2005 Commencement Speaker and Honorary Degree Recipient
Doctor of Humane Letters
Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons, is among the most visible and highly regarded leaders in American higher education. Simmons’ personal story, her rise from a Texas sharecropping family to become the first black woman to lead an Ivy League institution, has made her an inspiration to many and drawn the attention of national media, such as CBS’ 60 Minutes and Time Magazine, which, in 2001, named her America’s best college president.
At Brown University, where she was sworn in as the 18th president on July 3, 2001, Simmons has moved swiftly to enrich academics by expanding the faculty; investing in libraries, information technology, and facilities; strengthening diversity throughout the university; and establishing a need-blind financial aid process.
“If there is anything that I can bring to higher education,” Simmons has said, “it is a constant reminder of the need to bring children from the margins to the center, constantly redefining the center so that our democracy remains strong.”
Ruth Simmons knows what it is to be one of those children on the margin. She is the great-great-granddaughter of slaves and was raised in Grapeland, Texas, during a time when segregation and racism were a part of everyday life. Simmons has credited her mother, who faced challenges with “grace, magnanimity, and aplomb,” as the greatest influence on her life. When the family moved to Houston, Simmons entered public school for the fist time. Thanks partly to financial support from her high school teachers, she attended Dillard University in New Orleans, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1967.
Simmons would go on to earn her doctorate in Romance languages and literatures from Harvard University in 1973. Her scholarship has included focus on the works of French West African poet David Diop and Aime Cesaire, a politically active poet/playwright from Martinique. Simmons is also the author of a book on the educational system in Haiti, and her appointment at Brown includes a professorship in the departments of Comparative Literature and Africana Studies.
Prior to assuming the presidency at Brown, Simmons built her career in higher education leadership with roles at the University of Southern California, Princeton University, and Smith College, where she was president from 1995 to 2001. While president of Smith, Simmons launched a number of initiatives, including the first engineering program at a women’s college in the United States. (The founding director of that program, Domenico Grasso, became the new dean of the College of Engineering and Mathematics at UVM this year.)
Simmons has been honored with the Centennial Medal from Harvard University,
the Teachers College Medal from Columbia University, the President’s Award
from the United Negro College Fund, and the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal.