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University News

A legacy of inspiration and growth

By
News Editor
Friday, September 16, 2011

When President Ruth Simmons steps down at the close of the academic year, she will leave the University with a legacy of institutional expansion, unprecedented fundraising and a progressive yet competitive vision for the future of Brown.

“In my heart of hearts, I know I’m home,” Simmons said upon her arrival at Brown in 2001. “I know this is it, and all my career has been building toward this.”

Simmons began her presidency with the goal of improving the University’s national standing. She announced the foundations of what would become the Plan for Academic Enrichment — increasing faculty salaries, bolstering financial aid, hiring 100 new faculty members and instituting need-blind admission beginning with the class of 2007.

She wanted to pay for the extra financial aid solely through fundraising. “I don’t want this tossed into the rest of the budget,” Simmons said at the time. “I want it sticking out like a sore thumb because it’s who we are.”

In 2002 the Corporation unanimously endorsed the $78.8 million plan. Simmons also announced her intention to raise $1 billion over the next 10 years — an amount that would be far surpassed.

“I think she’s going to go down as one of the presidents that did a great deal in expanding Brown,” said Jane Lancaster, visiting assistant professor of history, who is currently writing a book on the history of the University.

 

Taking the helm

The Corporation voted unanimously on Nov. 9, 2000 to elect Simmons, then-president of Smith College, as the 18th University president and first black president of an Ivy League institution.

“Ruth sees this as her last challenge in academic life and that she’s here for the duration of her academic career, which I hope will be a very long time,” said then-Chancellor Stephen Robert ’62 P’91, who chaired the Corporation’s presidential search committee, when he announced the selection in Sayles Hall the next day.

More than 100 newspapers covered Ruth’s inauguration, most lauding the accomplishments of the 12th child of Texas sharecroppers and a great-granddaughter of slaves.

The New York Times called Simmons an “inspired” choice. She was even dubbed “the Jackie Robinson of higher education.”

But just weeks into her presidency, Simmons found herself the keynote speaker at an impromptu Salomon 101 assembly the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. She encouraged students to combat bigotry and prejudice on a large scale and called for tolerance.

The next month, Simmons was formally inaugurated in a weekend of festivities including 20 faculty forums and a 500-person procession.

Patrick Kennedy, then a Rhode Island congressman and now a visiting fellow at the Brown Institute for Brain Science, said at the time that Simmons’ inaugural speech — for which she received six standing ovations — “sparked an idealism in everybody.”

 

Big dreams grounded in reality

“We’ve never had a president who’s as decisive and who has as good judgment as she has,” John Savage, professor of computer science, told post- Magazine in 2002.

In May 2003, the University purchased 70 Ship St. in the Jewelry District, a turning point for the expansion of the Alpert Medical School and the beginning of Brown’s ongoing commitment to help build a “knowledge economy” in that area.

Simmons’ lofty goals for Brown were accompanied by her abilities on the ground — liaising with donors, representing the University abroad and ultimately securing over $1.6 billion by the Campaign for Academic Enrichment’s close in December 2010.

“She has helped us to build the resources we need to implement the Brown curriculum,” Stephen Foley ’74 P’04 P’07, associate professor of English and interim chair of the department, told The Herald after Simmons announced her resignation Thursday.

A $100 million gift founded the Sidney Frank ’42 scholarship in 2004, which allowed the University to offer loan-free full financial aid to 130 students each year. In 2005, Simmons announced a 5.5 percent overall increase in faculty salaries, reflecting a continuous effort under the Plan for Academic Enrichment to attract and retain desirable professors.

“When I leave, I’ll leave behind the greatest president of a university in the United States,” Robert said at a speech launching the Boldly Brown fundraising campaign in 2006, shortly before he vacated his position.

Simmons “made Brown a reality for people who couldn’t afford it,” said Ralanda Nelson ’12, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students.

 

The president, the icon

From its outset, Simmons’ presidency attracted national attention, increasing the University’s presence within academia and in the public eye.

The Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice — appointed by Simmons in 2003 to study and evaluate the University’s historical connections to slavery in Rhode Island — released its report in 2006 to a storm of press coverage. The report outlined a center for the study of slavery and justice and an on-campus memorial to the slave trade, among other recommendations. In recent years, other universities have followed Simmons’ lead and launched similar investigations into their own pasts.

Universities have a responsibility to “reveal the truth of their own histories,” Simmons said at a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last spring. “The fear of the truth has no place in a university that purports to expose the truth.”

As the University figurehead, Simmons’ symbolic gestures spoke volumes. In the midst of a shrinking endowment and an international financial crisis, Simmons took salary cuts in the fiscal years ending in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

In 2004, 2005 and 2006, she gave $2,004, $2,005 and $2,006 respectively to the senior class gift. But in 2007, she gave $20,007. “So I will have a shorter vacation this year,” she told The Herald at the time.

But her position on the board of directors of Goldman Sachs had the opposite symbolic effect, drawing campus and national scrutiny in 2010. Simmons resigned from the post the same year.

Simmons — known to students simply as Ruth — has retained high approval ratings from the student body in semesterly Herald polls. Though her approval has declined from 84.9 percent in 2007, 62.5 percent of students approved of her presidency in spring 2011.

“She’s just been phenomenal,” said Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services. “It’s going to be a tough act to follow.”

 

— With additional reporting by Elizabeth Carr, Felice Feit, Jordan Hendricks, Talia Kagan, Alex Macfarlane, Lindor Qunaj and Emma Wohl

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