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Friday, April 19, 2024 — Houston, TX

Ruth Simmons stays true to herself

Courtesy Ruth Simmons

By Amelia Davis     2/27/24 10:33pm

Ruth Simmons’ career has taken her all across the country — from Houston’s Third Ward to Smith College in Massachusetts to Brown University where she became the first Black female president of an Ivy League School and back to Houston again. 

In her second attempt at semi-retirement, Simmons told the Thresher she wanted to get involved in the community. Though she had served on the Rice board of trustees before she came out of retirement in 2017 to serve as Prairie View A&M University’s president, she was surprised when she was asked to be the Rice president’s distinguished fellow in 2023. 

“I hadn’t thought that I would do anything else [in my career], but the more I thought about it, the opportunity to be involved at this really important time in Rice’s history would be a great privilege,” Simmons said. “I have come to love the university through serving on the board and getting to know many people here, and also because I’m a Houstonian and I know that Rice’s future is tied very closely to the future of the city. I want to do everything possible to really help the university fulfill its mission as a Houston and a Texas institution.” 

Because of this, she accepted Reggie DesRoches’ offer to take on the more involved advising role at Rice. Simmons assists the board of trustees and the president across a broad range of issues, including technological and scientific leadership through the Ion and links to the medical center, she said.

Serving her community and being an influence for equality and opportunity in education has been Simmons’ foremost priority throughout her career. As a child, she was encouraged by her teachers to aspire beyond what she believed was possible for her, to attend college and to be an educator herself. 

“The experiences that I have been able to have as a consequence of education are incredibly vast and satisfying to me. I feel just fortunate, frankly, that at some point an educator stepped onto my path and said, you could do this,” Simmons said. ”Without that, I realized that I would not have had the wonderful experience that I’ve had as a leader in higher education.

“That’s really the most important thing to me, because with that comes the success of the country, the ability to take those young people and to utilize their passion and their talent and their intelligence fully. That’s what creates the magic of this democratic way of life, is that you have all of these people who can contribute,” Simmons continued. 

In her career, Simmons said she has been dedicated to making sure the opportunities for education are available and visible for young people like herself who might not know what options are viable for them. 

“I am a Houstonian. I grew up in Fifth Ward,” Simmons said. “It's enormously important to me that Rice play a role in lifting up the communities that have not had the advantages of the best education or economic wealth. Because for me, growing up in Houston in Fifth Ward, I was very much aware that Rice was not an option for me … Now we’re in a new era where we can inspire the best efforts of young people of every community, and that's very exciting and very personal to me.” 

Simmons’ goal of equality and opportunity in education is drawn from the singularity of her own position in her education and early career, and the loneliness that accompanied it. 

“I was an oddity. In my graduate Ph.D. program at Harvard, there were no African-Americans other than me. When I started my career, there were very few faculty who were African-American. And when I became president, there were very few African-Americans who were president of significant institutions,” Simmons said. “But it's very different today. There are many more women. I shouldn’t forget that much of what I say about the situation of African-Americans at the time was also true for women.” 

During her time as president of Brown from 2001 to 2012, Simmons made a major mark on the school. George Miller, the editor in chief of the Brown Daily Herald in 2009, said that Simmons and her work were important to the Brown community.

“Simmons was very popular during her time as Brown's president, and we conducted surveys showing as much …I think lots of us maybe weren’t able to articulate our reasons why we liked Simmons, other than that as president she was a symbol of Brown and therefore a focal point for school spirit,” Miller wrote in an email to the Thresher. “I also think we rightfully took pride in having the first Black woman president in the Ivy League.

 “The major initiative I associate with her tenure was the Slavery and Justice Report, work that started before I was a student but is still continuing (now at a research center named for Ruth Simmons),” Miller continued. “I believe it was one of the first such efforts at a U.S. institution and pushed some other colleges and universities to investigate their ties to slavery and the slave trade.”

Simmons’ involvement in the academy made her known to Rice President Reggie DesRoches even before her induction into her current role at the Rice community; he counts Simmons among his friends and values her advice as a mentor.

“Simmons works with a variety of offices and initiatives across campus and advises the President’s Office on a range of critical matters, in addition to collaborating with faculty and staff to build out programs to enhance the student experience,” DesRoches wrote in an email to the Thresher. “She is always available and eager to help, and her insights are truly invaluable.” 

In the midst of this work, she also found time to write and publish her memoir, “Up Home: One Girl's Journey,” and go on a book tour to promote its release. She also hasn’t missed the chance to enjoy being in Houston, not least because of the diversity and availability of the arts.

“I like music — my son and my granddaughter are musicians — and I like theater. I like the arts … At our Museum of Fine Arts, you can see contemporary African-American art, and you can see objects from China that were crafted in the earliest period of human existence on the earth,” Simmons said. “Just to be able to [do that], we don’t have to be ignorant. We can, in every part of our lives, learn more and more and more about what is going on in the world.”

Despite her numerous accomplishments, Simmons said that she takes the most pride in her ability to overcome adversity without losing her sense of self. 

“I came from a period when it was written that I should become nothing. And in spite of all of that, I had a wonderful family teaching me how to be a person in the world with a straight back,” Simmons said. 

“Over the years, I’ve worked very hard to make sure that I never cave into the hatred, that I never cave into the doubt about who I am and what I can be, that I never cave into the fact that I’m a woman and I’m not supposed to be able to do certain things. To me, that’s the thing that I’ve worked hardest at.”

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