Ebony and Ivy

How a passion for learning took Ruth Simmons from the poverty of Houston’s Fifth Ward to the presidency of Smith College.

February 1999By Comments

WHEN RUTH SIMMONS WAS A CHILD growing up in Houston’s Fifth Ward, it was customary to take a bath only once a week. She remembers days when she was called nigger by white youths in passing cars. Today Simmons—the great-great-granddaughter of slaves and the twelfth child of a Texas sharecropper and a domestic worker—is the president of Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the first black woman to head a top-ranked American college or university.

On a November morning in Manhattan, the 53-year-old Simmons looked sharp and fresh in a navy blue suit and a strand of pearls. She was in town to accept a Human Achievement Award from the National Urban League. But first, over scrambled eggs and coffee at the Harry Cipriani restaurant on Fifth Avenue, she reflected on her origins and how far she has come.

“Education took me out of the Fifth Ward,” she said. “There’s no other way that I could have done it.” Simmons credits her public school teachers with exposing her to the arts, which fueled her desire to learn more about the world: “When I was a teenager, my high school was taking me to plays in the city. I was introduced to theater, the art world, and levels of academic scholarship because my teachers took an interest in developing me and they made those things possible. What I did that was unremarkable was that I stuck with it. I got into school and I kept going and, when an opportunity presented itself, I took advantage of it.” Simmons says her parents instilled a strong work ethic in their children. Although only one of her siblings graduated from college—a brother who is now a high school basketball coach in Houston—the others managed to find good jobs, working as a fireman, a construction worker, a computer programmer, and a hospital worker, among other occupations.

Simmons says that one particular teacher sticks out in her mind: Vernell Lillie, her eleventh-grade English and drama teacher at Houston’s Phillis Wheatley High School. “She got us involved in debate tournaments, and we traveled and learned to speak publicly,” she said. “I think I always understood, coming through school, that life was segregated and that there was a particular place for me in Texas society. One thing different about what Vernell Lillie taught was that there were lots of places that one’s imagination could go.”

After graduating from Wheatley, Simmons went to Dillard University, in New Orleans. She graduated summa cum laude in 1967, then spent the following academic year studying in France on a Fulbright scholarship before going on to Harvard University, where she earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in romance languages. Although she had scholarships in college and graduate school, she had to work to meet expenses. During her junior year at Dillard, she cleaned houses, and in graduate school she had a part-time job interviewing prospective Radcliffe students.

She married Norbert Simmons, whom she met while she was at Dillard and he was at Tulane, after she returned from France, and then they moved to Boston, where she started her graduate studies at Harvard and her husband attended Boston University School of Law. They had two children—a son, Khari, who is 25 and a music composer living in Atlanta, and a daughter, Maya, who is 22 and lives in Northampton—but were divorced in 1988.

Simmons’ love for school led her to the academic life. “I felt that anything that could take a child and turn her into the person I was becoming must be the most powerful place on earth,” she said. “I had the best teachers in the world in Texas. I know that now. From the time that I first went to school, I loved what I did so much I can’t even begin to describe it. The teacher had to spend time after school trying to find other stuff for me to do because it was never enough.

“I think whenever you’re born into very limited circumstances, it creates a desire in you to have a comfortable life and to have a life that is without those limitations. I had a lot of ambition. Not to do what I’m doing now, but to get through school and get a job as a secretary to support myself and help my parents.”

Segregation created a strong sense of community in the Fifth Ward and a lot of support because everybody went to the same community centers and churches. “We made do like every family, but since most people were in the same situation, we didn’t feel isolated in our poverty and we didn’t feel poor,” Simmons said. On the other hand: “You were always afraid to walk down the street because you could be harassed if you were at the wrong place at the wrong time. The most noticeable aspect of segregation was when we were traveling by car as a family and were unable to stop to use restrooms. We had to plan trips so that we could stop in particular places where blacks could eat and use restroom facilities, because it was dangerous to stop just anywhere.”

Nevertheless, Texas has a special place in Simmons’ heart, and she will most likely retire there. “Home is always home,” she said. “Although it was a hard life and at that time bigotry was acute and one lived in fear, I have many happy memories of Texas.”

Something about the state creates achievers, she believes. “There’s a lot to be proud of, and it makes Texans sit up straighter and carry themselves in a more haughty way. We feel that we can accomplish anything, so we work hard and we try hard.” It’s not always easy being a Texan on the East Coast, she said, because the state is often the butt of jokes. “Everybody picks on Texas because Texans are so arrogant and straight-backed. I talk about Texas a lot in my speeches, and people moan when I do that.”

But the moans about Texas aren’t as loud as the gasps that were heard when Simmons was appointed the ninth president of Smith, a 124-year-old women’s college, in 1994. Private institutions like Smith rely on contributions from alumnae and donors instead of on state funding—and there were people, including some of Simmons’ colleagues, who thought that if a black person was appointed president, alumnae would get angry, walk away, and stop contributing.

