John Maguire: Activist Approach to Learning

Times Staff Writer

Disparate images of John Maguire, president of Claremont University Center and Graduate School:

--It is a balmy evening and the jovial, rather rotund man in the Hawaiian shirt--"Hi-why-yun,” as he says it--welcomes guests for drinks in the backyard, greeting, teasing, relishing being a host.

--Dinner on the patio is over and champagne has been poured for a toast. The host, a gracious man who is a sophisticated and witty raconteur, raises his glass to his good friend, former classmate at Yale Divinity School and guest of honor, William Sloane Coffin, Yale’s legendary chaplain. He tells a few stories on Coffin, on himself and several other guests, and brings out the cigars, Havana’s finest--a gift from Fidel Castro to Bill Moyers, from Bill Moyers to his friend the host--the last six of which he is happy to share with his guests.

--Having singled out his new board of fellows chairman, Ronald Olson, and the outgoing one, Kenneth Rhodes, and other distinguished guests, the devoted family man goes on to introduce Catherine and Mary, two of his three daughters (his “chickadees,” he sometimes calls them), ticking off just a few of their accomplishments, mentioning the upcoming garden wedding of Catherine. That done, he momentarily steps aside to enjoy an impromptu funny routine offered up to the guests by his wife Billie.


--Even at a relaxed gathering characterized by laughter, the self-described “workaday intellectual,” “social progressive” and “happy warrior” does not let the occasion pass without taking the high road for a moment. He calls up ancient Greek philosophers, modern theologians and poets, makes a few remarks about values and justice, mentions an old friend and one-time roommate--Martin Luther King Jr.--and an old memory--Georgia and Alabama in 1961 during the Freedom Rides and sit-ins. He does so without hijacking the party into a ‘60s time warp. Rather, he makes it evident that, for him, commitments in the ‘80s are part of a continuum with the high purpose of those heady days.

Same day. Same party. Same man. And not so disparate images:

An Alabamian with an Ivy League background and a social conscience not defined by a region, the performance is pure John Maguire whether it is that of the down-to-earth, earthy, tale-telling good ol’ boy, the Southern orator with a gift for cadence and rhetoric, the Ivy Leaguer with an encyclopedic frame of reference or the man who translates his social conscience into action.

They are all connected in him, telling glimpses of a man whose consistent message is that people must see the connections--between themselves and others, between past, present and future, between what one thinks and what one does, between art and politics, between the university and the community around it.


The backyard party was one of a number of events that marked commencement weekend for the graduate school not long ago. Coffin, the guest of honor, would deliver the next day’s baccalaureate address. That weekend Maguire completed his fourth academic year as president of the free-standing graduate school and of the university center that is the coordinating institution for the six Claremont colleges.

The weekend bore the imprint of his four years, and was also an indicator of the direction in which he is leading Claremont:

It saw the dedication of the Tomas Rivera Center, a research center that will examine issues involving the nation’s Latino population with the intent of shaping public policy. The center is named after the late president of UC Riverside, a widely admired Latino educator and friend of Maguire’s. Henry Cisneros, the mayor of San Antonio and an ascending light in national politics, was on hand for the dedication and later delivered the commencement address and received an honorary degree.

Started the Forums


The weekend had started with the President’s Forum, a symposium on “technology and the education of leaders,” featuring this year’s other honorary degree recipients, Simon Ramo, engineer and co-founder of TRW, and Joseph Coates, futurist and president of a policy-research organization. Maguire started the forums his first year on the job, offering them as a substitute for the inauguration he chose to forgo as too expensive for an event that was ceremonial and not very substantial. By contrast, for example, last year the forum brought Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa together with Andrew Young on the topic of Third World development.

At a luncheon for trustees, faculty, staff and other guests on commencement day, Maguire described that morning’s meeting with the board of fellows, indicating it will be a busy year ahead. He had discussed with them the graduate school’s first major capital campaign for $50 million, to be launched officially next year, but already under way. He had brought them up to date on the recently announced $2-million grant from IBM to the school’s information sciences program that Maguire introduced. The grant was arriving just as the new building to house the program and its computers nears completion. And the board had held its initial discussion on the question of divestment, committing itself to arrive at a policy involving investments in firms that do business in South Africa.

