Making a lasting impact
Marci McPhee played a pivotal role in ’DEIS Impact
While waiting for physical therapy, a group of student athletes noticed Marci McPhee’s sweatshirt and asked what sport she coached. “Uh...” McPhee responded. “It’s a social justice thing — ’DEIS Impact.”
Since 2012, McPhee has been the force behind the weeklong festival celebrating social justice. In 2018, McPhee retired from Brandeis, yet the legacy that she left on campus lives on.
Despite having overseen ’DEIS Impact since its inception, in an interview with the Justice, McPhee said, “I’m not the director, I’m really just a coach.”
“Thinking about social justice as a school sport and my being the coach,” she continued, “[I’m] not the person doing the work, [I’m] the person who’s sitting on the sidelines giving them good suggestions and cheering them on.”
McPhee’s connections to Brandeis University go farther back, to when Brandeis wasn’t Brandeis but the Middlesex College of Medicine and Surgery. According to a file obtained by the Justice from the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections, McPhee’s father, Bunnie Enloe Gregory, applied to the Department of Veterinary Medicine and received admission for the 1938 to 1939 session.
McPhee confided, “It was astonishing to work [at Brandeis] many years before finding out that the library had those in the archives. Dad grew up in Missouri and the time he spent [at Middlesex College of Medicine and Surgery] was one of the few times he was north of the Mason Dixon Line ever.”
“He enjoyed visiting me at Brandeis,” McPhee continued. “He enjoyed seeing the original buildings like, the Castle and what was Ford Hall ,where I once used to have my office.”
McPhee’s Brandeis career started in 1988 when, as she explained it, “being a part-time secretary gave me something positive to do to help support my family.” With her youngest child in kindergarten, she could only work the hours her children were in school — 9a.m. to 2p.m. — and the part-time position at Brandeis allowed her to continue attending to her family, which remained her first priority.
Having started her family straight out of college, McPhee had never held a job. “At the time I was looking for the closest thing to being a professional student that I could manage,” she said. “Working in higher education seemed like the next-best thing.”
After her children were, as McPhee put it,“old enough to fend for themselves,” she began taking on more responsibilities, moving quickly to positions of higher responsibility culminating in her becoming director of campus programs at the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.
As she continued her work at the University, McPhee realized that she had stumbled upon a special place. “What kept me coming back from Brandeis speaks to the core of who I am and what I care about in terms of its social justice mission,” she said. As a committed member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, McPhee said that regardless of exactly what religion, one is, Brandeis is “informed by social justice aims amd informed by a cause greater than even social justice.” That mission of inclusion was, and remains, important for McPhee.
McPhee also points out that Brandeis is an “enormously high-profile school for its size.” McPhee vividly remembers 2007, the year former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton visited the campus. “It was just very exciting to be part of that,” she said. “To have everything be possible at Brandeis. To have crazy ideas like the Ethics Center and to have that be possible. To have the sky-is-the-limit kind of thinking at Brandeis.”
A pivotal moment came for McPhee when she served as an usher during the Dalai Lama’s 1998 visit to campus. McPhee recounted to the Justice how powerful it was to witness the Dalai Lama disassemble the sand mandala created by Tibetan nuns into Chapels Field.
Historically, only monks would make mandalas. “To have Brandeis be the site where the Dalai Lama disassembled the first mandala made by women is pretty special,” McPhee said. “It was wonderful to be an usher there because it felt in the spirit of the service, to be beyond an audience member, to be helping.”
Some aspects of Brandeis never change. The University still “speaks for social justice and all its manifestation,” McPhee said. Despite doing so imperfectly and still lacking in areas, she believes that the University is always trying.
In fact, McPhee referenced initiatives such as the recently founded Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, now carrying forth the spirit of DEIS Impact as the program’s current administrators, as indicative of how Brandeis has evolved into an institution paying “a lot more attention to a lot more issues.”
Although not one to tout her own accomplishments, McPhee told the Justice that she considers the relationships she’s built at Brandeis as her highest achievements. “I count those individual relationships and life journeys as what I like to think of as my greatest accomplishments,” she said.
McPhee said, “I was in Texas and said, ‘Well, what now?’ and decided that here was the opportunity to reinvent myself and so now I’m doing my writing that I was doing all along, but doing it more.”
She mentioned that her blog, PrimaryinZion, which she has been posting weekly since September 2011, has received visitors from 176 countries. The book she edited, “Fifty-Five Days of Faith,” will be published in October of this year. A portion of proceeds will support Operation Underground Railroad, an organization dedicated to rescuing children in 17 countries from sex trafficking.
Although Marci McPhee can no longer be found on the Brandeis campus warmly greeting students and encouraging them in their efforts to pursue social justice, her influence continues to lead her former students.
Hangil Ryu ’20 said of McPhee: “Imagine a being who teaches past the academic and recognizes the personhood behind the lesson. Imagine a being who cares deeply and astutely for other people in a way that seems more than human. Then, hold the precious opportunity to be in the presence of Professor McPhee, so you need not imagine anymore.”
Before McPhee left for Texas to care for her mother, who passed away in May at age 93, the student leaders of DEIS Impact suggested creating matching ’DEIS Impact sweatshirts. McPhee’s reads “Coach,” and her mother’s reads “Mom.”
Throughout the “29 years and a little more,” as McPhee describes her time at Brandeis, she has imparted countless words of wisdom to faculty, staff, students alike. Despite retiring as coach of social justice at Brandeis University, McPhee remains “Coach” in the hearts of many.