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Despite fan base, President's office hours a quiet affair

On Monday, as she does for an hour twice every month, President Ruth Simmons beckoned students into her light-filled office and offered them 10 minutes of her time to discuss, well, just about anything.

There was no scramble for the six allotted time-slots — five groups of sedate students, casually dressed, sat in a quiet rotunda on the first floor of University Hall. Some held last-minute consultations and went over notes, while others simply scrolled through their laptops and phones as they awaited their meetings.

It was a normal turnout, according to Heather Goode, the president's office assistant. On the busiest day, 10 students turned up, but that was after a month-and-a-half-long hiatus from holding office hours.

"That's been the craziest," she said. "Knock on wood."

A cream-colored door, with the word "President" spelled out above in beige block letters, opened to let in Simmons's first visitors around 4:05 p.m.

During his meeting, Joe Rosner '12 asked Simmons to judge the final round of a debate competition for sophomores and juniors. Simmons said she would be happy to oblige, depending on her availability.

"I could have just e-mailed her," Rosner said. "Really, I just also want to meet her." Accompanying Rosner was Caroline Kenward, a student at Bryn Mawr College.

"Give your president my regards," Simmons told Kenward as she escorted her out of the office. "I would hate to think you go to (my office hours) and not hers."

Although the president's office hours are intended for students, alums and people with no affiliation to the University have dropped in on occasion. One prospective student, who had been admitted early to Brown, showed up at office hours despite not yet being enrolled. "He was intense," Simmons said, then laughed.

"It's very eclectic," she added. "We don't know until they get in my office."

The office is welcoming. The walls are covered in white paneling, and sunlight streams in through large windows. A carpet patterns the floor under a polished oval table, where Simmons sits with her visitors. A grandfather clock ticks in the corner.

She is loyal to Bruno — two bears reside on her desk. Another teddy bear sits on her yellow sofa, and two large scruffy ears poking out behind it indicate the presence of yet another, half-hidden, on a dark red armchair.

The president was dressed in a navy blue suit with trademark pearls strung twice around her neck. She leaned forward as she spoke, propping her head on her chin and expressing interest in her wide variety of visitors.

Simmons wears many hats — life adviser, distributor of funds, overseer of faculty and even movie star, after participating in the winning 2009 housing first-pick competition video "Ruthless." The group filmed the cameo during Simmons' office hours.

"Some people might come to talk about their lives and decisions that they're making. And then I'm a parent, giving students a sense of what someone of my generation would advise," she said.

Simmons sipped from a paper cup as she recalled her most memorable office hours caller. "A male student, with a beard," she said. "He wore a red suit with black pumps and a shoulder bag and pearls."

"It took me a while to figure out he was actually dressed up as me for Halloween," she laughed. "I would say that was the most extraordinary thing I have ever been subjected to."

Other students visit to address more serious matters. Jacqueline Ho '14 and Gina Roberti '14 represented Power Shift, a youth conference on climate change, when they paid Simmons a call Monday.

"We are hoping to solicit some funds," Ho said. "You might see some more bake sales around campus if not."

The president said she would consider their request for help subsidizing the project once they had a clearer idea of how many students planned to attend the conference.

"We're both freshmen," Roberti said. "It's a great way to get acquainted with her."

Le Tran '13 sat in the rotunda Monday waiting for his turn. "I try just to go as often as I can to get to know the president more," he said. "She gives really good advice on certain things."

"Also," he added, "I'm going to run a university one day, so I like to talk to her about that."

"I'm going to run the whole (University of California) system," he continued. "And she knows that, so it's fine."

Tran was surprised more students do not show up for open office hours, particularly since many can be critical of the University.

Open office hours are for "students' convenience," Simmons said. "If they don't use it, that's okay, because they might not need it."

One senior was not afraid to voice her concerns regarding the potential appointment of a chair of the urban studies program, though she did not want her name printed because she is a concentrator in the program. Many people disagree with the appointment, she said, but "most of them are underclassmen and they're too afraid to say anything. … I'm saying something because I'm graduating, and I have no repercussions."

Simmons was "super helpful," the senior said on her way out. "This was going over everyone's heads, and it seemed to work."

Simmons also held open office hours at Smith College, where she served as president before taking the position at Brown. Her office hours at Smith "had a certain character, which was more like life advice," she said. Simmons thought office hours would be different at a co-ed institution but was struck by the similarities. "A lot of students just wanted to talk about their plans."

But the nature of her open office hours has changed over the years. "Today," she said, "it's less likely to be some big life decision that they're wrestling with."

Students entering college seem to have more experience than they used to, Simmons added. She credited the offices of the Dean of the College and Campus Life and Student Services for organizing orientation and making resources available to students who are looking for help.

"Or it could be that I'm giving such bad advice, and it's getting around," she joked.

When asked about her celebrity status — some students sport clothing with her face emblazoned on it — Simmons responded, "I don't mind. … I feel a little embarrassed sometimes by it." She described an instance in which a student commented on the frequency with which she wore red. "You have to feel a little uncomfortable to be noticed to that degree." One group of students invited her to tea to view a spoof video of her they had created, a situation she said was "very interesting because what I couldn't figure out was why that was interesting."

Simmons described public attention as the most difficult problem she faced when she was offered the presidential position. "How would it feel to be in a fishbowl, and is it something that I could handle?" she asked herself. "I worried a lot about that."

"I have fantasies of being able to go places, walk places, where nobody recognizes me," she said.

Ultimately though, Simmons said she remains committed to those she leads. "Everybody who becomes a president has become a president because we wanted to work with students."


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