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Ruth’s Legacy

What Brown's 18th president will leave behind

Thursday, May 24, 2012


When President Ruth Simmons assumed office July 1, 2001, she took the reins of a University in turmoil. Former President Gordon Gee had resigned the previous year after the shortest presidency in Brown’s history and amid a cloud of criticism from students, staff and faculty. The Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, was divided between those who wanted a return to Brown’s traditional focus on the liberal arts and those who advocated an increased emphasis on science, research and corporate ties. Weeks into her tenure, Simmons found herself addressing a packed Salomon 101 on the evening of Sept. 11. 

“The University was at a very uncertain moment, a very delicate and important moment,” said former Provost David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98. “To compare the time when Ruth arrived and now – well, there’s simply no comparison.”

As Simmons prepares to step down as president, she leaves behind an increasingly globalized University in a stronger financial position with a greater emphasis than at any time in its history on research and the hard sciences. Her students have elevated her to cult status. But it is her vision for Brown’s future, perhaps, which has been Simmons’ greatest legacy in her 11 years as president. 

Palpable changes

Simmons will be best remembered for enacting need-blind admission, leading record fundraising and increasing focus on research and the sciences. 

In 2002, Simmons launched the Campaign for Academic Enrichment with the intention of raising $1 billion over the next 10 years. By the time the campaign ended in in December 2010, it had taken in more than $1.6 billion, making it the largest fundraising campaign in University history. 

In 2004, a $100 million gift from billionaire liquor magnate Sidney Frank ’42, who dropped out of Brown after one year because he could not afford tuition, eliminated loans for the University’s neediest students and “raised the bar” for other donations, Simmons said at the time. Three years later, self-made millionaire Warren Alpert donated $100 million in support of medical education at Brown.

Many attribute the success of the fundraising campaign to Simmons’ charisma and hard work behind the scenes. Kertzer calls Simmons’ fundraising ability her greatest achievement at Brown.

Senior class board member Colby Jenkins ’12 said he remembers attending a luncheon for University donors at which somebody agreed to make a $1 million gift. “She was brought to tears,” he said.

Simmons’ Plan for Academic Enrichment, enacted concurrently with the campaign, laid out a blueprint for the University: adding 100 new faculty positions, expanding graduate and professional education, increasing financial aid, upgrading facilities, ramping up research output and raising Brown’s international profile. To that end, the University enacted need-blind financial aid for domestic students in 2003, the accomplishment in which Simmons said she takes the most pride. She also oversaw the creation of the new Medical Education Building, the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, the fitness and aquatics center and the renovation of the Metcalf Chemistry and Research Laboratory. 

While Simmons garnered praise within the University community for her commitment to fundraising and financial aid, her actions have not always been lauded off College Hill.

In 2003, the University began to step up efforts to relocate Alpert Medical School to the Jewelry District and nurture a knowledge economy in the city of Providence. But as Brown continued to expand further into the city, the University’s relationship with Providence began to sour. Tension came to a head this semester, when the University and Providence clashed over how much money tax-emempt Brown should pay the city in lieu of taxes. Brown agreed earlier this month to pay $31.5 million over the next 11 years. 

At the same time, the University’s increasing integration into the city’s economy “is immensely exciting,” said Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14. “This is the biggest change that has occurred under President Simmons’ tenure,” he said. “There’s going to be a natural, mutually advantageous situation.”

During her tenure, Simmons has also expanded ties with other universities, both abroad and at home. The Office of International Affairs was founded in 2006 with the goal of increasing Brown’s global profile. Brown now boasts dozens of collaborations with universities around the world. Simmons also played a crucial role in expanding the exchange program between Brown and Tougaloo College.

“She immediately made clear that she wanted to put more structure into the partnership – institutionalize it, with specific goals, activities and objectives,” said Tougaloo President Beverly Hogan. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Simmons led the charge in getting other institutions to help those affected by the storm, she added.

Simmons also pushed the University to look into its own history by forming the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice in 2003 to investigate Brown’s connection to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. In 2006, the committee released a report with recommendations on ways the University should acknowledge its ties to slavery. 

Dissenting voices

Simmons’ critics claim that her tenure has been marked by an increasing privatization of the University, centralization of power in University Hall and a betrayal of Brown’s mission as a liberal arts institution. Some say Simmons’ increased focus on graduate students and professional programs draws resources – both financial and intellectual – from the humanities and the College.

“The level of investments in the University’s traditional strength has gone off a cliff,” said former Herald opinions columnist Simon Liebling ’12, who has been one of Simmons’ most vocal critics during his four years at Brown.

“Brown has diversified its options to mimic competitors, but because of Brown’s finite resources and emphasis on the liberal arts, what we’re left with is a pale, half-hearted imitation of those other schools,” said Liebling, who played an integral role in bringing to light Simmons’ ties to Goldman Sachs during the 2009 financial crisis. He argued that Simmons’ goal is to turn Brown into “Princeton North” by copying that school’s academic and administrative strategies as much as possible. Liebling pointed out that Simmons and many people under her have previously worked at Princeton.

