University News

Exclusive Q & A: President Ruth Simmons’ parting words

By
Science Editor

President Ruth Simmons will serve her last day in office June 30. With the semester drawing to a close, Simmons sat down with The Herald for one final interview to discuss her legacy, her post-office plans, her popularity among students and what the future may hold for Brown.

 

Herald: How has Brown changed over the last 11 years?

Simmons: (Sighs.) Well, I think it hasn’t changed in any fundamental way, that’s for sure. The kinds of foci that Brown has had for decades remain. I would say we’ve spent a lot of time in the last 11 years trying to strengthen various programs and initiatives that Brown has been known for for some time. I think that I certainly believe that when I came to Brown, I came with a mandate from the campus to do certain things. For example, when I was being recruited, I was given to understand that the Graduate School was a singularly important strength that needed a lot of attention. So we’ve paid attention to the graduate school, but I would say it hasn’t been a change. It’s been something that the faculty had been concerned about for a long time, and the only question has been whether or not we’d spent enough time and enough focus to address some of the concerns that the faculty and graduate students had.

Similarly, with the (Alpert Medical School), I remember the first, very first days at Brown, I heard from medical students. And they talked about – they, along with administrators at the time – talked about the need for a home for the medical school. And that had been certainly contemplated and sought for a very long time. The fact that there is a home for the medical school now is really not so much – I don’t regard it as a change.

 I think it’s just the actualization of the efforts of people over a very long period of time to bring it to fruition. So I think in the last 12 years, I would say we’ve spent a lot of time trying to implement things that have been really in the works for a long time. There are some new programs, it’s true, but compared to the core programs at Brown, I would say for most universities of our type, relatively few new programs in this period of time – just because we had so much to do in terms of implementing those ideas that had been on the books for a long time.

 And I don’t think Brown is going to return to that image of that colonial university educating ministers – educating not only ministers but educating individuals to become Baptist ministers. So this is the wonderful thing about a university – how the mission enlarges over time. And while that was a very worthy way for the University to begin, it’s not where the world is today. So I’m fascinated by the interplay of tradition and advancement. And I think Brown is a beautiful example of that, to be founded as a colonial university in the way that we were and now to be this great international university. It just seems to me a very normal evolution, and Brown has to continue to evolve in the same way. We cannot stand still.

 

So with regard to financial aid specifically – tell me more about what it was like to go need-blind. Why did you make that a priority?

First of all, in the lead-up to my joining Brown, I heard from many Brown alumni and members of the Corporation and others who were involved with Brown that for Brown to be virtually the only institution in the Ivy League that was not need-blind was very unsatisfactory to many. It was seen by many as a kind of a stain upon the profile and reputation of the University. But that was perhaps not even the most important element of it. The most important element of it was sort of a deep conviction among Brown alums and current students and others who just believed that need-blind was the only thing that Brown could do to ensure that it didn’t become merely the province of the wealthy. And as a protection against becoming that, the idea was that Brown needed to be able to offer sufficient financial aid to any student who needed it, so that a family’s economic ability was never the decisive element of a decision of whether to come to Brown or not. So mostly for those two reasons.

And I have to say that from a competitiveness standpoint, that was also very important. To be a university unlike our peers in our ability to offer financial assistance to the poorest students just seemed to set us apart in a very unfair way, because among our peers, Brown is probably the institution that cares most about matters of equity. Certainly if you look at our progressive claims – claims to being a progressive institution – it’s probably more important for Brown to be need-blind than probably any other institution, which doesn’t, for example, claim to care very much about that. So it was inconsistent with our identity, inconsistent with our goals for the future. And all of those reasons combined to make it seem like the most important initial decision for us to make.

 

Could you tell me a little bit about some of the advice that you got that you found useful?

Well the first advice I got, and this is mostly from the Corporation leadership and search committee, which is really – those are the first conversations I had about Brown – and that was that I needed to act quickly, that stasis had set in at Brown. There were lots of aspirations, many goals. But there was some dissatisfaction with our recent history in getting those things done. So I was told not to take much time, to come up with a plan pretty quickly and enact that plan. So “move fast” is what they said. Of course, if I had more knowledge about Brown, I definitely wouldn’t have done that. So thank goodness I didn’t know much about Brown because I acted on that, and probably some of the best things we did were the consequence of not having enough information about Brown.

