A native of Texas and a 1967 graduate of Dillard University in New Orleans, Simmons received her Ph.D. in Romance languages and literatures from Harvard University in 1973. She has written on the works of David Diop and Aime Cesaire.
In 1983, after serving as associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Southern California, Simmons joined the Princeton University administration. She remained at Princeton for seven years, leaving in 1990 for two years to serve as provost at Spelman College, returning to Princeton in 1992 as vice provost. In 1993, invited by the president to review the state of race relations on the Princeton campus, Simmons wrote a report that resulted in a number of initiatives that received widespread attention. In 1995 she left Princeton to become president of Smith College, the largest women’s college in the United States, where she launched a number of strategic initiatives to strengthen the college’s academic programs and inaugurated the first engineering program at a U.S. women’s college.
Simmons is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Active in a wide range of educational, charitable, and civic endeavors, she holds honorary degrees from numerous colleges and universities such as Amherst College, Bard College, Brown University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Dillard University, Harvard University, Howard University, Princeton University, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Boston University, Northeastern University, New York University, Mount Holyoke College, University of Pennsylvania, Washington University in St. Louis, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, The George Washington University, University of Southern California, Tougaloo College, Jewish Theological Seminary, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and The American College of Greece.
Simmons is the recipient of a number of prizes and fellowships. In 1997 she was awarded the Centennial Medal from Harvard University, in 1999 the Teachers College Medal for Distinguished Service from Columbia University, and in 2001 the President’s Award from the United Negro College Fund. She has been honored with the 2002 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal and the 2002 “Drum Major for Justice” education award from Southern Christian Leadership Conference/WOMEN. In 2004 she received the ROBIE Humanitarian Award, given by the Jackie Robinson Foundation; the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal; and the chairman’s award of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She was selected as a Newsweek “person to watch” and as a Ms. Woman of the Year in 2002. In 2001 Time magazine named her America’s best college president. In 2007, she was named one of U. S. News & World Report’s top U.S. leaders and — for the second time — a Glamour magazine Woman of the Year. In 2011, Simmons received The Rosenberger Medal, which is the highest honor Brown University faculty can bestow.
During her tenure at Brown, Simmons created an ambitious set of initiatives designed to expand and strengthen the faculty; increased financial support and resources for undergraduate, graduate, and medical students; improved facilities; renewed a broad commitment to shared governance; and ensured that diversity informs every dimension of the university. These initiatives led to a major investment of new resources in Brown’s educational mission.
President Simmons announced her decision to step down on September 15, 2011. In May 2012, the Corporation honored her by designating the Lower Campus as the Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle. She concluded her term as president on June 30, 2012.