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Metro, University News

A guiding presence beyond College Hill

By
City & State Editor
Friday, September 16, 2011

Like others who have moved onto an unfamiliar campus for the first time, David Dooley received a warm welcome to his new home from President Ruth Simmons.

Simmons, he said, was one of the first people to call him when he became president of the University of Rhode Island two years ago. The focus of their conversation — collaboration — was one that Simmons brought to her work both on and off College Hill.

“I think she was very serious about engaging the city, about coming to the city and encouraging the institution to think about its identity as partly bound up in Providence and Rhode Island,” Dooley said. Under Simmons, Brown and URI have partnered on research initiatives, particularly in the life sciences and biomedical fields.

“She is someone that, despite her rock-star status among higher education leaders, has always struck me as someone who is always interested in promoting other individuals and partnerships,” he said. This February, Simmons and Dooley joined Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras on a fact-finding mission to Houston, Texas, where they toured the world’s largest medical complex. Following the trip, they co-authored a Providence Journal op-ed on the role Rhode Island universities and colleges can play in promoting economic growth.

Chafee, a former distinguished visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, praised Simmons in a statement Thursday after she announced she will resign at the end of this academic year. “While this is a sad occasion, it is also an opportunity to celebrate Ruth’s exceptional leadership of Brown University over the last 10 years,” Chafee said. “Ruth is a true superstar, blazing through the galaxy of higher education. Even among its many bright lights, she shone brightest.”

Sen. Rhoda Perry P’91, D-Providence, who has represented the district that includes Brown for two decades in the General Assembly, recalls the first time she heard that a black woman was to become president of the University her son had attended. “I was just so proud,” she said.

Perry lauded Simmons for entering into an agreement to contribute payments in lieu of taxes to the city along with other nonprofits. The arrangement helped the city weather difficult economic times, Perry said. “We were one of the first cities to actually do that,” she said.

Perry also pointed to Simmons’ leadership in the city’s ongoing development efforts. Under Simmons, Brown expanded the Alpert Medical School and has positioned itself to play a key role in the redevelopment of the 20 acres left available by the relocation of I-195, she said.

“She really made an impression that Brown wanted to be part of the community — part of the Providence community, part of the greater Rhode Island community and part of the college community of the state,” she said.

Neil Steinberg ’75, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, a philanthropic organization pointed to the impact of Simmons’ on-campus initiatives on the wider community. Steinberg worked under Simmons as Brown’s vice president for development from 2004 to 2008.

“Ruth’s leadership on the Plan for Academic Enrichment, which included additional faculty, new buildings, enhanced scholarships and the expansion of the Med School, benefited Providence and Rhode Island,” he said.

Steinberg said that one of Simmons’ most enduring legacies is her story ­— that of a black woman from a poor family in rural Texas who became president of an Ivy League university. “I think she was an inspirational leader and role model,” he said.

Simmons was also a forceful advocate for public education and a champion for educators, he said. She provided guidance for the foundation’s efforts to improve K-12 education in the state.

Members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation joined community leaders in praising Simmons. Democratic senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse issued statements commending Simmons. “During her tenure, the contribution of Brown’s students, faculty and alumni has only strengthened Brown’s reputation as one of the world’s great universities,” Whitehouse said.

“As a Brown alum, I applaud her lasting contributions to the University, and I wish her well on her next step,” Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., said in a statement.

As for that next step, Simmons’ decision to step down has set in motion a search for her replacement. Dooley recommended the selection committee inquire whether candidates embody a quality often overlooked in college presidents: fun.

“I hope that when Brown looks for a new president, they pick somebody who is both as thoughtful and as courageous as she is as a leader and also just an enjoyable person to spend time with,” he said.

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