Marguerite Ross Barnett, the first black president of the University of Houston, was born on May 22, 1942, in Charlottesville, Virginia, to Dewey Ross and Mary (Douglass) Barnett. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, and graduated from Bennett High School in 1959. She married Stephen A. Barnett, and they had one daughter. Mrs. Barnett received her A.B. in political science from Antioch College in 1964 and a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Chicago in 1972. She later divorced Stephen and married Walter Eugene King, a former member of the Bermuda Parliament, in 1980.
She began her university teaching career at the University of Chicago in 1969 and joined the Princeton University faculty in 1970. She was the James Madison Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton from 1974 to 1976. She then took a position at Howard University and chaired the political science department between 1977 and 1980 before leaving to assume a teaching post at Columbia University. In 1983 she accepted a position as vice chancellor for academic affairs at City University of New York. She remained there until she joined the University of Missouri-Saint Louis as chancellor in 1986. In 1990 she was named president of the University of Houston, a position she held for a year and a half.
Barnett arrived at UH intent on transforming the school into the nation's best public urban university. Considered a highly energetic and committed leader, she was well-liked by her UH colleagues, who touted her ability to garner widespread support for the university. Her brief tenure as the eighth president of UH was marked with innovative changes, including the addition of ten new minority faculty members shortly after her arrival and the establishment of the Texas Center for University School Partnership, an effort to promote cooperative ventures among business, education, and community leaders, which thirty-seven of the state's institutions joined. Under President Barnett's leadership, the university also undertook its most rigorous program to raise private funds. The campaign garnered the institution an initial $42 million, which Barnett announced during her UH inaugural address. Soon afterwards, the university received a record $51.4 million from John and Rebecca Moores, UH alumni. Their endowment was considered the largest single gift to a public university in the country's history.
Barnett edited or wrote five books and won an award from the American Political Science Association for the best book on cultural pluralism, The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India (Princeton University Press, 1976). In 1986 she was again recognized by the American Political Science Association with an award for excellence in scholarship and service to the profession. She was also a member of various boards and commissions, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Houston Grand Opera, the American Council on Education, and the President's Commission on Environmental Quality.
In November 1991 Barnett took a medical leave of absence to seek treatment for cancer. She died on February 26, 1992, in Wailuku, Hawaii. A memorial service for her was held on the UH campus, and a private family service was conducted in Scottsville, Virginia. A special endowment in her name was set up by university officials to honor her accomplishments and contributions to the institution.