Pat McGuire: Championing Social Justice and Higher Learning

An educator and lawyer, Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity Washington University, is a tireless champion for educating young women of color. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer, or even maybe, and she has adeptly shepherded her Catholic institution through its shifting fortunes and the vicissitudes of the church.

McGuire has also been an innovator, leading the university through a remarkable academic renaissance. She has overcome enrollment declines and resource shortages by reinforcing Trinity’s origins as an institution in service to justice. Like the Sisters of Notre Dame who founded Trinity, she has been confident in taking her rightful seat at the table for herself and her university.

The FC2’s Anthony Williams recently spoke to McGuire about the role of Trinity in educating D.C.’s young women of color, the priority of developing students for new career paths and the importance of a liberal arts education for every student.

AW: Trinity’s student body is one of the most diverse of the District’s universities. What about that diversity adds to the university’s learning experience and how did this mission begin?

PM: “It is absolutely essential for colleges and universities, frankly for any education institution, to educate a broad diversity of the population, whether in cities, states or nationally. Here at Trinity, we started as a very traditional Catholic women’s college in 1897 because Catholic University wouldn’t admit women. We were pretty much predominantly white and Catholic up to 1980 and then our enrollment declined. Georgetown University and other Catholic men’s schools went co-ed and we lost a lot of women students.

Trinity had to figure out its future. The nuns had a call to social justice, and we turned our attention to the needs of women in this city. Trinity is classified as a predominantly black institution. Black students are 60 percent of our population, and we have a growing population of Latina students. Hispanic students now account for about 30 percent of our population.”

AW: Why, at this point in the 21st century, do you think is it still important to have a liberal arts college that exclusively serves women students? 

PM: “Like many women’s colleges, we went through the conversation about whether we should go fully co-ed. We do have men in our graduate and professional programs. They make up about 5 percent of our population, but the fulltime, daytime population is all women. What we realized is even as well-to-do women were rejecting the idea of women’s colleges, once they could go to Georgetown or George Washington University, women who had never had the opportunity to go to college flocked to women’s colleges. These were women who were predominantly women of color and who loved the idea of being empowered with an education.

Women of the city see this as a gateway to intellectual, academic and economic success, not only for themselves but also for their children. We help young women who have not previously experienced success find their way to achievement. I think we have the formula for women’s success. In 1990, we had 300 students; today, we have 1,000 students.”

AW: Trinity has some distinguished alumnae, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House advisor Kellyanne Conway and former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, to name just a few. What is Trinity doing today to make it as relevant as it has been in the past?

PM: “We believe very strongly, and I think this comes from our social justice mission with the sisters, in justice. We use the different forums we host to speak out on immigration policy, nuclear policy, war, economic policy and the relieving of poverty. Where there is an issue that affects our students or issues of justice, we are very quick to speak out.

Two years ago, we hosted a symposium on undocumented students. We’ve had one on the Me-Too Movement. We’re planning a symposium later this year on race in society. We tackle these issues head on. We try to include all points of view. Some say it’s a liberal point of view. We say it’s a moral point of view. We believe the moral treatment of people is very important.”

AW: There is a great focus on building career pathways for students. How does Trinity view the balance between a liberal arts education and more utilitarian majors connected to careers and jobs?

PM: “We believe in both job skills and being conversant in poetry. We believe the best workers are those who can recite Shakespeare and know what history is all about. The fact is a liberal arts education is the foundation for all the programs we have here at Trinity. Our nursing students and business students do well, and they need to read well and analyze critically. They have to have the context of history and sociology. We cultivate that in our students.

Workforce training in the information technology (IT) area is a focus for us now, particularly related to Amazon coming to town. Data analytics is not just for information technology; it’s for a broad range of work. We basically call it math. We don’t call it IT. Developing those mathematics skills for students is essential.

We received a big grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute because we practice inclusive excellence in our pedagogy. The grant is to encourage more women of color in the sciences and how to engage students who previously have not been that engaged in higher-level learning. We are developing a knowledge base that works across disciplines. We have scientists who use art to help students understand science concepts. The liberal arts is a great platform for a great workforce.”

AW: Can you describe the early college partnerships you’ve launched with D.C. high schools? 

PM: “Trinity has always worked with the DC Public Schools going back to our founding. We’ve always had teachers who graduated from Trinity go into teaching. Half of our students are DC Public School graduates, which we’re very proud of.

As more and more students came to Trinity from the DC Public Schools, we noticed that they weren’t ready for quantitative disciplines like nursing. We’re working in partnership now to improve readiness for collegiate work on the pathway to nursing and other disciplines in the sciences. We are working with the STEM academies at McKinley Tech and the Columbia Heights Education Center, and we’re working with Wilson High School on dual enrollment in biomedicine. A NASA grant is currently funding research with McKinley students. We are also the college partner with Coolidge High School for the new Early College Academy.

Additionally, we work very closely with Medstar for our nursing and healthcare programs, and we are in talks right now about how we can get some of our students to serve some of their hospitals farther out in the region. There’s a need for healthcare workforce support throughout the Washington region. We think that’s going to grow and become a model for health care and sciences.”

AW: What are the biggest challenges facing Trinity?

PM: “Our No. 1 issue is funding. The D.C. schools do not have the resources to provide the funding for the dual enrollment programs. We’re scrambling to try to find the resources for those programs. The second issue is faculty talent. Faulty talent is hard to find in some of these areas, and it is particularly critical in health care and IT. On the whole, knowledge is a growth industry in the Washington region. All of us will only get bigger and better as we look to the future of education.”

AW: What do you see as the biggest changes in higher education since you became president in 1989?

PM: “We are the smallest institution in the region, and we specialize at the undergraduate level in women’s education. It’s hard to be a small institution in a region that has behemoths while also serving a very different clientele. The low-income women of color we teach deserve to be in the pipeline the same way the graduates of the University of Maryland or Georgetown University are. We need everybody at the table to solve the workforce needs in this region.”