Date September 8, 2023
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Brown President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons: ‘Rise to the challenge’ of this moment

Speaking to a packed Salomon Center for Teaching hours after a celebratory unveiling of the Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, Simmons spoke about her new memoir and shared advice with students.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Before Ruth J. Simmons became the first Black president of an Ivy League university, she was Ruth Jean Stubblefield of tiny Daly, Texas, the 12th child of sharecroppers who toiled in cotton fields for meager pay.

Born in 1945, Simmons lived with her family in a clapboard shack with a corrugated roof and no plumbing. She drank water from a bucket and bathed once a week in a tin tub. She wore crudely sewn clothes made from used flour sacks. She read no books and watched no television. Often, she barely had enough food to eat.

At the time, Simmons said, “I was following a path created for me by others” — one that was likely to lead to minimal formal education, decades of physical labor and little exposure to the world beyond Daly. 

Until, that is, she started first grade and suddenly saw myriad possible futures.

“I walked into my very first classroom, and [the teacher] treated me as if I was not the country bumpkin that I actually was, but someone with immense potential,” Simmons said. “She had this quality in her voice that suggested that it was absolutely true. Imagine what that does when you are the youngest of 12 and everyone in the household thinks you’re a burden.”

Decades later, Simmons — who helmed Brown from 2001 to 2012 and served also as president of Smith College in Massachusetts and Prairie View A&M University in Texas — still believes that her inspiring first-grade teacher deserves much of the credit for her unprecedented success. And she’s telling the world via her new memoir, “Up Home: One Girl’s Journey.” The book details Simmons’ hardscrabble early childhood in East Texas farmlands, her adolescent and teen years in Houston’s predominantly Black Fifth Ward, and her journey to Dillard University, a historically Black institution in New Orleans.

The lauded leader visited Brown on Thursday, Sept. 7, for a conversation about her memoir, her time at Brown, the future of higher education and many more topics, speaking at the Salomon Center for Teaching alongside current Brown President Christina H. Paxson. The event came just hours after a celebratory unveiling of the newly named Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice — a nod to her leading role in the effort to uncover Brown’s historical ties to slavery, which led to similar efforts nationwide and innumerable initiatives aimed at increasing diversity, equity and inclusion on Brown’s own campus.

Simmons revealed that she had started writing the memoir during her time at Brown, until that role became too “all-consuming” to finish the project. She said she took up writing again during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. At the time, she sensed that the United States had arrived at a crossroads similar to the one she had observed in her youth, when a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement set its sights on ending Jim Crow racial segregation laws.

“There was much bad news that happened… the revival of so much hatred toward different groups in society,” Simmons said of 2020. “It seemed to me that… young people were very much as I was at their age, and I didn’t think they understood the possibilities. I sensed that they needed to hear something about our having been there before, and about how it’s possible to live through those difficult periods and be stronger… as a consequence of dealing with them.”

Simmons recounted several early moments when she doubted her own abilities and almost turned back to East Texas. As a visiting student at Wellesley College, she enrolled in an advanced French course and quickly became too overwhelmed to continue. But when she went to the professor’s office to drop the course, to her horror, the professor waved her away with a “Ne vous inquiétez pas” — “don’t worry.”

“He said, ‘Just work harder,’” Simmons said. “I said, ‘But I don’t understand anything!’ If I had had enough money to go home, I would have left college that day, believe me. But guess what I did? I went to the language lab, and I studied and studied and studied. And I kept going to class. And one day it dawned on me that I was understanding everything in class. To know that I could overcome that enabled me to lose every bit of fear that I had as a student.”

“ I want to see student voices rise to the challenge. I want to see university officials rise to the challenge. We ought to speak truth in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. ”

Ruth Simmons

It was that confidence, Simmons said, that carried her through graduate school at Harvard University, where she was the only Black student in her program, and later to Princeton, where she directed a new Afro-American studies program. What propelled her even further, she said, was a growing recognition of who she was and a burgeoning courage to stay true to her ideals.

“I was given bad advice I had to reject,” Simmons said. “I was asked to direct the Afro-American studies program at Princeton, and everybody told me that was a career-ending mistake. I could have bought that, but I didn’t. If you are not grounded in who you are, you will be pulled in lots of directions. So work on that first.”

Staying true to oneself, Simmons admitted to the audience, sometimes comes at a cost. When she announced the University’s intention to reckon with its historical ties to slavery, for example, the national uproar was so intense that there was a police officer outside her house day in and day out. Yet finding and maintaining a moral compass, Simmons said, is a crucial piece of effective leadership, because “people don’t buy… your saying one thing and doing another. They don’t buy your standing up for truth and lying. There has to be some coherence to who you are.”

Throughout the conversation, many in Salomon’s packed house entreated Simmons for advice, and she gladly doled it out: Read widely. Seek out challenges instead of getting comfortable. Find mentors who are bluntly honest, not coddling. Defy people who say, “We don’t do that here.” 

Simmons, who is now advising Harvard on its efforts to work with historically Black colleges and universities, also praised Paxson for her June community letter vowing to continue welcoming a diverse set of students to Brown despite the Supreme Court’s recent decision to ban the consideration of race in admissions. She charged Paxson and other higher education leaders to continue to fight for diversity, equity and inclusion at every opportunity. 

“I think [if] universities stand tall in this moment, [they] will have much more impact than almost anything they’ve ever done as a sector,” Simmons said. “I want to see student voices rise to the challenge. I want to see university officials rise to the challenge. ...We ought to speak truth in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. That can be scary sometimes, but if enough people do it, it's transformative.”