Dr. Ruth J. Simmons: First Sister to Head a Seven-Sister School
Townsel, Lisa Jones, Ebony
As a child growing up in rural Grapeland, Texas, Ruth Simmons spent countless hours crouched on the kitchen floor with her four sister as her mother shelled peas, shucked corn and shared stories about people who lived life the right way and people who didn't.
Little did Fannie Stubblefield know at that time that the family values she passed down during those mother-daughter chats would one day become instrumental in shaping the minds of thousands of women--Black and White. For the youngest of her 12 children, Ruth, would make history as the first Black and the third woman to be named president of Smith College, one of the prestigious, all-women's colleges that make up the Seven-Sister schools, and the nation's largest private undergraduate institution for women.
"I remember those talks vividly. That's how she taught us values, not to have too much pride, not to be selfish, and never, never to consider ourselves more important than another human being," Dr. Ruth J. Simmons recalls of the early years when her parents were sharecroppers. "I came along with African-American parents who couldn't read or write all that well, but they brought along traditions from their parents. I would love to live in a world where people are valued on the basis of what qualities they offer as a person, rather than on the means that they happen to have at any given time. Those are the values that I want the students at Smith to understand and appreciate."
Dr. Simmons' family background and expansive professional achievements have prepared her well to pass along such goals. A graduate of Dillard University, she spent her junior year at Wellesley College before returning to Dillard for her senior year and receiving the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship. She later earned a doctorate in romance languages and literature from Harvard University. Over the past 20 years, the seasoned educator, who is fluent in Spanish and French, has authored a book on education in Haiti and has worked on the administrative faculties of the University of New Orleans, California State University (Northridge), the University of Southern California and Spelman College. Before accepting the groundbreaking post as Smith's ninth president, the 51-year-old divorced mother of two held the title of vice provost at another Ivy League institution, Princeton University.
Dr. Simmons believes the deeprooted values and strong sense of self she learned from her parents, the "outstanding African-American teachers" of her youth, and her varied experiences as an adult, have all equipped her with the knowledge, wisdom and fortitude necessary to lead Smith, which has produced such luminaries as Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Yolanda King and Thelma Golden, the first Black curator of New York's Whitney Museum.
Situated near the Berkshire mountains of Northampton, Mass., Smith College, founded in 1871, is characterized by crawling ivy, wrought-iron gates, a $26,484-a-year tuition-and-board price tag, and time-honored traditions, such as Friday afternoon teas.
The other colleges that make up the elite Seven-Sister schools are Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Vassar and Wellesley.
The reports are conflicting about when Smith first opened its doors to Black women. Some say it was as early as the 1890s. Others say it was in the 1920s. What is known for sure is that the number of African-American faculty members and students at Smith has Historically been dreadfully low.
Twenty percent of the 2,800 Smith students are minority. But only 86 are Black. Of the college's 250 full-time faculty members, only 15 are Black. Ten of the 15 are in tenure-track positions, but only one is tenured.
Minority recruitment, Dr. Simmons says, will be a major focal point during her administration. "That obviously will be one of my main goals," she says. "The reason for that is simply that that is what Smith articulated in the search. And because they stated their strong interest in recruiting minorities, that made the job more appealing to me. …