He followed that with introductions and “stand and take a bow’s” involving what seemed to be half of the 120 guests, gave instructions about vans that would take them to the auditorium, and, floundering for just one beat, said, “It’s been a marvelous occasion, as always--I think I’ll stop.”

Seeing him in action it is possible to assume that he never does stop.


He does stop, however. Several times after that busy weekend he rushed back to his office from meetings in Los Angeles, hung up his jacket, asked his secretary, Mary Fitzpatrick--"Mare,” he calls her--to get him a hamburger and a Tab and hold the calls, shut the door, and sat down ready to listen and talk.

Unlike some high-energy types he does not drum his nails or keep one foot tapping impatiently. None of that. He relaxes, throws his leg over the chair arm, puts his head back and, despite the next item on his schedule, appears unrushed. His eyes, however, remain active. They seem to constantly evaluate, anticipate and respond.

Headed Other Institutions

Claremont is not the first academic institution he has headed. Now 52, Maguire came here after 11 years as president of the State University of New York’s Old Westbury College. Earlier he had served briefly as associate provost of Wesleyan University.


His background is in philosophy and theology. He did undergraduate work at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, spent a year on a Fulbright scholarship at Edinburgh University in Scotland, and then went to Yale, first to the Divinity School and then for a doctorate at the graduate school. He has also done postdoctoral work at Yale, UC Berkeley and Silliman University in the Philippines.

He is not a minister, although, he said, as the son of a Southern Baptist clergyman there was some parental pressure to consider it. He decided at Yale that was not for him, and today, he and Billie are active as laymen in the Congregational Church.

By training, rather, he is a scholar and teacher. And while, in calling himself a happy warrior, he says convincingly, “You’re looking at a man who absolutely enjoys his work,” he admits he can no longer keep up as a scholar and has had to give up teaching.

“I’ve found a surrogate for scholarship,” he said, “in the carefully prepared paper. I try to publish three to four pieces a year. They vary a lot. They’re one-shot things. I have to read a lot to prepare. I have no illusion that that represents scholarship but it does bespeak ongoing intellectual activity . . . . I respect being a scholar too much to say I’m one, but it is possible to remain a workaday intellectual.”


Teaching is another story. It is where his heart is--"I absolutely love it,” he says--and he misses it.

He has taught theology and/or religion at Yale, Wesleyan, Berkeley and Silliman, and he now manages to get in a few seminars or visiting lectures to a class.

He remains, in fact, an educator. Whatever the subject, his writing seems to involve education. So does much of his professional activity, from serving as a trustee at Thacher School in Ojai, where his daughter Anne is a student, to serving as trustee on the board of the International Institute for Education. He has been president of the Society for Values in Higher Education and chaired the Assn. of American Colleges, and most recently serves on the California Commission on the Teaching Profession.

Religious Thought, Society


The specialty he developed as a scholar and teacher was the relation of religious thought to contemporary society.

It is more than an academic discipline. It seems the formative influence on his philosophy as an educator and has much to do with his concept of the role of the university.

“A great university brings its resources to bear on the problems of the community. In no way can you be isolationist or go it alone in the lofty area of pure research if the world around you is going to hell in a hand basket. The university has a debt to society and it discharges it by doing what it does best (educate), generated by an awareness of the concerns of the society it finds itself in.”

Moreover, that same lifelong discipline seems to describe how he tries to practice what he believes. It is the subject of much of his writings and speeches, and a conversation with him tends to head in that direction. Asked once at a dinner party to say what he would want on his tombstone, he chose as his epitaph: “He had a passion for justice and excellence and he was steadfast.” Not surprisingly, the epitaph stays with him and he repeated it while explaining how moral principles are at work for him in examining the divestment question.


It would be a morally and economically complicated question under any circumstances. The fact that Claremont has just received such a substantial grant from IBM, a company that has business interests in South Africa, intensifies the dilemma.

Nevertheless, the board is committed to struggling with the question, he said, and the committee on investments will make a recommendation in October. “It’s cooking,” he said of the issue’s status. “It’s a conundrum for people, how to be consistent on a moral principle and at the same time not deny the complexity of the issue. . . . It varies, how you act out these principles,” he said, saying that people agreed in their opposition to apartheid might arrive at differing courses of action.

His own position is not yet clear, he said.

