Margaret McKenna was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1945 to parents who were lifelong teachers and administrators in the Central Falls public school system. Her father was in the first graduating class at Providence College, and her mother was a graduate of Rhode Island College. Margaret attended Holy Trinity Elementary School in Central Falls and Sacred Heart High School in Pawtucket. She then received degrees from Emmanuel College and Southern Methodist University School of Law.
Following her graduation from law school, Margaret was hired to serve in the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. She later became the Executive Director of the International Association of Human Rights Commissions.
In 1976, Margaret returned to Rhode Island as the state director of the Carter-Mondale presidential campaign. After the election she joined President Carter as White House Deputy Counsel and served as liaison to the state of Rhode Island, managing requests and issues related to the state. During the Blizzard of 1978, she assisted Governor J. Joseph Garrahy with his requests for activation of the National Guard and for federal disaster aid.
Margaret continued to serve Rhode Island when President Carter appointed her as a negotiator in the Narragansett Indian land dispute. The land in question comprised most of the campus of the University Rhode Island. After a successful resolution of the claim in 1979, she received an honorary degree from the University of Rhode Island and was made an honorary member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe.
Margaret left her White House position to become the first Deputy Undersecretary in the new United States Department of Education. In 1981, she became Vice President of Radcliffe College, Harvard University, where she served as director of the Bunting Institute. She was also a Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Institute of Politics.
In 1985, Margaret was appointed President of Lesley University based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she served for twenty-two years. During her tenure, she led the school from a small regional college of 2,000 students to a nationally recognized university of 12,000 students with one of the premier teacher training programs in the country and the nation’s leading provider of graduate-level education for classroom teachers.
From 2007 to 2011, Margaret served as president of the Walmart Foundation, the largest corporate philanthropic foundation in the United States. She set the priorities for the foundation and coordinated local, national, and international giving. Under her guidance, the Walmart Foundation became a leader in fighting hunger and a major donor in the area of educational opportunity.
She is the author of numerous articles, and she has spoken at national and international meetings on issues of leadership, social justice, and educational opportunity. Margaret is the recipient of ten honorary degrees. She has served on several corporate boards and numerous nonprofit boards and has been recognized with awards from many organizations.
Margaret is presently the acting director of the Sillerman Center for the advancement of philanthropy and a visiting professor at the Heller School, Brandeis University.
In 2013, Mayor Thomas Menino appointed Margaret to the Boston School Committee, and in 2014, Massachusetts Governor Duval Patrick appointed her as the Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.