and others who face hurdles to a college degree. Many of its students come from the university’s home city and have few other options for getting higher education. The overwhelming majority are African American or Latina.
McGuire, 63, a native of Philadelphia, has led the university since 1989. She helped steer the school toward stability, with a new focus on helping the poor, at a time when many other small women’s colleges were struggling financially.
“Father Ted Hesburgh was one of my great heroes not only in education but, even more importantly, for civil rights and social justice throughout society,” McGuire said in a statement. “I am humbled to receive this award in his name, and delighted to accept on behalf of the Trinity Washington University faculty who are so devoted to the success of our students, as well as for the students whose courage, fortitude and hard work ensure their academic achievements each day.”
McGuire said she met Hesburgh once a few years ago on Capitol Hill. “We have not seen his like since, and I doubt that we will,” she said. Like Hesburgh, she said that college presidents are often too fixated on raising money and avoiding controversy, and too hesitant to use their bully pulpit to advance social justice.
But McGuire doesn’t neglect fundraising. Her school this spring will dedicate a new $40 million academic center, the first new building on the campus since 1963.
McGuire graduated from Trinity in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. “Full-tuition scholarship, only way my family could have afforded to send me, been paying back ever since,” she said Monday. She earned a law degree from Georgetown Law Center in 1977.
The Hesburgh award comes with a $20,000 prize for the winner’s school. It is administered by the American Council on Education, a group representing college and university presidents, which is meeting this week in San Francisco. Independent judges select the annual winner.
Previous winners include John Sexton of New York University in 2015; Scott Cowen of Tulane University in 2014; Diana Natalicio of the University of Texas at El Paso in 2013; Charles B. Reed of California State University and Eduardo J. Padrón of Miami Dade College in 2012; Freeman A. Hrabowski III of the University of Maryland Baltimore County in 2011; and William E. “Brit” Kirwan of the University System of Maryland in 2010.