PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — During a special meeting at 1 p.m. today (Thursday, Nov. 9, 2000), the Corporation of Brown University unanimously elected Ruth J. Simmons as the 18th president of Brown University.
Simmons, who has been president of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., since 1995, will be the first African American to lead an Ivy League institution. She succeeds E. Gordon Gee, now chancellor of Vanderbilt University.
The Corporation’s vote today ended a nine-month national search conducted by a selection committee of the Corporation and a campus advisory committee of students, faculty and staff. The committees sought recommendations and nominations from a broad cross-section of the Brown community and reviewed materials from hundreds of applicants.
“Ruth Simmons is a gifted academic leader with impressive accomplishments in areas of particular importance to Brown: institutional diversity, collaborative research and learning initiatives, faculty support and minority faculty recruitment, undergraduate scholarships, and a deep appreciation for fundamental personal values,” said Brown Chancellor Stephen Robert, who introduced Simmons to the trustees and fellows following the Corporation’s vote. “We have selected an extraordinary leader, a person of character, of integrity, and of depth. I believe the broader campus community will welcome Dr. Simmons with great enthusiasm.”
“I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead this outstanding University in this exciting time in history,” Simmons said. “It gives me enormous pride and joy to think that I will serve as president of an institution that not only has ideals I can share, but also earnestly seeks to live those ideals.”
Interim President Sheila E. Blumstein, who has led the University since February, will continue in office for the remainder of the current academic year. Simmons will take up her duties as Brown’s president July 1, 2001. She will also have a tenured faculty appointment as professor of comparative literature. Blumstein, the Albert D. Mead Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences, will return to full-time teaching and research.
“Brown owes President Blumstein a tremendous debt of gratitude,” Robert said. “She has answered the University’s call twice in the last five years, as interim provost and interim president. President-elect Simmons will find a University that is energized and moving forward on significant projects from capital improvements to need-blind admission.”
Simmons’ rise to the Brown presidency has been an extraordinary accomplishment. The 12th child born to sharecroppers in the small East Texas town of Grapeland, Simmons moved with her family to Houston when she was of school age. There her father found employment as a factory worker and her mother worked as a maid; Simmons entered public school. She has written thoughtfully about those years in an autobiographical essay, “My Mother’s Daughter: Lessons I Learned in Civility and Authenticity,” published in the Texas Journal of Ideas, History and Culture (fall/winter 1998).
With strong family and community support, Simmons continued her education, earning her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude at Dillard University in New Orleans (1967) and her master’s and doctorate in Romance languages and literatures at Harvard University (1970 and 1973). Her effort to understand how her own society could countenance racial cruelty and legally enforced segregation led her to a lifelong interest in humanities and other cultures. She studied in Mexico and France and later served as an interpreter for the U.S. State Department.
Simmons began her academic career at the University of New Orleans as an assistant professor of French and later served as assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts. She moved to California State University in Northridge in 1977 as visiting associate professor of pan-African studies and acting director of international programs. From 1979 to 1983, she was assistant and later associate dean of graduate studies at the University of Southern California.
In 1983 she returned to the East Coast, settling at Princeton University, where she directed Afro-American studies and rose to become associate dean of the faculty. After two years as provost at Spelman College in Atlanta, Simmons returned to Princeton as vice provost, a position she held until her move to Smith in 1995.
Simmons has worked tirelessly toward opening higher education – particularly elite private institutions – to disadvantaged minorities, a mission she has described as “a matter of national salvation.” At Smith, she established the nation’s first engineering program at a women’s college and started Meridians, a journal focusing on the concerns of minority women. Her achievements in higher education have brought her dozens of honors and awards including Danforth and Fulbright fellowships and nine honorary doctorates.