National News

John D. Maguire, Advocate of Diversity in Education, Dies at 86

Posted November 9, 2018 6:14 p.m. EST

Long before John D. Maguire was a civil rights activist, and long before he developed some of the most inclusive college admissions standards of his day, he grew up in the segregated South with views on race that were far from enlightened.

“We drove through the black side of town throwing pears at black guys and yelling racial epithets,” he said in an interview with the University of Southern California in 2014. “We were the white oppressors. I was the white oppressor.”

His awakening began in 1948, when he was chosen by the YMCA to attend a national baseball camp at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The camp was integrated, and each attendee roomed with someone of a different race.

On one hot day several of the players, black and white, shared three Dr Peppers. It was, he said, “the first time I’d ever passed my lips to anything that had touched a black man’s lips.”

Several years later, while he was a student at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, he attended a conference at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he met and roomed with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Maguire and King became friends and colleagues in the years that followed, and the experience informed Maguire’s vision when he became president of the State University of New York’s College at Old Westbury.

Maguire, who was one of the first college educators in the United States to successfully use diversity as a guiding principle in student admissions, died Oct. 26 at a care facility in Pomona, California. He was 86.

His daughter Catherine Maguire said he died after a stroke.

Maguire was a faculty member at Wesleyan University in 1961 when he joined King on a Freedom Ride through the South. He was arrested and jailed after trying to integrate a bus station lunch counter in Montgomery, Alabama.

After King’s assassination, Maguire was on the first board of directors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

In 1970, Maguire became president of SUNY Old Westbury on Long Island, a school that had opened two years earlier with the intention of serving populations traditionally overlooked by institutions of higher education, like minorities, older people and poorer students. The school did not succeed until Maguire’s tenure began.

Its first president, the civil rights leader Harris Wofford, envisioned a college where students, faculty members and administrators would govern by consensus — a radically democratic idea that quickly proved impracticable. (Wofford went on to greater success as president of Bryn Mawr College and a Democratic politician.)

After Maguire installed a more traditional leadership system, he set out to create a student population that was about 30 percent Caucasian, 30 percent African-American, 30 percent Latino and 10 percent other ethnicities. A year into his tenure, The New York Times reported that more than half of Old Westbury’s 610 students were from minority groups.

Over the next decade Maguire increased Old Westbury’s enrollment to more than 3,000 students and offered classes from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., making it easier for students to attend while working full time.

Maguire left Old Westbury in 1981 to become president of Claremont Graduate University in California, but Old Westbury continued to follow his example. Michael Kinane, the college’s chief communications officer, said that in 2017 the student body was 32 percent white, 27 percent black, 25 percent Latino and 16 percent from other ethnic backgrounds.

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and Old Westbury’s president since 1999, said in a telephone interview that Maguire “laid a lasting foundation on which I stand today.”

John David Maguire was born on Aug. 7, 1932, in Montgomery, Alabama, to John Henry Maguire, a Baptist preacher, and Clyde (Merrill) Maguire, a writer and homemaker. He grew up in Montgomery and in Jacksonville, Florida, where his father led the expansion of the Florida Baptist Convention over two decades.

Maguire described his parents as “radical segregationists,” although he said they did not see themselves as bigots. His father did not initially welcome his newfound tolerance, and for a time they lost touch.

He played football in high school and college and graduated from Washington and Lee in 1953. That year he married Billie Parrish, and she accompanied him to Scotland on a Fulbright scholarship that year.

He earned a divinity degree from Yale in 1956 and a doctorate in 1960 before joining the Wesleyan faculty.

At Claremont Graduate University, part of the Claremont College consortium, Maguire opened centers dedicated to the humanities, education, organizational and behavior studies, and politics and economics. He retired in 1998.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife; two other daughters, Mary Maguire and Anne Turner; a sister, Martha Worsley; and four grandchildren.

Maguire described his educational philosophy in a convocation address at Old Westbury in 1980.

“The most effective as well as the most demanding way for a college to educate about power and justice as well as truth,” he said, “is by example.”

That speech is now assigned in freshman classes that fulfill a diversity education requirement at Old Westbury.