“I’m still working it out, but I’m growingly convinced by Bishop Tutu’s position that anything short of dramatic action will likely result in a cosmetic affair.”


Discharging of Guilt

He is happy to see students concerned about apartheid also, and actively protesting it, but he has some concern lest it be “a vehicle for discharging a lot of guilt for not dealing with racism at home. . . . It’s easier to protest injustice halfway around the world.”

Racism, and the problems of social and economic justice that are symptomatic of its presence are at the forefront of Maguire’s concerns. At one point in his life he was, he says now, “an unreconstructed Southern white"--until a professor at Washington and Lee began systematically chipping away at the presumptions of people like himself. Later, a friendship with Martin Luther King, started when they roomed together at a conference in 1950, moved him to action. He is still there.

Recently he delivered a speech on Tomas Rivera at UC Riverside marking the dedication of a memorial library to Rivera. In it, he spoke at length about Rivera’s concerns that minorities were being denied access to education, and therefore to empowerment. Often it was being done under the guise of protestations of concern for the quality of education, quality serving as something of a buzzword.


He is, Maguire said in his office, absolutely in accord with Rivera on this issue. And, he said, he is concerned that federal cutbacks on student aid are exacerbating the problem for minorities.

“If we don’t provide all Americans access to education, not only we will immorally be denying them a fundamental right, but the social cost to us will be enormous. Anti-social behavior stems from being alienated and that stems from being left out. I think it’s in our national interest to provide full access to education on through the college level.”

Where does that leave Claremont Graduate School and John Maguire with his belief in excellence, not all that different a concept, to some, than “quality”?

To begin a long and detailed answer he referred to a copy of a memorandum to the board on the necessity for a capital campaign that he had handed over earlier, calling it “vintage Maguire rhetoric.” Rhetoric, to him, is not bombast or lip service, but words to live by.


He had written that “three impulses mark responsible academic institutions--invention (pressing towards the future), recovery (reclaiming and honoring the past), and reform (seeking to address social needs with powerful understanding).”

“I argue that a graduate school must apply its resources to work with the schools,” he said. Otherwise too few students will ever be in a position to apply to graduate school.

Thus, with a grant of $100,000 from the Irvine Foundation, Claremont has established the Center for the Study of Pre-Collegiate Education, a resource for leadership, research and supportive projects and workshops for school administrators and teachers. The Graduate School also encourages faculty to engage in research projects related to school problems. And it has set up fellowships for minority students to attract them into teaching, especially science and mathematics.

Making an Effort


The school has been making an effort, he said, to recruit and hire minorities, to diversify the student body. Hiring of minorities within the University Center staff had also increased by 20%.

Also he said, “it is one reason why such a large piece of our campaign is for student aid.”

They were within sight of seeing Claremont recognized in all its disciplines as “one of the nation’s best graduate institutions,” he had written to the board in his capital campaign memo. They needed, however, to expand and develop its programs, especially in information sciences, the humanities and education. To do so would take new funds to hire faculty, erect buildings and provide student aid.

He is clearly enthusiastic about Claremont. He was invited to take over the leadership at a crucial time, he said. He told the board when he came on that it could be done “by tightening up, taking a few new initiatives and telling its story to the wide world.” It is not image building they are engaged in, he said. “The only way we can achieve the shift in public perception is for the reality to be there, that we have reached a certain plateau of achievement here. . . . That’s what’s fun about this job. We’re not just whistling Dixie. With just a little bit of help, we’re virtually there.”


It does not hurt, in telling Claremont’s story to the world, that Maguire is so active in the community, including the national community. He maintains a high profile, actively serving not only on numerous educational institutions and organizations, but on the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Committee on East-West Accord, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund on the West Coast, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change.

There is room for him to be that active. In fact, he calls the job the “most capacious” he has ever had. To do it all and read “voraciously,” and jog, and preserve some time to reflect requires, he understated, “husbanding one’s time.” Apparently, he is good at that. An early mentor, Victor Butterfield of Wesleyan, once told him: “You gotta get up early in the morning and use your summer well.” He found that good advice, he laughed.

The job makes him happy. He recently came across Aristotle’s definition of happiness, he said, repeating it. It seems to fit John Maguire in his capacious job: “Happiness is the exercise of one’s vital abilities along the lines of excellence in a way that affords them scope.”