Columns

Michael Skocpol ’10: Getting in with Goldman

What Ruth can teach us about a life lived ironically

Brown enters the national consciousness in strange ways.

Usually, it comes across as an exotic place, a bastion of the elite and famous, its students devoid of common sense and oblivious to common sensibilities in our rarified bubble. As far as the world at large is concerned, our class matriculated alongside Summer Roberts of “The OC” and will graduate with Hermione looking on. In the last four years, we came clean about our slave-trading roots, washed our hands of “Columbus Day” and spent most of the rest of our time having raunchy naked parties on the College’s dime.

But our most recent blip on the national radar gave the old narrative a fresh twist. The news that President Ruth Simmons was cutting ties with Goldman Sachs, as an article in the New York Times portrayed it, sparked a fit of jilted pique among the student body. Our leaders, like the nation’s, had canoodled with Wall Street and let us down. We still came across as hopelessly naïve, but even we, the swaddled liberal elites, were sharing in Main Street’s betrayal.

While it was nice to be analogized to the Average Joe for once, the story missed the mark. On the contrary, I found that most greeted the news of her resignation from Goldman’s board with a shrug. For the most part, we knew about her corporate board memberships — she continues to serve at Texas Instruments — and gave them little thought. I for one wasn’t all that surprised she wanted to distance herself from what was rapidly becoming the most resented company in America. This semester’s Herald poll found Ruth as popular as ever.

It makes sense that we’re quite comfortable with the idea that President Simmons could immerse herself for years in the filthy excesses of Goldman’s corporate culture and emerge the same old Ruth, untarnished in our eyes. After all, we Brown students relish being in on something but not necessarily of it — situating ourselves just a little above it all, being a bit too cool for school even as we play along.

We go to frat parties — ironically. We head to the Providence Place Mall — and roll our eyes about it later. We sit in the Ratty and crack jokes about the food. We’re even a little disdainful of the whole Ivy League thing. Yeah, we go to one of those schools, but we’re not the type of students who would go to one of those schools.

Similarly, we like to imagine Ruth in all those Goldman board meetings, rolling her eyes at the fatcats and the shills.

At worst, we assume, she stayed away from the ickiness, showed up and then got away with several million dollars for her trouble, with plenty of time left over to take care of the things she really cares about — like us.

At best, we imagine, she managed to inject her moral compass into the proceedings even while masquerading as a perfect corporate suit, subtly shaving a few zeros off those outrageous bonuses in the process.

Hell, some of us see ourselves doing more or less the same thing next year, if only at the entry level.

So are we in on the joke, or are we as naïve as advertised? Only the woman herself knows what she was thinking, and she’s shown little eagerness to publicly navel-gaze about her time in Goldman’s inner circle.

I do know that we students project a lot onto “Ruth,” even before we know much of anything about her. The first time we presume the familiarity of a first-name basis, we draw her close to us, trustingly. She’s not exactly one of us, but we assume that she gets it, that she’s not one of them either — not a sell-out, not cold-blooded, not a hired suit.

We glimpse something in her we like, and we seize on it.

There’s a history there. Simmons’ predecessor, Gordon Gee, famously failed to connect with the campus. With a lawyerly background, a reputation as more CEO than scholar, and a decidedly non-ironic signature bow tie, he was quintessentially not in on the joke, and he did not stick around long. Among Gee’s faux pas was an elaborate and expensive renovation of 55 Power Street, Brown’s presidential residence.

Enter Ruth, whose humble origins in a sharecropper’s shack in segregated Texas have always helped her project a refreshing sense of perspective, even as she climbed to pioneering heights. Thanks to formative years spent defying limitations as a poor black woman, her self-awareness is unparalleled; her actions always seem considered, grounded in a confident understanding of who she is and what she’s all about. At Brown’s helm, she can hobnob with wealthy donors while still winking at pretense, and it all comes across as pretty much sincere. After Gee, she was universally regarded as a welcome change of pace.

Given her persona, one of the most fitting rumors I ever heard during my years as a Herald editor was that Ruth doesn’t live on Power Street at all, that she just holds occasional functions there. She maintains a place off-campus, the rumor goes — a home in some quiet neighborhood, unfrilly, where she can maintain her distance from it all. She may hold court at the crest of Power, but she doesn’t live there.

I’ve always wondered if the rumors were true, and recently I screwed up the courage to e-mail President Simmons and ask. Her response? She does live at 55 Power Street, and she moved in the day she took the job. Which is not to say it has been an easy fit.

“The struggle to make the presidential dwelling a home is a major consideration,” she wrote back. “Since 55 had been famously renovated before I came, I chose to keep the house intact as Gordon Gee had envisioned it, leaving it to my photographs and other portable items to provide that feeling of home for me.”

She seems comfortable — or at least comfortable enough — with that decision.

“A part of my consciousness is always with the humble houses that I grew up in, so another dimension of living at 55 Power is that it remains a little foreign and somewhat too privileged to me,” she explained. “Nevertheless, when I return at the end of the day or from a trip, it is now familiar enough that I can say that I feel utterly relieved to be home.”

I also asked her, more generally, where she considers to be her home, and in that she was unequivocal.

“I can comfortably say 55 Power Street,” she responded — without a trace of irony.

Michael Skocpol ’10, from Cambridge, Mass., was deputy managing editor of The Herald in 2009.