Simmons takes concerns, causes laughs at Parents Weekend event

Monday, October 17, 2005

Ruth Simmons spoke and answered questions Sunday morning during “An Hour with the President,” a Parents Weekend tradition. Rainy weather caused the event to be relocated from the Main Green to an overflowing Salomon 101.

Simmons’ remarks began at 11 a.m. and were simulcast in Salomon 001 and Sayles Hall to accommodate the attendees. She recounted the story of pastor-professor James Manning and William Roberts, who in the 1760s were Brown’s first and only teacher and student. Roberts went on to become the only member of his graduating class (and, Simmons joked, was deemed “sufficiently eloquent to deliver the valedictory address,”) as well as – not unlike his mentor Manning – a teacher, pastor and brigade chaplain in the Revolutionary War.

Student-teacher relationships are what inspire people like Roberts to pursue a “life of exceptional achievement,” Simmons said, and “this was, and always will be, the heart of the Brown experience.”

Simmons also emphasized that it is “important that students have the experience of being students,” commending the wrestling team for having the highest average GPA of all collegiate wrestling teams in the nation, the Frisbee team for taking the national championship after a 31-game winning streak last spring and the football team for beating Princeton on Saturday.

She addressed the common perception that a degree from Brown is worth more today than it was 40 years ago, expressing hope that the quality of a Brown degree will always be improving.

“I have never been more convinced of the importance of higher education than I am today,” Simmons said. “You should never feel that in 40 years, your Brown degree will be worth less. Brown has to adapt continually to keep up with changes in (every field) … We should always be working to make (a Brown degree) worth more.”

The auditorium erupted in laughter when Simmons stopped suddenly midway through her remarks.

“I’m sorry, but there’s a bug on this lectern. I’m trying to be brave,” Simmons explained before calling Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services David Greene onstage to swat it with a rolled-up newspaper.

Simmons interrupted herself again minutes later. “That was so girly of me, wasn’t it?” she asked a highly amused crowd.

When she opened the conversation to questions from the audience, the first parent to the microphone suggested that her behavior with the bug might have been biologically predetermined, a reference to Harvard president Larry Summer’s highly-publicized remarks last year about women’s possible biological inadequacies in the sciences. Simmons responded with a laugh.

Other feedback from the audience included thanks from parents of a first-year who spent a night in the hospital and was paid an emergency visit by a dean at his worried mother’s behest, as well as a member of the first-ever transfer class to receive financial aid from the University.

One father expressed his dissatisfaction with the living conditions in Keeney Quadrangle, and another parent was distressed that unused meal credits do not carry over at the end of each week, encouraging the University to consult Washington Univer-sity’s meal plan if they decide to make improvements to its own in the future.

Greene highlighted efforts in recent years to be responsive to students’ abnormal eating schedules, mentioning that over half of meals served at the University are served after 8 p.m.

One parent raised concerns about the discontinuation of the University’s concentration program in Biomedical Ethics, in response to which Dean of the College Paul Armstrong explained the difficulties of sustaining an interdisciplinary program when faculty interest changes or professors leave.

“Brown isn’t discontinuing the program in Biomedical Ethics,” Armstrong said, explaining that because they were unable to replace the faculty for senior seminars required for the concentration before graduation, they had no choice but to discontinue it temporarily.

Simmons offered unwavering advice when asked how much she believed one must camouflage oneself in order to function in the world as a young black woman.

“Don’t accept short term gains that force you to alter who you are as a person,” Simmons said. “In the long run people will respect you for being truthful and honest with your own views, from your own independent reviewing of the facts.

“We live in a time when it’s hard to find diversity of opinion. … We gravitate towards people like us. The majority of the country is segregated,” Simmons said. “Ideally, Brown education enables you to escape that.”

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