That didn’t happen. Contributions have nearly doubled since Simmons was appointed. Between June 1997 and June 1998, total fundraising from private support was $50 million compared with $27 million raised in the same period three years earlier. Smith’s endowment is about $800 million, and its annual operating budget is $115 million.

“We have had the strongest fundraising years in the college’s history since I’ve been president,” Simmons said. “Alumnae have reacted well, and that’s an opportunity for every private institution to feel encouraged that race is not an impediment to leadership.”

Simmons was the first choice of Smith’s presidential search committee, according to Elizabeth Spelman, a professor of philosophy who was on the committee. “No one else we interviewed had such a vigorous, such a loving understanding of the meaning of education,” Spelman said. “No one else so boldly delineated the place of educational institutions in the national and international context.”

According to Spelman, the students are equally enthusiastic about Simmons because she never plays favorites. “Everyone can assume both that they will get a fair hearing from her and that they will be subjected to tough questioning,” she said. “At the same time, she is a person of unmistakable warmth and disarming humor.”

Before becoming president of Smith, the alma mater of Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, Simmons was vice-provost of Princeton University, in New Jersey, and provost of Spelman College, in Atlanta, America’s oldest black women’s college, and she taught French literature at both. People often seem surprised that she has come so far, she noted, and she considers that a bad sign. “It’s almost inconceivable to people that it’s possible to succeed,” she explained. “In a sense, Americans don’t believe their own hype. In this country we say that if you work hard and persist, you can do anything, and that’s what we believe as a country, isn’t it? That ought not to be surprising unless we believe that there’s corruption in our system and that you have to be well connected in order to get anywhere—and if we believe that, then we really need to reexamine the society we’ve built.”

Simmons worked hard and persisted. And when it came to rising through the ranks of academia, she found that being black was less of an obstacle than being a woman. Her ascent would have been much more dramatic, she said, had she been a man: “When you reach a certain level and you are trying to lead, it’s harder to be a woman because people still find it difficult to be led by women. My sense is that in the academy, men, if they have ability, are much more likely to be able to make it.”

How, then, does she explain her success? “Leadership is about staking out an area where you can do a good job and caring enough about that job to take chances, to put your skills on the line, to put your viewpoints and vision on the line and then seeing what works,” she said. “Often women and minorities think they have to imitate to be successful. They think they have to do what their white peers are doing or they have to be invisible and quiet and that will get them someplace. If there’s anything that marks my career, it is that I never believed that and I never cared about that.”

Before Simmons decided to accept the directorship of Princeton’s Afro-American studies program in the eighties, friends and colleagues advised her against it because she might typecast herself. “I did it anyway because I cared about Afro-American studies and I wanted to demonstrate how important it was to take seriously the study of other cultures,” she said. “There’s no question that they asked me because I was African American and because they thought I could do the job, but I was a novice. I had to learn as much as I could about the field and try to revive the department.”

Simmons transformed the marginal program into one of the strongest in the country by recruiting such high-profile black scholars as novelist Toni Morrison, philosopher of religion Cornel West, and biographer Arnold Rampersad. Her 1993 analysis of racial problems at Princeton, known as the Simmons Report, became a national model. It concluded that the problems on campus grew out of natural misunderstandings on the part of both black and white students. White students, for example, resented the way black students segregated themselves on campus, and blacks resented being stigmatized because of their skin color. Some of the report’s recommendations—such as establishing an office of conflict resolution and setting up a campus climate committee to defuse ongoing misunderstandings—have been adopted by other universities around the country.

Smith is among the nation’s strongest liberal arts colleges, both financially and academically, but it is struggling to recruit more minority students and faculty. It has no scholarships specifically designated for minorities, and Simmons admits that her one disappointment so far is that she has been unable to focus on bringing more minority students to Smith. As of November 1998, there were only 100 black students out of a student body of 2,650. Among the 262 faculty members, 11 are black. “The amount of time I have to deal with that issue is nil because my time has been taken up with long-term strategic planning and fundraising,” Simmons said. “I’d like to spend more time personally recruiting, being on the road, speaking with students, and encouraging them to apply. I already speak at high schools and college fairs, but I’d like to do more of that.”

Meanwhile, she takes an active interest in the minority students currently enrolled at Smith. “I have a strong bond with them,” she said. “They often invite me to special events and they make me an honorary member of their clubs and they give me a lot of support. They give me advice about policies and tend to be outspoken, so they are helpful to me about what needs to be done to assist students in their work. They keep my feet to the fire.”

During a pre-orientation program for minorities in the fall of 1995, Simmons befriended DeKia Henderson, then a freshman from Dallas. “I had come a long way from home, and she came up to me and asked why I was sitting by myself,” says Henderson, now a 21-year-old senior majoring in biology. “She encouraged me to get involved in the student community.” Henderson went on to join the Black Student Alliance and become involved in student government.

“President Simmons inspires me because we come from the same background and she’s gotten this far,” Henderson says. “I think if she can do it, I can do it.”

Juliette Fairley, who grew up in San Antonio, is the author of Money Talks: Black Finance Experts Talk to You About Money (John Wiley and Sons).

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