Donor Profile | Margaret McKenna '67
A Force for Progress

“The world is changing. You need to continually invest in an institution,” says McKenna, whose career includes service in the Carter White House and 22 years as president of Lesley University. Recently, she made a major gift to the Emmanuel Fund in honor of her class’s 50th reunion.

Like many American colleges in the 1960s, Emmanuel was a scene of student demonstrations and passionate discussions of issues that were gripping the nation—from civil rights to women’s rights to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. As president of the Class of 1967, Margaret McKenna was in the middle of it all.

The era’s emphasis on equality and social justice would have a profound influence on McKenna, a sociology major. So would Sister Marie Augusta Neal, SND, then chair of Emmanuel’s Department of Sociology. “She was an academic, a member of her religious community and an activist. I thought, ‘Wow, you can be all of those things,’” McKenna recalls. By senior year, she was sure of two things: She was attracted to leadership opportunities and wanted to promote positive social change.

In the decades since, McKenna has combined her skill and commitment to superb effect in an array of roles, including deputy White House counsel in the Carter administration and president of Lesley University, of the Walmart Foundation and of Suffolk University. A multifaceted leader, scholar and volunteer, she has driven progress in arenas such as education, public health, women’s economic empowerment and global hunger relief.

Her career trajectory was spurred in part by an early encounter with gender bias. Soon after graduating from Emmanuel, McKenna says, she researched corporate executive training programs in Boston, only to learn that none accepted women. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go to law school and change that.’”

She did. As a young attorney, McKenna worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, suing organizations for employment discrimination. In January 1977, after running the Carter-Mondale campaign in Rhode Island, she landed in the West Wing of the White House. “I was 30. It was an incredibly heady time,” McKenna says. One of only a handful of women in the executive branch, she enjoyed substantial access and authority, and was influential in a range of presidential actions, including the appointment of judges to the federal bench, among them Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

While still at the White House, McKenna envisioned a new professional path—to become a college president. “What I wanted in life was to make a difference,” she explains. “On a college campus, you can expose people to the fact that they have responsibility to give back and advance the common good.” With this new goal in mind, she went on to high-level positions at the U.S. Department of Education and Radcliffe College’s Bunting Institute. In 1985, she was inaugurated president of Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. During her 22-year tenure, McKenna led Lesley’s transformation from a college to a university, expanded enrollment from 2,000 to 12,000 students, and increased the endowment from $1 million to over $100 million. Her success as a fundraiser was rooted in her belief in the importance of philanthropy—and in the powerful impact donors can have in shaping lives. “The world is changing,” she says. “You need to continually invest in an institution.”

That conviction partly inspired McKenna’s recent decision to make a generous $50,000 contribution to the Emmanuel Fund in honor of the Class of 1967’s 50th reunion. In a deeper sense, the gift is an expression of her appreciation for her Emmanuel education and for the people, experiences and values that helped to set her on a remarkable journey.

Through the years, McKenna has remained actively engaged in the Emmanuel community. In 1978, she was the College’s Commencement Speaker and began eight years of service as a trustee. In 2000, she received an honorary degree from Emmanuel. Now she is looking forward to returning to campus in June for Alumni Weekend. “I’m eager to see people again,” she says. “You know, we were there in interesting times.” – Sam O’Neill