The Legacy of Marguerite Ross Barnett: A Modern Vanguard in Education

By Megan R. Dagnall

The Board of Regents unanimously chose Marguerite Ross Barnett as president of the University of Houston in 1990, making her the first Black and female president of the institution. Barnett avoided discussion of her identity; instead, she focused on the community surrounding UH, and the development of the university as a premier research institution. Photo courtesy of Digital Collections, University of Houston Libraries. 

Three decades ago, in 1990, Marguerite Ross Barnett became the first woman and first Black president of the University of Houston (UH) and of any predominantly white American research university. Her stellar reputation in academia prompted many inquiries about how it felt to be a trailblazer. Determined to be acknowledged by her competence and not her identity, on one occasion, Barnett deflected questions about her race and gender by turning to her assistant, Wendy E. Adair, and asking, ”Well, how does it feel to be the first red-haired associate vice president of the university?”i

Through her eloquent guidance and decisive leadership, Barnett consistently articulated her values of excellence at all levels by promoting diversification, partnerships, and elevating the University of Houston to a premier urban research institution. In her brief term, she significantly impacted the Houston community by establishing dynamic programs, spearheading a successful fundraising campaign at UH, touching the lives of students and colleagues, and exemplifying a model for empowerment.  

Marguerite Ross was born on May 22, 1942, to Dewey and Mary Ross in Charlottesville, Virginia. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, and graduated from Bennett High School in 1959. She entered Antioch College with the intent of becoming a scientist. However, her fascination with India’s modern political history altered her career path, and she developed a passion for political science. Receiving her bachelor’s in political science from Antioch College in 1964, she proceeded to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1972. While at the University of Chicago, she married Stephen A. Barnett, and the couple had one daughter.ii

Marguerite Ross, shown here during her freshman year, pursued her bachelor’s degree in political science at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Photo by Axel Bahnsen courtesy of Antiochiana, Antioch College. 

Before coming to the University of Houston, Dr. Barnett established herself as an esteemed professor. She lectured at the University of Chicago and subsequently taught political science at Princeton University. She chaired Howard University’s Political Science Department for three years before transitioning to Columbia University. In 1980, the City of New York appointed Dr. Barnett as the professor of political science and vice-chancellor for academic affairs. From 1986 to 1990, she served as chancellor of the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), where the community regarded her so highly that when she moved to Houston, UMSL sent furniture to outfit her whole house, even though she was heading for another school.iii

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Watch the collaboration between Houston Public Media and the Center for Public History as they discuss the 100 years of Houston History, an episodic series featuring early campus history in Episode 8:  Dr. Marguerite Ross Barnett (1987-1997).

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