Look beyond the undergraduate degree from Vassar and a long list of accolades, promotions and high level appointments on M.R.C. Greenwood’s résumé, and you’ll discover that she knows something about struggling to get a college education.
The eldest of four sisters, Greenwood was born in Florida to an Army nurse and a physician who was soon to be shipped out for the North African campaign. She grew up in Auburn, N.Y., fond of books and animals and dreaming about becoming a veterinarian. Her parents expected her to do well in school, and she did—planning to attend Cornell University.
But Greenwood married at the end of her senior year and made “the usual choice in those days,” going to work while her husband went to school. They had a child, he went to the Vietnam War, the marriage ended, and she found herself facing, at 21, the daunting challenge of putting herself through college while raising a young son.
What’s in the name?
“What young lady of common gentility will reach the age of 16 without altering her name as far as she can?” Jane Austen observed nearly two centuries ago. Mary Rita Cooke was 12 when she decided—Mary being far too common and her mother already using their shared middle name—to adopt a phonetic form of her initials. “I’ve been M.R.C. ever since,” she says. “My sisters tend to spell it ‘Marci,’” but the initials approach afforded an advantage when she entered the male-dominated world of higher education science.
“I was one of the few single moms,” she says. “I worked 25–30 hours a week and was on scholarship the whole time.” In her sophomore year, an anonymous donor began paying her tuition. “That shaped the way I feel about giving back to higher education ever since,” she says.
Joining forces with another single mother to share childcare responsibilities, she discovered the value of a surrogate family. Forty years later, her life-long friend’s three grandchildren are as dear to her as her own trio. “I love being a grandmother. It’s so much easier than parenting,” she says with a laugh.
Pursuing unexpected turns
When hiking (Greenwood tries to walk 50 miles a month and recently explored Glacier, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks), you can’t always see what’s around the bend, but following twists in the trail can open up new vistas. That works in careers, too.
Pursuing developmental biology in her doctoral program at Rockefeller University, Greenwood became interested in the biology of adipose tissue. Fat cells constitute the only organ in the body that can continue to expand without killing the organism, and she wanted to understand how and why they divide and enlarge.
“That drew me into the field of obesity and diabetes because those are the clinically relevant issues of interest to funding agencies,” she says of her distinguished research career. “That got me into nutrition. I ended up chairing the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine of National Academy of Sciences. That got me into other areas of nutrition policy. Next thing I knew I was doing government work.” Greenwood was a consultant and associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
When asked to speak to young women, she advises: “Keep an open mind and be prepared to seize an opportunity, even if it’s not expected, even if you’re not sure it’s on your list of things to do.”
Being nominated for the University of Hawaiʻi presidency was such an unanticipated opportunity. She expects that she and the UH System will learn from each other. “Primarily, for me, it is a whole new set of intellectual challenges in a new setting I think I’ll enjoy,” she says.
Budget crisis, political realities and even openly expressed resistance to a mainlander may not sound like much fun, but Greenwood is driven by conviction.
“If you have spent a large part of your life as I have, believing that public higher education is one of the most important investments the nation and a state can make, and you see a whole system in some danger from fiscal crisis and changing views, why wouldn’t you take a job to try to help the students, faculty and others who are trying to build a great university and to be a spokesperson for the critical importance to the public of sustaining public higher education?”
For two decades, public financial support has been eroding across the nation, she observes. Teaching is no longer viewed as one of the most desirable jobs in a community, and people increasingly view higher education as a private good that should be paid for by the individual. She is disappointed that in a state once known for broad access to higher education, the University of California has become almost as expensive as a private university.
“I personally think nothing is more important than the ability to educate people so that they can lead for the future. That is where new ideas, your wealth base for the future and your ability to sustain a quality of life comes from.”
Friends aren’t surprised by Greenwood’s passion. When she gets into something, she’s serious and focused.
“The things that happened to me when I was very young, having to make my way in life, that was sort of a stark realization and it does focus you on what you’re going to have to do with your life. At least it did for me,” she says.
Even before that, Greenwood had mucked out stables as a youngster for the chance to ride. Upon completing her PhD, she rewarded herself with a return to horseback—in hunter paces, competitive cross-country events ridden through open fields and over numerous fences. OK—she admits she hasn’t been that focused on her golf game, and she’s only “half seriously” taking up photography. Still, a bit of a competitive nature probably didn’t hurt in her career.
“I’ve been the first female in any number of positions,” including dean of graduate studies at UC Davis, chancellor at UC Santa Cruz, provost for the UC system, and now president at the University of Hawaiʻi.
“I’ve pushed on the glass ceiling a great number of times. Certainly I’ve experienced the loneliness of being the only woman in the room,” she reflects. “My attitude has always been just keep doing the work and demonstrating that you’re interesting and interested, and most people are drawn to that.”
She hopes her personal story will resonate with people in Hawaiʻi. She wants to make a contribution, and she comes eager to learn. She brings a taste for good fish, fresh foods, Asian spices and dark chocolate. She calls herself an enthusiastic fan. “I do enjoy going to sports events. I tend to get a little loud,” she confides.
And she brings a voracious and eclectic appetite for books. Alongside the fun reading on her nightstand—the latest Bourne espionage novel and a bestseller by Jodi Picoult—are Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography, former Hawaiʻi Gov. Cayetano’s memoir Ben, Liliʻuokalani’s Hawaiʻi’s Story by Hawaiʻi’s Queen, a history by Herb Kane and the UH history Mālamalama.
Interviewed before her move to the islands in August 2009, Greenwood said she needed to learn much more before she could outline specific goals for the University of Hawaiʻi beyond helping advance the institution and gain more national recognition for its work.
There is more in her Sept. 15 UH Convocation address (view the video or read the text).
Greenwood has no plans to alter her personal style: work hard and maintain a good sense of humor. “I think I’m going to love Hawaiʻi,” she mused. “It would be very nice if people here respect and like me too, but in any case, I’m going to do my best.”