Former Women's College Goes Co-Ed, Fights To Stay Relevant

More than 20 years ago, Pat McGuire took the helm of Trinity Washington University, which began as a Catholic Women's College. But since colleges went co-ed, Trinity has had to be nimble to stay relevant, opening its doors to underserved DC-area residents and expanding its night and weekend classes. Host Michel Martin talks with McGuire about Trinity's evolving mission and how its story mirrors those of many other women's colleges.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, can racism be hazardous to your health? One researcher says yes, and we'll find out more in a few minutes.

But first, we open up the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, which we do just about every week, to find interesting stories about the way we live now. Today, we focus on one of the most successful small universities that you may never have heard of. Educators around the country are taking a look at it as a model for how failing institutions can be reborn.

That institution is Trinity Washington University, located in Northeast Washington, D.C. First known as Trinity College, it was opened as a Catholic Women's College in 1897. But at one point, its enrollment fell to just a few hundred students. But today, it's become a favored destination for Washington, D.C. residents, many of them nontraditional students, or the students other schools pass by who want to better their lives through education.

Its president, Patricia McGuire, herself a Trinity alumna, played no small part in that transformation. And she's with us now to tell us more about it.

Madam President, thank you so much for coming in.

Ms. PATRICIA MCGUIRE (President, Trinity Washington University): Good to be with you today. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What was Trinity like when you attended as an undergraduate?

Ms. MCGUIRE: It was a wonderful place to be. I was a girl from a Catholic family in Philadelphia, raised very strictly. To come away to Washington to go to college was so exciting. We were very much engaged with politics in Washington at that time. Those were the days of the anti-war movement, the student mobilization. So we spent a lot of time doing that kind of activity. But it was great fun.

MARTIN: Didn't take too long for you to kind of get into the spirit of the times. Why did Trinity fall on hard times? It was a sought-after school then. It was overwhelmingly Catholic at the time.

Ms. MCGUIRE: Yes.

MARTIN: It was, of course, all girls at the time.

Ms. MCGUIRE: That's right.

MARTIN: And probably overwhelmingly white.

Ms. MCGUIRE: That's right. That's right.

MARTIN: ...at the time. So why did it fall on hard times?

Ms. MCGUIRE: Well, couple of things happened. Coeducation changed the rules for all of the women's colleges. And then for the Catholics, Vatican II changed the financial basis of the institutions. The nuns worked for free in these institutions, and then after the Second Vatican Council, which was a Catholic change, the sisters left and went on to other ministries.

So financially, we lost our free labor. And also our traditional women's population wanted to go to the newly coeducational men's universities, where they were welcomed with wide open arms. You know, the entrance of women into the men's universities raised the standards of the men's schools, but it left the women's colleges - who had been so strong for a hundred years - in great jeopardy. And that's what happened.

MARTIN: You didn't come up with the idea of creating this weekend college...

Ms. MCGUIRE: No.

MARTIN: ...for people who could not attend college in the way that you had, as a sort of a four-year young woman, you know, undergraduate. That wasn't your idea. But the original person who came up with that idea was Sister Mary...

Ms. MCGUIRE: Sister Donna Jurick was...

MARTIN: Sister Donna Jurick.

Ms. MCGUIRE: Yes.

MARTIN: It was very successful from the beginning, but she was still kind of run out of town on a rail, as it were. I mean, I think that's the story that the...

Ms. MCGUIRE: Change is controversial. Change is...

MARTIN: Tell me why.

Ms. MCGUIRE: It was the salvation of Trinity in so many ways, but it was controversial for several reasons. One, it was part-time education, and most traditionalists believed only in full-time education. More to the point, it was education for adult working women, women who came to school at night after working a full day and who were going to race home and take care of their children.

This was so new and different in 1985 when Sister Donna started it. And it caused some reaction because most people in this country - even today, most people still think when you talk about college, people have this idea in their head that it's four years for traditional students living in dormitories. That is a small minority of who goes to college today. In fact, the majority of students in higher education today are nontraditional.

MARTIN: So Sister Donna, who started this at Trinity...

