Dr. Ruth Simmons. First Black President of an Ivy League University 2001 - 2012.
Grapeland, Texas. July 3rd, 1945. The daughter of sharecroppers, in fact the youngest of 12 children in the family, would go on to beat incredible odds, and reach the highest lead some of the most prestigious Universities in the nation, capping her leadership off with 11 years as President of Brown University.
Ruth was born into poverty and as a child would spend her days in school as well as farming along side with her family. Sharecroppers children would go to school when they could, sometimes harvests and the whims of farm owners would take away predictability. Meals she remembered would be in a pail and consist of one biscuit and syrup. Life was hard, and early on, there was no concept that one day she would go on to become Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Southern California in 1979, Dean of Finance at Princeton University, Provost (Head) of Spelman College, back to Princeton as Vice Provost at Princeton, President of Smith college, and then finally the first African American President of an Ivy League University, Brown.
Ambitions early on were based on the world she was exposed to. Ruth didn't realize she even could go onto college as a girl, nobody she knew went to college. In fact when she told her mother that she was interested in College as a young girl, her mother was just concerned as there was no way they knew to bridge that divide and pay for any aspect of the education. She said , “I had one goal... if only I could one day work in an office, because every woman that I knew was a maid… The farthest I could think was working in an office. That was it.” In fact this was such a part of the working world she knew that her very fist paid job was as a maid while a student.
Education and curiosity were Ruth's keys to a bigger life. As well as changing times. By her elementary school years, technology and the system of farming her family has been caught caught up in for years was changing. Machines were becoming better and more prevalent, and began replacing some human jobs. Her parents like many, moved to the city in search of new work, but also greater opportunities. Her family made their way to a very segregated part of Houston. They were not accustomed to city life, on top of being very, very poor, kids would tease their accents and clothes. It was not an easy adjustment, but their family support was there. Ruth went to a segregated school in Houston, took to her studies, worked hard, and graduated top of her class. She would enroll in nearby Dillard University, a historically black college, with the help of scholarships. There was plenty of support through love and encouragement, but real financial constraints remained. Some of Ruth's professors had to give Ruth clothes to wear from their own closets to help clothe in basics, not for events, just her and ensure that she was able to attend school.
With the guidance of Professors who saw something special in Ruth, she spent Junior year at Wellesley College in Massachusetts as a visiting student. It was at Wellesley that young Ruth, who was already moved by and understood how the Civil Rights movement was helping her, gained new experiences and saw new systems of the world. She would be very struck by the fact that a woman, Margaret Clapp, was President of Wellesley University. It was the first time Ruth really understood first hand that yes, a woman could hold a position of that much power. It was a subtle experience, simply learning of another woman's career, but it made her understand that perhaps barriers would come down for her as well. That said, Ruth would cite her mother as being the single greatest example in her life. Despite only a small amount of schooling, and working part time as an ironing maid, it was her mother who taught her entirely about dignity, work ethic, and respect. In 1998, Ruth published a beautiful article talking about her mother's influence called "My Mother's Daughter: Lessons I Learned in Civility and Authenticity" which touches on the beautiful memories of her mother, who sadly died when Ruth was only 15, but the strength and elegance she learned from her mother is clear and certainly part of what propelled Ruth throughout her life.
With these influences, her academic career would take off. Returning to Dillard to graduate, Ruth earned a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship - a highly competitive grant paying for education overseas - studying in France for one year, returning to the US to earn her PhD in Romance Languages from Harvard.
Liberal Arts was the focus of Ruth's studies. Liberal Arts provided Ruth the opportunity to try to make sense of the world, of the circumstances she saw as unfair, and how people formed these social structures.
Initially starting as a Professor and focused on Academia, Ruth soon moved into management of the Universities. Some of the highlights of her career include:
At Princeton as Director of Studies, she faced a difficult climate as racial profiling of black students who were being stopped for no reason not only existed, but was on the rise. Ruth decided to enhance and strengthen the African-American Studies program there, recruiting Cornell West, Toni Morrison and Henry Louis Gates Jr. to Princeton. Bringing in such world class talent and scholars helps change dynamics, increase understanding, attract new people and also provide a new future to the community. As well, it provided new ground for important black scholars to connect and work, as well as exposed the community there to the talents and achievements of Blacks.
At Brown as President, her fund raising skills were incredible. She brought in the single largest donation in Brown's history, and was able to introduce need blind admissions for students to Brown.
One role, she learned that her salary was lower than a male employee's despite her more senior role, and she stood up for herself. While unclear if the salary was adjusted, the act of standing up for yourself is powerful and an important practice.
In 1995, Ruth became President of Smith College, and all women's college in Massachusetts, Ruth created the first Engineering program and the first Finance program for the college in response to the lack of women in those industries.
Ruth was also elected to the boards of several major companies and foundations: Goldman Sachs, Board Member. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Director. Texas Instruments, Director. Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium Scholars Foundation, Advisory Council.
"What helped me growing up is that somehow, I know that this world I lived in, the world of segregation and bigotry, wasn't really the real world. I knew that. And what I had to do was go outside it. And that's what everybody has to do. They have to find a way to be a part of that larger world. If they do that.. they'll be better in every respect if they have that broader purview."