 

Is there anything specific in mind that you think of?

That would have made it harder? Well, take need-blind for example. Let’s say that we had done that in the typical Brown way. We would have had endless debates within the community about whether or not need-blind was the right thing to do. We would have had people poring over our financial statements and arguing that we couldn’t afford it. We would have people suggesting that it was not a good use of resources because, after all, we had other needs, and so instead of spending the money on financial aid, since there were enough students who could afford to come to Brown, just let the market solve the problem and let people pay what they could. There would have been hundreds of reasons for delaying the decision and probably hundreds of reasons for, in the end, not doing it. Because there would have been so many questions about it that it wouldn’t have been a clear decision as to whether to do it or not. And for some people today, it’s still not a clear decision. So that’s what I mean. I think it would have taken us – we would have taken a good deal of time to debate it, we would have perhaps held open forums on it, we would have done all the manner of things, and in the end, ambiguity would have remained. And ambiguity is a kind of death sentence sometimes in these kinds of organizations because if you don’t think you have a mandate – often people are afraid to implement decisions without a mandate. So probably if I had known at the time as much as I know now about such matters, there probably are lots of things I wouldn’t have done.

 

A recent Herald poll found that 81.1 percent of students said in some way you had contributed to their Brown experience in a positive way. Why do you think there has been such positive support for you over the years, and is there anything you’ve done to make yourself accessible to students?

I’m completely puzzled by that. I have no idea. And I wouldn’t even speculate about it.

 

So as far as your cult status, with the Ruth T-shirts - >

(Shakes head) You know, I have no idea. I think that had I guessed what it would be, I definitely would not have made that call. And maybe I don’t – my own self-awareness is so low that I don’t have a way to understand it. But here’s what my self-awareness tells me. I’m a pretty plain person. I like to say what I mean and do what I say. I like to be fair, even-handed and honest. None of that recommends one to be popular, frankly. And you know, I’ve sort of lived with that throughout my career and never thought of it as something that recommended me in particular for pictures on T-shirts. So it’s a puzzle to me. I do have to say that I have enormous affection and regard for Brown students for the ways in which they contribute. And the fact that I do might make a difference. There are some people who regard students as more a nuisance than anything else – I don’t.

There are ways in which I think whatever we have done over the past years has been – has represented an immense contribution from students. Because some of the ideas that they have come up with, frankly, have been extraordinarily well-researched, extraordinarily well-considered and often their ideas are just – well, first of all, their ideas are bountiful, and secondly, they’re often excellent ideas. So I’ve regarded students in this process as partners in a very challenging and important endeavor. And perhaps partly my respect for students and the role that they play is understood. Perhaps. But otherwise, I can’t tell you.

 

After you leave, when do you expect to come back to Brown, and in what capacity? I know you’ve said you might like to -

Teach. So I have a leave coming, and I actually have not had time to make all my plans about what I’ll be doing during my leave, but I have a couple of book projects that I’ll be working on and trying to make some progress on. So the main thing is really to get back to what I set out to do when I committed myself to this profession. And that is to thinking, to reflecting, to doing some research, to writing, to sharing my ideas. That’s what I want to spend some time doing, and having time to do that will be an amazing thing, frankly, given the years in which I’ve basically had every day filled and every evening virtually filled and every weekend filled and so forth. So I also hope during that time to think about what I want to teach, and that will also be a big part of it. There are people who say, “Oh, come on, you’ll never have time to come back and teach. Something is going to come up where you will feel that you’ve got to go and do it.” It’s hard for me to imagine that now. Every week, I get calls from people asking me to do things, which always surprises me because, as I say, I’m very plain-spoken. And when I said that I did not plan to take on another task like this – it kind of amazes me that people don’t believe that, actually. Because I’m a person who does – I think I’m a person who does what she says. But people still ask. And I still say no. I can’t imagine any position that would be important enough to supplant Brown in my – first of all, in my heart, among my goals, and so forth. So I don’t know, I can’t see it. If somebody appointed me to an ambassadorship, would I consider that? Maybe. But there are probably no more than two or three that I would even consider. So it’s very hard, but right now I can’t imagine anything that would happen that would take me away from my plan, but I don’t know.

