In April, Ruth Simmons was formally inaugurated as the eighth president of Prairie View A&M University at a ceremony in the school’s football stadium. It was an unlikely new chapter for the 72-year-old educator, who previously served as president of Brown University and Smith College, two of the most elite schools in the country. For Simmons, who grew up in Houston’s Fifth Ward and attended Phillis Wheatley High School before earning degrees from Dillard University and Harvard, the new post also marks a Texas homecoming. Texas Monthly recently caught up with Simmons by phone to discuss her plans for Prairie View.
Texas Monthly: When you retired from Brown in 2012, did you anticipate that you would ever be a university president again?
Ruth Simmons: Oh, heavens no. In fact, I was absolutely certain that I would not ever wish to do that. I was offered presidencies after I left Brown, and I refused. I had a wonderful career, and I had already been president at two very fine places. In each instance I would say my tenure was thoroughly enjoyable, so I thought I didn’t deserve another presidency. Besides, I think old people should get out of the way and let younger people take the helm.
TM: What changed your mind?
RS: The possibility of doing something in Texas. If I had the opportunity to come to Texas earlier in my career, I would have done that. So when [Texas A&M Chancellor] John Sharp contacted me and asked if I would be willing to fill in for a while at Prairie View, I thought, here’s an opportunity to do what I love in Texas. [Simmons served briefly as interim president before her official appointment.] I knew Prairie View, because my brother and other members of my family went there. It’s a place my family prized. And one of the things I’ve learned in my career is that loyalty from alumni is evidence of something very worthwhile taking place at the institution. I came to understand what an immense asset the university is to the state.
TM: You went to college at Dillard University in New Orleans, a historically black university. How did that shape your education and career?
RS: At the time I graduated from Wheatley High School, Texas was not necessarily a hospitable place for African-Americans seeking a college education. My teachers recommended that I not go to school in Texas because they were fearful that it would not be comfortable for me. They recommended that I go to a historically black college. At the time, the prevalence of bigotry in Texas would not have led me to think I could do the things I’ve done in my career. In fact, the messages were all about limitations and restrictions when I was growing up. Going to a historically black college completely eliminated that for me—it was not about what I couldn’t do, it was about what I could do. I wasn’t unworthy. I could work to be everything I hoped to be. Just the removal of that constraint made all the difference in the world to me as somebody who was very poor, who had no social standing, and who grew up hearing that I was inferior. That was the exciting thing about going to Dillard.
TM: What do you see as the role of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) today?
RS: One of the things I’ve advocated my whole career is that all higher education institutions need not look the same. We can have different visions, different approaches, we can emphasize different things. That is the best thing about American higher education, that there’s incredible choice. If you are a woman, you can go to a women’s college. There are men’s colleges. There are religious colleges. There are colleges that emphasize particular fields of study. And African-American institutions were created with a particular purpose, which was to overcome the barriers created by slavery in this country. The historic mission of HBCUs remains meaningful to the African-American community, and many students want to be part of that legacy. They believe it’s an enabler of high performance, and they feel comfortable taking risks there.
TM: You’ve spoken about wanting to make Prairie View one of the best small universities in the country. How do you intend to get there? What are your top priorities?
RS: Faculty, faculty, and faculty. The profile of a university is influenced most by its faculty. So recruiting outstanding faculty, giving faculty opportunities for their work, being sure they are excellent teachers as well as scholars, that’s what we have to focus on.
TM: What is your sales pitch when you go out and recruit professors?
RS: My sales pitch is, number one, our high aspirations. Who wants to go to a place that is only interested in doing a modest amount? We are incredibly ambitious, and the fact that we’re ambitious and on the move will make a difference to scholars who want to be part of something special—not just another job, but building something. In my career, the things I remember most fondly are the things I helped to build. Most faculty want to be part of something like that.
Second, our students are incredible. You will hear on many campuses faculty talking about what a burden it is to work with the students of today—that they feel entitled, or that they don’t listen well. At Prairie View, the students are a dream to work with. They are extremely polite, very respectful. They are so committed to doing good in the world. I can’t even describe how beautiful it is to work with these young people. They’re often first-generation students, and grateful to be there. When you make a difference for these students, you’re doing something significant. You’re not just helping another student who has everything. You’re lifting up not just one student but an entire family.
TM: Do you feel like Prairie View has strong support from state leaders and the A&M system?
RS: I do. I know there is a narrative that says it isn’t supported. No university ever feels like it has enough. But I am amazed by the kind of response that I am getting from the system leadership and my peers at other universities in the system. They’re interested in collaborating. I’m trying to do ambitious things, and I haven’t been told ‘No’ yet. I firmly believe the system wants Prairie View to be outstanding, because if we’re outstanding the system gets a lot of credit for that. Why should they not want Prairie View to do well?
TM: You recently spoke to students at Phillis Wheatley High School in Houston, your alma mater. It’s currently one of the lowest-performing schools in Houston and is under threat of being shut down or taken over by the state. What do you think should happen?
RS: I would hate to see that neighborhood school disappear. People are very fond of thinking the solution to everything is taking things over. I very much doubt that taking over Wheatley would produce any better results. Instead, what the schools need is strong leadership. I’m involved in the Holdsworth Center, and what we’re trying to do is all about leadership development and leadership support. We go into the schools and we work with superintendents, school boards, and principals. We try to build structures that allow the schools to be successful. Something like that is needed for the Houston Independent School District. But the solution is not to destroy the schools. Without those schools, you change the character of the neighborhood, and we can’t afford to do that.