“Leading Ably from Difference”: Honoring President Ruth Simmons on Presidents’ Day

Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons

Each year on Presidents’ Day, we examine the narrative of US presidential history.  While important, it also seems worthy to expand the conversation to consider the various ways in which one can assume the office of a president, especially if that president is a woman.

Last fall, a Forbes article reported that the American Council on Education indicates that 23% of college presidents are women. While Americans know we have never had a woman President, how many of us know that half of the eight Ivy League universities are headed by a woman?  Harvard is led by Drew Gilpin Faust, Princeton by Shirley Tilghman, the University of Pennsylvania by Amy Gutmann, and Brown by Ruth J. Simmons.  How many of us look to these women as models of leadership for issues that are important to us, especially as educators?

Ruth J. Simmons was a major influence during my education at Smith thirteen years ago. I remember her inauguration at Smith clearly, as 2,800 Smith students celebrated her arrival as the college’s first African American woman president.  During the course of that weekend, members of the African American intelligentsia came to celebrate their friend and colleague’s new leadership of a major women’s college. During the course of her inaugural weekend, I remember meeting Toni Morrison at a reception at Smith’s Museum of Art and watching Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West debate issues of education, race, and culture at Smith’s John M. Greene Hall.

More importantly, I remember her leadership.  During my years at Smith, I was a student government wonk.  Ascending the leadership ladder, I was first a student senator and an honor board representative, then junior class president. During the fall of my first semester as junior class president in 1995, Simmons was entering her first year as President of the College.  Because of my role, I was able to join college-wide and trustee level committees, such as the College’s Committee on Planning and Resources and a Campus Center Task Force that Simmons herself commissioned.  As a member of these committees, I was able to watch and learn from Simmons as she ushered in a new era at Smith.

Through it all, I watched a leader of exceptional presence and vision.  It was from Simmons that I learned how a leader should listen carefully and speak thoughtfully.  It was from Simmons that I also learned the power of mentoring.  I’ll never forget how I went to her office the spring of my senior year in 1997 feeling downtrodden that I had not been offered a teaching position at a public girls school.  She immediately invited me to her office in College Hall and gave me advice about entering the field of education, and the ways in which it is sometimes fraught with disappointment but that one should persevere even through the challenges.

Simmons is now President of Brown University and has been since 2001; by taking the helm of Brown she became the first African American to lead an Ivy League university.

In 2003, Simmons established the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to examine Brown’s connection to the slave trade, which led to the publication of two reports:  one, the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice and the Response to the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.  In 2007, Simmons also delivered a lecture at St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge titled Hidden In Plain Sight: Slavery and Justice in Rhode Island.

During her tenure at Brown, Simmons has also helped expand financial aid and develop institutional diversity.

It came as no surprise then when I learned through reading an article from the Brown Daily Herald that BET (Black Entertainment Television) recently honored her accomplishments as a leader and educator. Here is a video of Simmons’ acceptance speech at the BET Honors awards ceremony, which was aired on February 1.

On education, her words are unforgettable: “I came to understand the value of education, not just to enable me to make a good living, but to enable me to make a worthwhile life.” Equally as powerful, her words on leading as a woman of color: “One can lead ably from difference.”

So perhaps celebrating Presidents’ Day should be about not only celebrating our presidential history but also about celebrating the leaders who have influenced us in some way: our mentors, our coaches, our teachers.  Our women presidents.

This post can also be found on the teacher group blog Equality 101.

4 thoughts on ““Leading Ably from Difference”: Honoring President Ruth Simmons on Presidents’ Day

  1. I love your blog! I’m so glad we got to catch up this weekend, and that now I get to keep track of your brilliance here on the blog. AMAZING pictures of you and RM, by the way. Your school is so lucky to have you.

  2. I admire Simmons too although I only met her once, when she met with an alumnae group in LA when we lived there.

    It was so inspiring to meet you at Smith and hear what you are doing with your own education mission. Thanks for this post and for all that you do.

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