Authored by Amanda DeLisi
In 1983, at the Honors Convocation of Marymount Manhattan College, Jacqueline Wexler was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Wexler, former nun and President of both Webster College and Hunter College, dedicated her life to fighting for educational equity for students of all backgrounds. In 1967, she renounced her vows and successfully gained autonomy from church control of Webster College, proving to the world that she was willing to take on even the Vatican if it meant that she would achieve her goals (Vitello 2012).
While President at Webster College, her social justice efforts of sending students to work in poor neighborhoods in St. Louis gained the attention of the Kennedy administration (Vitello 2012). She was appointed a position on the president’s education advisory panel and continued her work on this panel in the Johnson Administration. She had a direct hand in the Head Start Program, which expanded early education opportunities for disadvantaged families (Hinitz 2014). This program not only focused on early education, but social justice as well through the idea of teaching children and their parents that they could create a voice for themselves and their needs (Hinitz 2014). Wexler’s contributions to educational equity spanned from early education to higher education. She provided a voice for everyone seeking education.
During her time as President at CUNY Hunter College in New York City, Wexler embraced the open admissions policy that she helped implement in 1970. She advocated for free tuition, as it would provide more people with the opportunity to pursue higher education and provide justice for the poorer students who are trying to better their lives (Wexler 1972). This opened doors for women in education, as well as ethnic and racial minorities. She openly spoke out against the privilege within the higher education system. In a commencement speech at Ohio State University, she proclaimed that she embraced the popular saying “give me your tired and your poor” in her efforts to release higher education from the claws of the privileged and make it accessible to the less fortunate (Wexler 1975, 6).
Wexler exhibited the Vincentian values of compassion and social justice, due to her need to “strive to provide excellent education for all people, especially those lacking economic, physical, or social advantages” (St. John’s University 2015, under “Our Mission”). Her efforts and achievements in providing educational equity for all are evident in the dedication of an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters to her from Marymount Manhattan College. Although Jacqueline Wexler is no longer with us, we can strive to live up to her legacy and fight for the equity of others.
Hinitz, Blythe S.F. 2014. “Head Start: A Bridge From Past to Future.” YC Young Children 69, no. 2 (May 2014): 94-97. https://www.jstor.org/stable/ycyoungchildren.69.2.94
St. John’s University. 2015. “Our Mission.” Updated October 2015. https://www.stjohns.edu/about/history-and-facts/our-mission.
Vitello, Paul. 2012. “Jacqueline G. Wexler, Ex-Nun Who Took On Church, Dies at 85.” New York Times, January 24, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/25/nyregion/jacqueline-g-wexler-ex-nun-who-took-on-church-dies-at-85.html
Wexler, Jacqueline. 1972. “An Open Door to City U.” New York Times, March 8, 1972. https://search-proquest-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/historical-newspapers/open-door-city-u/docview/119452340/se-2?accountid=14068
Wexler, Jacqueline. 1975. “The Ohio State University Commencement Address.” Speech Transcript, November 26, 1975. https://kb.osu.edu/bitstream/handle/1811/53895/ARV_Commencement_1975_Autumn_Wexler.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.