Dr. Ruth J. Simmons: Precedent-Setting President

By Beckham, Barry | The New Crisis, March/April 2001 | Go to article overview

Dr. Ruth J. Simmons: Precedent-Setting President


Beckham, Barry, The New Crisis


WONDERWORKING WOMEN

"Ruth, Ruth, Ruth!... Ruth, Ruth, Ruth! . . ."

The clamorous voices are Smith College students at their opening convocation in Northampton, Mass. They have just seen, marching at the end of the procession, their president, Dr. Ruth J. Simmons. They chant until she reaches the stage at the largest privately endowed college for women in the country.

But she won't be there next fall. Simmons is leaving Smith College, where in 1995 she became the first African American in the U.S. to head a college or university in the upper tier of national rankings. Since she became Smith's ninth president in 1995, the Houston-- grown educator has made a number of significant changes that solidified her standing as not only one of the country's top college presidents, but also one of the most admired.

Now, on a sunny, wintry Northampton afternoon, she is leaning and turning and adjusting on a living room sofa in her president's mansion.

Her blue suit is smart and crisp, the kind she might wear to her board meetings at Pfizer, Metropolitan Life, Texas Instruments, the Carnegie Corporation, or the Goldman Sachs Group.

She takes directions from a photographer as if she were an ordinary great-great-grandchild of slaves, and not the sought-after Simmons interviewed on "60 Minutes," "CBS Weekend News" and in People magazine. "Good Morning America" wanted a segment too, but that Monday was inconvenient for her. In 1996 Simmons received such honors as being named CBS Woman of the Year, "NBC Nightly News" Most Inspiring Woman, and Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year. And she was among those chosen for a 1998 Vanity Fair photographic portfolio, Women of America: A Portrait of Influence and Achievement.

"This is uncomfortable," she says to the camera-- man-but with a smile-when told to lean forward. She is facing more lights than Dorothy Dandridge at her audition for "Carmen Jones."

On July 1, 2001, Simmons will take over the helm at Brown University in Providence, R.I.-its 18th leader since its founding in 1764. She will set more precedents-the first woman and first African American to head one of the eight Ivy League institutions. She must chuckle to herself when she remembers the mentor who told her that she would go far, but the presidency of an Ivy League college was out of the question.

To put the presidency in perspective, consider this: of the roughly 3,200 colleges and universities in the United States, only six are older than Brown, and only 28 have endowments greater than Brown's $1.2 billion. Brown's connection to the so-called establishment can be traced to alumni such as John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the first billionaire in our nation's history The school's founder, John Nicholas Brown, amassed a fortune through the slave trade. In fact, Rhode Island traffickers controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves throughout the 18th century. It is ironic that a descendant of perhaps one of those slaves will become president of the university the slave trader built.

Up College Hill just above the Providence downtown advances Dr. Ruth J. Simmons, youngest of 12 children raised in Texas by a sharecropper father and a mother who took in laundry.

The crowd does not invoke the "Ruth" shout, but does interrupt her speech with standing ovations on four occasions during her introduction to the Brown community in November 2000. In venerable Sayles Hall, its oak walls lined with oil portraits of mostly old white men and one woman, Simmons declares, "I stand here before you today both mystified and elated," and then tells them something they have long suspected: "Brown students are said to be the happiest and the most balanced in the Ivy League."

Simmons' chronicle of personal achievements, like that of so many other African Americans, is a mystifying complex of dedication and fate. It started in the 1950s with the terrifying trek to elementary school in Houston, Texas, where the word nigger was hurled at her from passing cars. …

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