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Brown loves Ruth: Simmons’ approval rating still sky-high

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A cult of popularity seems to form around President Ruth Simmons. From T-shirts declaring “I Love Ruth” to acts of devotion on Facebook, Brown students cannot get enough of their beloved president.

According to a Herald poll conducted earlier this month, almost 85 percent of students said they approve of the job Simmons is doing, with 43.2 percent of polled students strongly approving.

But when asked for justification, few students interviewed by The Herald were able to cite specific reasons as to why they support Simmons and the work she is doing.

“She has done a really good job (and) responds pretty well to student opinion,” said Craig Auster ’08. “But I don’t really understand why people are so obsessed with her.”

Recently hailed by U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s best leaders and by Glamour magazine as a woman of the year, Simmons is a “star among college presidents,” said Paul Fain, a staff reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education who focuses on university presidents.

The job of university presidents has changed significantly in the last few decades, Fain said. Once purely an academic figure, the president of today must be a fundraiser, politician and lobbyist and still maintain ties to the world of academia. In regard to these qualifications, Simmons “really embodies everything that colleges are looking for in a president,” he said.

An important nuance of a successful 21st-century university president is approachability, something that was never necessary before, said Sheldon Steinbach, former vice president and general counsel at the American Council on Education.

“(Simmons) has obviously tapped into the culture of Brown (and) does play in well with the current Brown student body, who admire, accept, embrace her,” Steinbach said.

Among Simmons’s various attributes, Fain cited her ability to appeal to a “ridiculous range of people” – including 19-year-olds, over-involved parents, lawmakers, the media and faculty members.

The former Smith president drew similar support at the Massachusetts women’s college. “Perhaps the biggest reason for her popularity was her talent as a speaker – students, parents and alums all responded to her words,” Aimee Walker, a 1999 Smith graduate, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “People also saw her as a true academic herself, and her intelligence commanded our respect.”

The Office of the President would not respond to requests for comment on Simmons’ popularity.

Kathryn Wiseman ’11, whose Facebook profile photo earlier this semester featured herself with a friend and Simmons, met the president at the soccer kickoff barbecue during Orientation.

“My first face-to-face encounter with Ruth was much like a celebrity sighting,” Wiseman wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “When I saw her standing with a crowd of people, I knew I had to get a picture with her to prove to all my friends that I had actually spoken to this woman who everyone had so much respect for. Everyone puts her up on this pedestal, and yet when I saw her, she seemed so down to earth and in touch with everyone around her.”

Colette DeJong ’11 also waited eagerly to meet Simmons at the barbecue. “There was a huge mass crowded around her, just waiting to go up to her and smile awkwardly, but she was amazing. She just wants to connect to people,” she said.

“Every interaction I’ve had with (Simmons) has been positive,” said Elana Goldberg ’08.

At the start of the semester, DeJong, Sam Schmerler ’11 and Shahneel Kanj ’11, when thinking about how different regional synonyms for “cool” around the country, decided that “we should say ‘Ruth’ for everything and represent her since she’s so cool,” Kanj said.

“She’s such an icon and the University consensus for what’s cool,” Schmerler added.

From there, the three coined the phrase “That’s So Ruth!” and created a Facebook group bearing the same name. “By the next morning, there were a hundred members,” DeJong said.

“She’s one of the defining draws for Brown,” Schmerler said.

“A lot of the school spirit is inspired by Ruth,” DeJong added. “We’re put in charge of our own education and it can be scary and intimidating, but she makes it so exciting.”

The 2009 Class Board took advantage of Simmons’ popularity by selling T-shirts with the “I Love Ruth” emblem as a fundraiser during its freshman year. Robert Smith III ’09, who was president of the board as a freshman, said people are attracted to Simmons because of her laid-back exterior, charismatic personality and commitment to undergraduates.

But Smith said he believes Simmons’ racial identity is most responsible for her cult-like following. “There’s something about an African-American woman leading a predominantly white university,” he said. “It’s fulfilling to be part of this superlative sort of event.”

The first black president of an Ivy League institution, Simmons has a moving personal history. “She’s got a dynamic personal story that resonates” and has “built up an affectionate response,” Steinbach said.

“She seems like she’s done so much and just for that, I think she’s amazing,” said Juli Thorstenn ’09.

“I feel proud of her,” said Jessie Hopkins ’08.

“The obstacles she went through and where she is now – that’s pretty hardcore. That’s pretty ‘Ruth,’ ” Kanj said.

But Kanj emphasized that Simmons’ popularity and appeal are based on far more than her ethnicity. “It’s more about her personality, her thoughts, her wants as a president (that) lead to her being a great president,” he said.

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