 

You’ve talked about going to France as well. Is that still -

Yeah. Not for the entire year because I have certain obligations for the fall that will keep me in the (United) States. But the most important thing for me, at least initially, is to completely disappear so that I’m not second-guessing the next president. One of the worst things in the world is to hang around and then every time something comes up, for The Herald to call me or for somebody else to call me and say, “What do you think of this?” That would be the most horrendous thing. I would never do that to the next president. So my first goal is to completely disappear and not put anybody in a position of asking me to second-guess or anything that a new president is doing.

 No forwarding address will be left. (Laughs)

 

There has been a lot of talk about internationalization and making Brown a more global university. How do you think internationalization might be a good thing, how do you think Brown has become a more global university and how would you would want Paxson to promote that?

Well, I won’t give a message to her. I can tell you unabashedly that my conviction that deeper and deeper international focus and foci at Brown is an absolute must for this institution to be competitive well into the future. There’s no question in my mind about that. The only question is how one does that. And there the policies and approaches undertaken by one president versus another can be different. I chose to focus on an office that develops policy and to support initiatives of all kinds in the international area. But a new president could decide that there are several different things to do in this arena. …

There are well-educated people in this country who believe that if you speak with an accent that you have a problem, that you are less intelligent than other people. There are people who make decisions about hiring people based on whether they have an accent. Now the stupidity of that is so compelling because if you’ve studied a language, you will never believe that again. Because fundamentally you will understand that everybody has an accent.

 But that very basic thing is something that I think underlies human relations to a significant degree and is something that is compelling enough for us to say that it should be a part of our education, that we learn that fundamental issue. But for somebody else, it could be, for example, that everyone has to learn about international finance and international economy. Some people might think that’s very important. So I’m less concerned about the institutional manifestation of the policy for an era than I am about whether or not it continues to be one of the most important things that we think of doing, provided that we continue to bring students from around the world to Brown and then we continue to send students from Brown around the world, provided that we support initiatives in the curriculum to teach about areas of the world that will play a very important part in our lives. If we do not have at Brown a very substantial offering on India, for example, or China, in my view, that’s a very big mistake. So this is an area I have very strong views about. And I don’t think Brown is going to return to that image of that colonial university educating ministers – educating not only ministers but educating individuals to become Baptist ministers. So this is the wonderful thing about a university – how the mission enlarges over time. And while that was a very worthy way for the University to begin, it’s not where the world is today. So I’m fascinated by the interplay of tradition and advancement. And I think Brown is a beautiful example of that, to be founded as a colonial university in the way that we were and now to be this great international university. It just seems to me a very normal evolution, and Brown has to continue to evolve in the same way. We cannot stand still.

 

Is there anything you want to add to a new president or our readers?

Well, one of the things I’ve tried not to do is to judge myself. But I’m perfectly comfortable with the way that other people feel free to do that. But I do feel comfortable judging our university – its quality, its breadth, its relevance, its place on the international stage. All of that I feel perfectly capable of doing. And I guess the main thing I would like, as I leave, for people to do is not to settle for some precious little place that serves our precious little needs – that Brown is important enough to b
e on the world stage. If we believe in what we do, then we also have to believe that it’s important for us to care about the child in Africa who might come to Brown and find something unique and take it back to their country.

If we care about what we do and believe in what we do, then we ought to be able to acknowledge that a new degree program is appropriate for us to do, that there are graduate degrees that are so important precisely because they are at Brown and they carry the Brown message. So for example, people have come to us repeatedly and said, “Why doesn’t Brown do at the graduate level what it did at the undergraduate level with regard to the open curriculum? No other university will do it. Only Brown can do that. Why wouldn’t Brown do that?” So I think that we have to continue to look ahead to what can preserve the best of Brown, but at the same time, not be afraid to embrace the fact that Brown could become a more and more important institution in the future. I think that’s what alumni seek, I think when you graduate from this place, that’s what you inevitably want.

And so if you happen to be from Turkey and you go back to Turkey and nobody knows what Brown is, that’s a problem for you. So visibility on the international stage is going to be important in the future. We don’t have to do it the way that others do it – I don’t think the idea of having a campus in some far-flung part of the world is vital to our interests at this juncture, but I think it is vital to our interests to be known around the world. And we have to get better and better at finding ways of doing that.