Remembering a legend: Chancellor Marguerite Ross Barnett Memorial Plaza

Former UMSL Chancellor Marguerite Ross Barnett (1942-1992)

Marguerite Ross Barnett (1942-1992) was UMSL's fifth chancellor. She served the university from 1986 to 1990.

“Good. Better. Best. We just met the best.”

Those were the words of Ruth Bryant in 1986. Bryant was president of the Chancellor’s Council at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and the council had just completed interviews of three finalists for the position of UMSL chancellor. The council members agreed: The final candidate, Marguerite Ross Barnett, was number one.

Twenty-six years later, Bryant joined hundreds of Barnett’s colleagues, friends, community leaders and many more who admired Barnett from afar. They gathered Feb. 26 at UMSL to kick off a drive to raise $250,000 for the Chancellor Marguerite Ross Barnett Memorial Plaza.

“The legend of Marguerite Ross Barnett looms large at the University of Missouri–St. Louis – as well it should,” Chancellor Tom George told the crowd. “I feel it at the St. Louis Mercantile Library. I hear it in the voice of alumni who knew Dr. Barnett and now support a scholarship in her name, and I see it in the faces of UMSL students who have benefited from the academic partnerships she created to ensure their progress.”

The plaza will be built adjacent to Express Scripts Hall on the North Campus and is one part of the Gateway for Greatness Campaign, the university’s nearly complete, seven-year effort to raise $150 million in gifts and pledges. Plans are underway for the plaza’s groundbreaking in June and completion by the end of August when classes begin.

The major features of the plaza, which was designed by Austin Tao of The Lawrence Group in St. Louis, are four granite columns representing the four years (1986-1990) Barnett served as chancellor. Four granite walls will radiate from the columns. The circular plaza will feature benches and ledges for seating. A likeness of Barnett, designed by St. Louis-area sculptor Vicki D. Reid, will overlook the plaza.

Barnett arrived at UMSL with a national reputation as a renowned scholar and innovative administrator. She had taught political science at the University of Chicago, Princeton University in New Jersey, Howard University in Washington and Columbia University in New York before she was named vice chancellor for academic affairs at The City University of New York.

When she arrived at UMSL, she set about to transform the university. Her leadership was marked by record-breaking fundraising for buildings and scholarships, expanding academic programs and connecting the metropolitan campus with surrounding communities to solve problems.

During Barnett’s first month as chancellor, then-Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft vetoed a bill to expand the Thomas Jefferson Library at UMSL. Ashcroft challenged Barnett to raise $1.2 million, and if she did, he would approve the remaining $4.8 million. But at that point, the university had never raised more than $30,000 at one time.

Barnett raised the $1.2 million and just kept going.

Sanford N. McDonnell (1922-2012), who was chairman of what was the McDonnell Douglas Corporation, discussed Barnett with The New York Times for a story that was published in 1989. He said she had a dynamic personality and the ability to convince St. Louis-area companies of their duty to support education.

“We were persuaded by her persuasiveness,” McDonnell told the newspaper.

Barnett enlisted corporate donors to support her Partnership for Progress, a package of programs that covered all levels of education. Among them was the UMSL Bridge Program, the university’s flagship pre-collegiate program. It provides comprehensive, year-round, college-access services to St. Louis-area middle and high school students who represent more than 100 public and private schools.

“Marguerite was the greatest salesperson we had ever met,” says Blanche Touhill, vice chancellor for academic affairs under Barnett and UMSL chancellor from 1990 to 2002. “She was able to sell her ideas to a skeptical public. Her message to the corporations especially was that disadvantaged students were not going to move into science and technology given their high school preparation. So companies like Monsanto, McDonnell Douglas and Emerson donated to her programs. She was the right person at the right time.”

Hubert Hoosman is president and chief executive officer of Vantage Credit Union, which is based in Bridgeton, Mo. Hoosman, a self-described “newcomer to fundraising,” helps raise funds for the Chancellor Marguerite Ross Barnett Scholarship, and he’s the chair of the Marguerite Ross Barnett Memorial Plaza Committee.

Hoosman, BS administration of justice 1979, was married and living close to campus in 1986 when Barnett arrived here. He says he got to know her “from a distance.”

“Chancellor Barnett was a pioneer,” he says. “She encouraged minorities and women to go to college, and it’s time for us to acknowledge her success. The plaza will bring her contributions back to life.”

Hoosman announced at the plaza kickoff that the committee had already raised half the plaza’s cost.

Deborah Tansil Graham, director of alumni and community relations at UMSL, never met Marguerite Ross Barnett. The former chancellor left UMSL in 1990 to lead the University of Houston. Barnett struggled with cancer and died less than two years later at the age of 49.

“You didn’t have to be associated with UMSL to know about her,” Graham says. “UMSL was asserting itself in the community. She really wanted people to know: We are the University of Missouri in St. Louis.”

Help us honor Marguerite Ross Barnett

The Chancellor Marguerite Ross Barnett Memorial Plaza will commemorate the many lasting accomplishments of the former University of Missouri–St. Louis chancellor. The plaza will provide an inviting space for students, faculty, staff and alumni to meet and reflect on the thousands of students whose dreams of a college education became a reality because of Marguerite Ross Barnett.

To make a gift or get involved, please contact Deborah Tansil Graham, director of alumni and community relations at UMSL. She can be reached at 314-516-4165 or grahamdeb@umsl.edu.

This story was originally published in the spring 2012 issue of UMSL Magazine.


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