PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Ruth Simmons, the 18th president of Brown University (2001-12), was named Chevalier in the French National Order of the Legion of Honor in a ceremony today at the John Carter Brown Library. The award is the highest decoration offered by the French government, given to individuals who have contributed to the advancement of French arts and culture. Simmons was selected to receive the honor by decree of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“I am honored to accept this award from the French Republic,” Simmons said. “My interest in languages and cultures began very early in my education, inspiring what would become a life-long interest in French language and literature. Today, more than ever, I believe that students must be educated broadly, as global citizens, to navigate our increasingly complex world. To be recognized for my commitment to this value is truly an honor.”
Simmons’s medal was presented by Fabien Fieschi, consul general of France in Boston, who read the official citation before the presentation: “The nomination of Ms. Simmons as Chevalier dans l´ordre de la Légion d´Honneur is a small token of our admiration and recognition for a life dedicated to the power of intelligence and education to transform lives, to a career dedicated to being a visionary leader in academia.”
The presentation was preceded by remarks by William Twaddell, a 1963 Brown graduate and University trustee, who served as a U.S. diplomat for more than 30 years.
Fieschi said Simmons was selected to receive the Legion of Honor because “she has continuously fought against inequality and discrimination, promoting and relentlessly teaching human rights and values that France has always honored and supported. Her commitment to equality, liberty, and fraternity — the French Republic’s motto — has led her to become the first woman president of Brown University and the first African American heading a major Ivy League institution. During her tenure at Brown, she also made internationalization a strategic priority to better prepare Brown’s students for the challenge and opportunities of an increasingly interconnected world.”
Simmons holds a faculty appointment as professor of comparative literature and Africana studies at Brown. Fluent in French, she earned her Ph.D. in Romance languages and literature at Harvard University. She has written about French-speaking authors and poets including David Diop and Aimé Césaire and has focused much of her scholarship on African and Caribbean literature. She studied abroad in both France and Mexico during her student years.
As an academic leader, Simmons has spent much of her career advocating for an international experience in developing competent global citizens and leaders. During her time at Brown, Simmons worked to expand the University’s global reach. Her Plan for Academic Enrichment included a focus on international engagement, and she encouraged faculty and students to travel to conduct their work, through various programs, policies, and funding sources that she implemented during her tenure.
Prior to coming to Brown, Simmons served in various administrative roles at the University of Southern California, Princeton University, and Spelman College before becoming president of Smith College, the largest women’s college in the United States. At Smith, she launched a number of initiatives including an engineering program, the first at an American women’s college.
Simmons is the recipient of many honors, including a Fulbright Fellowship, the 2001 President’s Award from the United Negro College Fund, the 2002 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, the 2004 Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, the 2010 Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and the 2010 Foreign Policy Association award. She has been a featured speaker in many public venues, including the White House, the World Economic Forum, the National Press Club, the American Council on Education, and the Phi Beta Kappa Lecture at Harvard University. She is a member of the board of the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and an honorary fellow of Selwyn College at Cambridge University. In 2009, she was appointed by President Obama as a member of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. The Brown University faculty awarded Simmons the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal — its highest honor — at Commencement in 2011.
The French Legion of Honor
The French Legion of Honor (L’ordre national de la Légion d’honneur) is the highest decoration offered by the French government, initiated by France’s first consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1802. Napoleon replaced the old orders of French chivalry with a system of recognition for distinguished service based on individual merit rather than nobility of birth.
The Legion of Honor has recognized women and men who have contributed to the advancement of the arts and the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance and its diversity in France and around the world. The order comprises three ranks — chevalier, officier, commandeur — and two high offices (dignités) — grand officier and grand croix. Recipients are named by decree signed by the President of the Republic.
The Legion of Honor may be awarded to foreign citizens, though such recognition is relatively rare. American honorees include John Ashbery, Renée Fleming, Barbra Streisand, and Elie Wiesel, as well as hundreds of World War II veterans.