Ms. MCGUIRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...even though it was successful, almost immediately, from a financial sense and from the sense of enrollment and quickly boosted the numbers, a lot of the alumni were not pleased. So she was forced out, essentially.

Ms. MCGUIRE: There was controversy, yes.

MARTIN: And another president came in. He didn't last very long.

Ms. MCGUIRE: Yes.

MARTIN: You took this position. You were - what? Thirty-six years old.

Ms. MCGUIRE: Exactly, yes.

MARTIN: Had not been an academic. You had been a practicing attorney. What made you take the job?

Ms. MCGUIRE: Well, as a friend of mine once said, the board picked me in 1989 because I didn't know what to be afraid of, since I didn't really come out of that traditionalism for this kind of college. Even though I was an alumni, I had been working in a different place, at Georgetown. And what was delightful was I had the support of the Sisters of Notre Dame, who founded this institution 100 years ago. And they were founded themselves by a woman, Saint Julie Billiart, who was so radical, that she got kicked out of France by her bishop in 1804.

I took that message and said, look, if - we have to figure out why we're still doing this. And the sisters said to me: We're still doing this because there are millions of women who are still denied the opportunity to have a higher education. Stop trying so hard to reclaim the old population. There are hundreds of thousands on our doorstep here in Washington who need this kind of education. And they were right.

MARTIN: The article describes a couple of key decisions that you made that seemed to have contributed to your success. One is you aggressively recruit students that other schools don't seem to go after. In recent years, you've actually recruited students who are not the kids that, you know, that Duke and Georgetown are going after.

Ms. MCGUIRE: This was part of our mission in social justice, and it's part of what the Sisters of Notre Dame really understood and called us to. The traditional notion of education is that an elite college should exclude a lot of students and only educate other elites. We take a very different point of view.

We believe that education is part of salvation, if you will, and that's what comes from the nuns in our Catholic tradition, and that every human being should have an opportunity to learn at the highest level that she can learn. And she shouldn't be barred from that just because she goes to public schools that are failing.

MARTIN: In fact, in some ways, the analogy might be to an HBCU, historically black colleges and universities, who often are educating students that other people have not sought after, and are successful at doing it. But your graduation rate is quite a bit higher than a lot of the HBCUs that have - some of the HBCUs, not the elite ones, of course, like Spelman and Morehouse and so forth. And I'm wondering how - why you think that it is, how you think you're able to do that in a way that some of these other institutions who are similarly dedicated...

Ms. MCGUIRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...are not.

Ms. MCGUIRE: Well, it's an interesting combination. First of all, being a women's college means that we put women on center stage. We make women stars. And in many cases, the students we see at Trinity now from the D.C. public schools - 65 percent African-American, 20 percent Hispanic students - nobody's ever told these students that they can learn math. Nobody has ever said to a student you can be a great academic success story.

So it's what women's colleges have done all along, and now we do it for populations of women of color who have never had that message. The messaging about success is incredibly important for women's institutions. It's part of our methodology.

MARTIN: The final question is that the piece which was written by Daniel de Vise - and we'll have a link on our Web site so that everyone can read it for themselves, and I hope they will. The author made the observation that you've really given Trinity your life, that you work all the time. You're at all the games. You're hyper-visible, that you basically live it...

Ms. MCGUIRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...24-7. And I think the question some might have is: Did you give too much, and can anybody ever replace you?

Ms. MCGUIRE: I love what I do. I think that everyone should know that when somebody works hard, it's not drudge work. I can't wait to get to school every morning. I mean, I'm still excited about it after 20 years. But I'm excited, in part, because I have a fabulous group of colleagues and faculty and staff, alums, trustees.

I mean, no school is one person. It is totally a community. It's also the community of students. You know, the students are why I get up in the morning and why the faculty get up in the morning. It is a total team effort by a lot of people who believe deeply in the power of education to change lives. And that's what our story is all about.

MARTIN: And you can read that story, as we said, in this week's Washington Post Magazine. It's a profile of Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. That piece was written by Daniel de Vise, and President McGuire was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios, despite the snow. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MCGUIRE: It's been great to be with you. Thank you.

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