Kertzer did not deny that Simmons drew inspiration from her days as a Princeton dean, but said it was there that she realized “that there’s absolutely no conflict between having an outstanding graduate program and outstanding undergraduate program.”

Critics also say Simmons has focused too much on how Brown stacks up against peer institutions. Instead of focusing on amassing a large endowment or moving up U.S. News and World Report rankings – Brown has hovered around No. 15 for the past eight years – the University should have sought to improve
the quality of the undergraduate experience by building teaching capacity, they say.

But Simmons said she does not take these criticisms seriously.

In an increasingly globalized world, Simmons said Brown must compete with universities from dozens of different countries for the best students. Continuing to be ranked on par with Ivy League and other peer institutions, who make significant investments in research and the sciences, is necessary to attract the smartest, most free-thinking students, she said.

Simmons said she sees no problem with the University returning to its liberal arts roots, so long as it is aware of the consequences.

Brown “could decide to move towards its college identity – that’s a decision the University must make,” Simmons said. “But liberal arts colleges are not designed to solve problems. Universities have that mission and purpose. And Brown is a university.”

An inheritance of inspiration

Though Simmons is not without detractors, nearly everyone agrees she leaves behind a legacy of strong leadership. 

“Ruth has a clear vision and charisma, not to mention gravitas and eloquence,” Liebling said. “When they name the dorm after her, that’s what they’ll put on the plaque.”

It is her capacity to inspire others to stand behind her vision for the University that has helped her successfully implement controversial policies, Kertzer said.

He said her greatest asset was her ability to encourage both faculty and students “to think of Brown as aiming to be more of a great world university.” When she came to campus, there were members of the Corporation who thought Brown was unique and should not be compared to other research universities. They argued that creating professional schools might detract from Brown’s character. 

But Kertzer said Simmons won her critics over with her vision, determination and charisma.

For example, after listening to the opinions of faculty, staff and administrators for close to a year and a half, Simmons presented an eight-slide PowerPoint presentation to the Corporation detailing the University’s most pressing needs in February 2002. Two years later, the Corporation approved the full-length Plan for Academic Enrichment.

“I think the PAE provided her vision for Brown. Once she provided that vision, everybody was invited to be a part of making that strategic plan work,” said Brenda Allen, former associate provost and director of institutional diversity. “There was something in there for everybody.” 

Allen, who is now the provost of Winston-Salem State University, said Simmons’ influence extended beyond the realm of University business. “Every day I remember a lesson that I learned and am able to apply it to my job now,” Allen said. “She will probably be in my head for the rest of my life.”

Short skirt, long jacket

In addition to inspiring University policymakers, Simmons has inspired a cult following among her students.

Students have compared her to Jackie Robinson, Morgan Freeman, even God. She has had her face plastered on T-shirts and posters and been celebrated in song and dance.

In a Herald poll conducted in March, under 2 percent of students responded that Simmons negatively impacted their time at Brown. Eighty-one percent of students responded that Simmons has contributed to their Brown experience in a positive way. 

“I’m completely puzzled by that,” Simmons told The Herald in April. “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.”

It is precisely this attitude, though, that may endear her to students.

“The notoriety isn’t why she does what she does. I think that Brown students respond to that so positively,” said Undergradate Council of Students President Ralanda Nelson ’12. “We will totally sing the praises of someone who works because they don’t want fame.”

Jenkins, the senior class board member, who has been a tour guide and a coordinator on the Orientation Welcoming Committee and A Day on College Hill for four years, said that tour guides and OWC leaders play a role in perpetuating “Ruth’s cult following” by talking her up on tours and making sure incoming first-years know that she appeared on BET with Samuel L. Jackson.

In many respects, Simmons’ popularity among students has the elements of a trend. It’s fashionable to be pro-Ruth, said University Historian Jane Lancaster PhD’98, and “maybe the students think they’re supposed to say they support her.”

Todd Baker ’15, for example, called Simmons an “untouchable legend” in a September Herald article and compared her to a female Morgan Freeman, even though he has never met her. On a whim, Danny Sobor ’15 designed posters bearing Simmons’ face and the slogan “(T)ruth.”

During her first year at Brown, Nelson dressed up as Simmons for Halloween, then called University Hall to ask if she could take a picture with the real Simmons. Much to Nelson’s surprise, her request was granted.

“I ran into her as she was going to a meeting upstairs, and she says, ‘Someone does this every year. Why do the kids always wear red? I don’t wear red.’ She was talking to me about something so mundane,” Nelson said. “That’s when she became a person to me, not a figure, nor a force, not an enigma – a real person, a funny person.”

Pax Brunonia?

Simmons’ presidency marked the beginning of a redefinition of Brown’s place relative to its peers. For many members of the community, the benefits of these changes are apparent – gleaming new buildings, smaller classes and need-blind admission.

Simmons says that while she has had “some disappointments for sure” in terms of programs that were not implemented as fully as she would have liked, she is in no way disappointed by her presidency as a whole.

“One of the strongest factors of universities is their capacities to debate strategies and ideas and have the strongest ideas emerge from that,” she said. “I don’t have so many disappointments. I don’t want my own views to be taken as a critique of the University. I leave it to others to define what the University will be.”

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