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College Presidents’ Series:
An Interview with
President Ruth Simmons, Brown University
By Gillian Granoff


“A life of success is not about imitating what others have done; it’s about searching for the things that matter to you and trying to make use of all the talent you have. Being successful is trying to do that with the highest degree of intention.” These sobering words of advice from Dr. Ruth Simmons are indicative of the path she took in her own career.  As the first black female president of an Ivy League University, Dr. Simmons’ life has been far from one of imitation.  Raised by sharecroppers in Texas, Dr. Simmons never could have envisioned a career that included reaching the pinnacle of higher education, first as a  professor, then as a university president. From her modest history she created a future that in no way mirrors the life she knew.

“I had modest ambitions and was more concerned about finishing high school than choosing a career.” The encouragement her parents instilled in her had an indelible impact. From them, Simmons learned to be fearless in standing up to injustice. “Growing up in the South and being denigrated every day because of my race, I was taught to define myself not on the basis of what others thought about me.” Her parents taught her the value of hard work and the importance of treating everyone with respect. “Work hard, be honest, be kind to people, be respectful, be a decent human being.” These simple words ushered a girl from the rural farmlands of Texas, to the  austere ivy covered walls of USC, Harvard and Princeton, and ultimately to the helm of Smith College and Brown University.

Though an advocate of affirmative action, she believes strongly that students be judged on their merit and hard work. She is passionate in her belief of providing equal opportunity irrespective of  financial need. 

Teachers had a major influence on her ambitions. In a segregated community the boundaries between teachers and students dissolved.  Hatred and bigotry strengthened the ties within their community. Teachers and students interacted freely with one another at church and in grocery stores and were embedded in the fabric of Simmons’ daily life.

She credits Ida May Henderson, her first grade teacher, for giving her the key to unlocking a world beyond the confines of the secluded and segregated  rural Texas. With very few role models of professional female success, Simmons nurtured only modest ambitions for herself. Henderson helped Simmons to see that her mind could be a vehicle out of the segregated Texan community. Her “magnetism and enthusiasm” inspired in Simmons an intellectual confidence and helped her to recognize her own talents and abilities. Her love of books grew as she went on to Harvard to acquire a Ph.D in Romance Languages, where she cultivated aspirations to become a professor. “I didn’t think I could ever rise to a level of prominence in my career,” she stated. 

As the youngest of 12 children, “I had to fight for a place for myself. I grew up in Texas; boys had wide latitude and more importance than girls. The role of girls was to support whatever the boys wanted to do. I had to fight for the legitimacy of what I wanted to do and became outspoken.”

At Princeton, her talents caught the attention of Aaron Lemonic, a colleague whose advice helped her to overcome her fears of leaving to accept the Presidency of Smith. His forthright and straightforward belief in her inspired her to have a high opinion of herself and challenged her to have greater aspirations.

In 2001 she became the President of Brown University, keeping a steady focus on  remaining  true to democratic ideals. In discussing the transition from a college of 2500 students [Smith] to a research university of 7800 students [Brown], Simmons states the questions are more complex and there is a larger group of people to manage and recruit. The job has also placed Simmons on a national stage, dealing with media coverage and complicated public affairs.  In spite of these challenges, Simmons has no intention of leaving anytime soon. “If they want me to leave they’re going to have to fire me ” she jokes.

As president of Brown University, she has been instrumental in implementing a long sought after need-blind admissions policy that allows the right of any student to apply without consideration for financial need. Her goal is to “service the country and the world by providing outstanding leaders and keeping pace with the accelerating changes in society.” Simmons has a keen awareness and an intuitive sense of her role as a leader and a clear vision of her responsibilities at the university. She compares the role of University President to that of a parent and manager but believes the most important ingredient of being a good leader is to be a good listener. “Everything I’ve done at Brown has come out of listening to people during the transition period. The high priority she places on keeping in touch with the needs and issues of her students is part of her commitment to listening. Despite her many obligations and the extensive travel of the job, she holds dinners at her home for students as well as regular office hours. When they call and say that they need to talk to her, she always finds the time.

“I regard this as the final contribution that I will make in my career. I’m interested in doing a good job for Brown and making sure that when I leave, I did the things that the University needed.”  Her goals for the future of Brown include continuing to grow the faculty, adding more financial aid to attract the best and brightest, improving the infrastructure of Brown including the laboratories, but most importantly, serving the needs of the students.

“When I get up everyday and think about my work that’s really what I think about. I don’t think about the money that I’m raising. I don’t think about the facilities meeting I’m going to. I think about my students and whether or not there’s one that will do something important because of a simple thing I did for them, like Miss Ida Mae did for me.”

President Ruth Simmons is committed to using her time at Brown to giving her students the tools and confidence to become leaders who can meet challenges on their own, with honesty, intelligence and integrity.#

Gillian Granoff is a graduate of Brown.



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