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Higher Ed Leader Ruth Simmons Talks Recent Memoir, Legacy in Higher Education with Harvard Radcliffe Dean

Ruth J. Simmons, the former president of Brown University, Prairie View A&M University, and Smith College, spoke with Harvard Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin in an event at the Knafel Center.
Ruth J. Simmons, the former president of Brown University, Prairie View A&M University, and Smith College, spoke with Harvard Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin in an event at the Knafel Center. By Sachi Laumas
By Nicole L. Guo and Laurel M. Shugart, Contributing Writers

Ruth J. Simmons, the former president of Brown University, Prairie View A&M University, and Smith College, spoke with Harvard Radcliffe Institute Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin about the values that shaped her educational career at a talk Tuesday evening.

Simmons, a presidential fellow at Rice University and senior adviser to the president of Harvard University on engagement with historically black colleges and universities, also spoke about her recent memoir “Up Home: One Girl’s Journey.” She said a key aim of the memoir was to address the frequent questions she receives about her career path in higher education.

“I thought I’d save myself the trouble and just tell people once and for all how it happened, and maybe the questions would go away,” she said.

Simmons detailed her early life in rural Texas in the 1940s and 50s, and the values her mother instilled in her during her youth.

“My mother taught me so much. She had an eighth-grade education,” Simmons said.

“She had certain values that she taught us to live by, and that helped me enormously as I grew up,” she said. “I’ve held on to them more than I’ve held on to anything else, really, in my life because it rooted me, and it gave me the ability to stand up to pressure and to do the things that I thought were right, as opposed to the things that people wanted me to do.”

Simmons described how her family’s values influenced her work exploring universities’ legacies of slavery.

“The worst thing you could do in my family was tell a lie,” she said. “And so I thought, for people to respect universities, we have to be true to the values that we promulgate. And so, we talk a lot about people relying on universities for the truth, for facts. And yet if we’re unwilling to do that with our own history, what must people think of us?”

Simmons — who served as the first African American president of an Ivy League institution as president of Brown University — spoke on the importance of diversity and the ways in which she has sparked change at the institutions she has served.

Namely, Simmons mentioned her work in hiring more female and African American faculty as assistant, and then associate, dean of graduate studies at Princeton University.

“I’ve tried, in my career, to push against those conventions that keep us from honestly assessing people’s work and their potential,” Simmons said.

“One of the things we have to do is puncture people’s lame excuses for not doing the right thing. And one of the ways of doing that was to say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna test this. So, if I give you the resources, let’s see what you can do,’” she added.

Alongside her work to diversify higher education and address universities’ legacies of slavery, she pointed to her relationship with her students as her “proudest accomplishment.”

“They were so generous to me, in every regard. And to me, it was always about leading young people to a place where they could maximize their talents and their intelligence and aspire to be whole human beings that will add something to the world,” Simmons said.

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