"A lot of the things that have happened that seemed to be important to people, I missed," said President Ruth Simmons of her accomplishments at Brown. "I was here, I was doing it — and now somebody defines it as having been important."
Simmons said she receives long letters in which admirers tell her what her greatest achievements have been. The differences, she said, are striking.
"I think it's okay for people to have different perceptions of what I've done, and I think I'll enjoy learning that what I've focused on and what I've thought I was doing are sometimes very different from what people see in what I'm doing."
Simmons cited her boldness when she first took office as key to her success as president. Arriving in the wake of the tumultuous tenure of Gordon Gee, Brown's shortest-tenured president, Simmons took the Corporation's advice in acting swiftly to draft a five-year plan to lift the school out of stagnation. In hindsight, Simmons said drafting her plan without first better understanding the school seems "completely illogical."
"The thing that scares the life out of me is that it's what everybody talks about," she said. "It was need-blind. It was expanding the faculty. All the things that people talk about now, I did with no knowledge of Brown, and so when I think about that, I think, ‘Goodness, maybe that's the way to make decisions — in the dark.'"
Simmons said she lacks the courage today to do what she did when she first started. Now, decisions take more time and entail the formation of groups and solicitation of opinions.
"I'd go through all of that process and then end up in a place where who knows if it would have been better. I realize now if I hadn't done it early, we probably wouldn't have gotten much done because it takes a long time for these efforts to mature."
Simmons credited her ability to withstand scrutiny as another key to her success. She remembers national media speculating what the female, African-American Dillard graduate from Texas would do for Brown after she was appointed.
"I had some difficult times when I was president," she said. "You always have a lot of self-doubt, and I had as much as anybody else when you start these kinds of jobs."
At first, Simmons hoped Brown hadn't made a mistake in its appointment, she added. She said she settled into her new job and responsibilities gradually.
"I've been very lucky, actually, because when I look to the north and I look to the south, I've had far fewer perturbations than most of my peers. And yet, I think people watching so intently created a certain sort of discomfort for me that has been a feature of my presidency to be sure."
Simmons called it a milestone that she will have gotten through 11 years without a "conflagration" of some kind, which some may have expected.
"They expected the Slavery and Justice thing to blow up and to be a negative," she said, referring the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice she convened in 2003. "In fact, it's turned out to be a positive."
Simmons said she was most grateful for the fact that she "survived."
"I think I've had all the luck in the world for this job, and much more than I could have expected and probably much more than I deserved," she said. "I have no complaints, and my aim now is really to make it as easy as possible for the next person to have as good of an experience."