Meet Diane MacGillivray in her Boston garden

Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement at Northeastern, finds peace in a community garden within walking distance of campus. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Diane MacGillivray’s outdoor neighbors include the young parents with the most adorable baby. Another couple nearby are teaching themselves how to plant tomatoes. 

And then there is David, a musician, who uses his plot to bloom flowers—much the same as MacGillivray is doing with hers. 

“It really is a community garden,” says MacGillivray, the senior vice president for university advancement at Northeastern.

MacGillivray tends to flowers, succulents, and herbs in the plot that she shares with her husband, Peter. Photos by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

It is a soothing weekday morning of blue sky and pillowy clouds at the Berkeley Community Garden, a collective of 140 plots that occupies a long, slim tract of land amid the urban residences of Boston’s South End. MacGillivray’s plot is shaded and gently swarming with the flowers, succulents, and herbs that she and her husband, Peter, have been tending. Their rectangular allotment of maybe 300 square feet is distinct to the MacGillivrays and yet connected to the plots of their neighbors, and Diane has grown to value those relationships—the similarities and differences—more than ever during the recent months of COVID-19 isolation.

“Its origins are rooted in the gardeners who came over from Boston’s Chinatown,” she says, explaining that the community land had been derelict for a number of years. “They just kind of took over this block, and you can see them gardening in traditional ways.”

Diane Nishigaya MacGillivray is, by her accounting, a fifth-generation American of Japanese descent. Her father moved from Hawaii to New Orleans in the segregated 1940s to attend Tulane University, as both an undergraduate and a medical student. Her interracial parents—her mother was from central Illinois—expected Diane to push beyond the traditional boundaries and create a life all her own. 

There are 140 plots in the Berkeley Community Garden, providing MacGillivray with opportunities to get to know her neighbors. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Her original dream was to explore a career in ballet.

“I spent a summer at the School of American Ballet in New York at Lincoln Center, which was amazing, and then two summers at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet,” she says. “The thing is that I just wasn’t the most naturally gifted in terms of my physicality. I don’t have quite the right body.”

As a high school senior in Anaheim, California—where her family had relocated when she was 5, within sight of the Matterhorn mountain at Disneyland—she realized that she wouldn’t be advancing to the professional ballet companies. In the eleventh hour, she applied to one college—one—and was enrolled at Boston University, having been drawn there by the traditional New England imagery of red brick and ivy walls. MacGillivray majored in journalism at BU.

She met her future husband, Peter MacGillivray, at the student newspaper. He was a photographer from Western Massachusetts whose work for car magazines would lead him to a career of staging automobile shows around the world.

Though MacGillivray rose to managing editor at BU’s student newspaper, her journalism career would end with graduation.

“I just couldn’t see myself asking people the tough questions, and not letting them off the hook without an answer,” she says. 

Switching tracks again, she began working in admissions at BU. Within four years she was at the University of Southern California, where she rose to senior associate dean for advancement and directed a $400 million fundraising initiative alongside Joseph E. Aoun, the dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. After Aoun became president of Northeastern in 2006, he hired MacGillivray to lead the university’s strategic initiatives to build and expand relationships with its 255,000-plus graduates, as well as with parents, friends, and philanthropic organizations. 

“I was reluctant to move into development,” MacGillivray says. “I couldn’t even ask my parents for money. How could I be a fundraiser?”

She learned to define her role from a more constructive point of view.

“Advancement is really about forging relationships between people who care about the mission of the institution,” she says. “I get to connect people who care about the same things, who have passion for it and can move it forward. It was not what I expected development to be at all.”

McGillivray has led the Empower campaign at Northeastern, which raised $1.4 billion in private and government support. She has also launched the Women Who Empower program, the Global Leadership Summits, and other interdisciplinary outreach initiatives. 

In the morning, when the weather allows, she walks 40 minutes to her office at Northeastern. Along the way, she stops in the garden to take phone calls and reply to emails in this setting that grounds her. There is so much urgency to her work; here she can experience the beauty and scents of slow growth—the cosmos and black-eyed Susans, the basil and Queen Anne’s lace, the lavender and coneflowers and bachelor buttons, the enormous sunflowers of a neighboring garden that hover toward her as if from Van Gogh’s muse.

“It’s not like I had hills to climb and obstacles to overcome in the way that many of our first-generation students do,” she says. “But at the same time, I don’t think that generations ago my family could have imagined a multiracial woman doing university administration work in Boston. It would not have been expected.”

It was four years ago that she and Peter won a lottery for one of the highly-coveted plots in this garden. 

“I never win anything,” she says, laughing.

In the midst of the red-brick rowhouses and the morning glories that so resemble the ivy of the college brochures that drew her to this other side of her family’s world, Diane MacGillivray feels very much at home.

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