By Cheril Vernon
Messenger Copy Editor
GRAPELAND – Grapeland native and renowned pioneering educator Ruth Simmons, Ph.D., who became the first African American to serve as president of an Ivy League college, has stepped out of retirement temporarily to assume the role as interim president of Prairie View A&M University.
Simmons, 72, led Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island as president from 2001 to 2012. A Harvard University graduate, Simmons also was the first African-American to become president of Smith College, an elite all-women college in Northhampton, Mass.
During this time period, Time Magazine named Simmons as the best college president in the United States. Among her other administrative positions at institutions of higher learning over the years, Simmons has served as vice provost at Princeton University and as provost at Spelman College, a historically black college.
She returned to Houston, where her family still lives, in 2012 after retiring from Brown.
Simmons was tapped for the Prairie View A&M position by an unanimous vote of the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents following a June 12 announcement from former Prairie View A&M President George Wright. Wright stepped down after 14 years to return to teaching and research. Simmons assumed her duties on July 1.
Since her retirement, Simmons said she has turned down other offers, but Prairie View A&M University appealed to her because of its history, its significance and its mission, according to a Prairie View A&M University news release.
“I was from a very poor family with 12 children, at a time when colleges were just desegregating,” Simmons said in the news release. “I know how important historically black colleges and universities are for kids like I was.”
Simmons said the Prairie View A&M University interim president’s position is exactly that – interim – until a permanent president can be chosen.
“I have deep roots in Texas, and I was looking for a way to do something helpful for my community,” Simmons said in the news release.
Simmons was born July 3, 1945 on the Murray Farm near Grapeland in Houston County, and is the youngest of 12 children born to sharecroppers Fanny and Isaac Stubblefield.
At the age of 7, her family moved to Houston’s Fifth Ward, a predominantly poor area in the city. She graduated in the top of her class from high school in 1963, where she won a scholarship to attend college.
Simmons attended the historically black college Dillard University in New Orleans, earned her Bachelor of Arts in French and graduated summa cum laude in 1967. While at Dillard, Simmons participated in a year-long exchange program which gave her the opportunity to study at the prestigious all-women college, Wellesley, in Northhampton, Mass.
Simmons once told Black Enterprise magazine what happened at Wellesley shaped her life.
“It was 1966, and while watching the civil rights movement unfold on TV, I came to recognize that my mind was just the same as the students in the classroom with me. I could do everything that these very wealthy, very well prepared white women could do. I had sort of suspected that there wasn’t very much to all this hype that blacks were inferior to whites. But now I knew the truth, and an electric bolt went through me,” Simmons told Caroline V. Clarke in Black Enterprise.
Simmons spent a year abroad studying French at the University in Lyons in France on a Fullbright Fellowship.
She went on to study at Harvard University, earning her Masters in 1970 and a Doctorate in Romance Languages in 1973.
During her time at Brown, one of Simmons’ greatest accomplishments was establishing a blind admissions policy so that all qualified applicants who are accepted can attend the university regardless of their ability to pay. She also led Brown in the biggest fundraising campaign in the school’s history, raising $1.6 billion.
Through the years, Simmons has credited her mother as the greatest influence in her life.
In her 1998 essay, “My Mother’s Daughter: Lessons I Learned in Civility and Authenticity,” published in the Texas Journal of Ideas, History and Culture, Simmons explained, “I was intent on doing something productive and on being everything my parents taught me to be. Their values were clear: do good work; don’t ever get too big for your breeches: always be an authentic person; don’t worry too much about being famous and rich because that doesn’t amount to too much.”
A New York Times article printed in 1995, just before she became inaugurated as the president of Brown University, said Simmons was planning to carry a Bible with her to the ceremony that her mother gave her father on the day they were married.
“I try to be worthy of the kind of person my mother wanted me to be,” Simmons told the New York Times.
Simmons also has sat on the board of several major corporations over the years, including Met Life, Pfizer, Texas Instruments Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
In 2012, Simmons made a significant financial gift to the Grapeland Public Library to establish the Fannie Campbell Stubblefield Room in honor of her mother. The donation was used to upgrade the library’s genealogical research collection.