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Editorial: Come back, Professor Ruth Simmons

This coming weekend, President Christina Paxson P’19 will unveil the University’s new comprehensive fundraising campaign that will fund her vision for Brown, as laid out in her 2013 strategic plan, “Building on Distinction,” and detailed in the operational plan released earlier this semester. Ten years ago this week, then-President Ruth Simmons unveiled her own campaign with the theme “Boldly Brown.” Over its five-year run, the campaign allowed Brown to expand the faculty substantially, fund a need-blind admission policy for domestic first-year applicants and build a new medical school in the Jewelry District. These significant investments dramatically changed our university under Simmons’ leadership. As we kick off a new fundraising campaign and a new chapter for the University, we are also left asking — where exactly is Simmons?

Simmons — lovingly referred to by many in the Brown community simply as “Ruth” — left her post as Brown’s president at the end of the 2011-12 academic year. After serving as the first black president in the Ivy League and Brown’s first woman president, Simmons’ record is well-documented, and her list of accolades is long.

While the renaming of Lincoln Field as Ruth Simmons Quad is a lasting tribute to her, there are a number of commitments and commemorations that have yet to be realized. In a September 2011 letter to the Brown community, Simmons vowed to “continue at Brown as professor of comparative literature and Africana studies.” She further stated, “Following a leave, during which I will take up projects that have been on hold far too long, I will enthusiastically return to teaching, an endeavor that also gives me enormous satisfaction.” Understandably, leading Brown for more than a decade must be a taxing and time-consuming effort, and Simmons is entitled to rest and to give as much attention to other projects as she would like. But a large number of current students would benefit from her insight as an educated woman of color, a black leader, a first-generation college student and so much more. We are eager for Simmons to return to campus as a professor to mentor and support students further.

When one enters Sayles Hall, there are a number of portraits on the wall whose subjects are referred to as “Friends of the University.” The overwhelmingly white faces portrayed in these paintings belong to former Corporation members, donors, historic alums and University presidents. Brazenly missing is Simmons’ painting. The nearly all-white faces in Sayles remind us all of the long history of black and brown marginalization in this country. While adding an additional portrait of a black woman does little to change this history, it does commemorate and celebrate change. As a leader of color at a primarily white institution, Simmons could not have been expected to single-handedly alter Brown’s policies and practices so that they are not institutionally classist or racist — and she certainly did not do so — but her portrait’s presence in that room will serve to remind us that change is possible, if slow. We understand that painting a high-quality portrait takes a significant amount of an artist’s time, but we urge the University and Simmons to expedite this process. Even though many may not notice it is missing, all will notice the additional presence of a person of color in such a hallowed hall.

In an age of increasingly visible racial stratification and mobilization, Simmons reminds us all that change is possible through both her personal story of social mobility and her trailblazing tenure at the helm of the University. She decisively helped make Brown what it is today and what Paxson will build on over the coming decade. As Brown enters a new phase — one that is admittedly more focused on faculty, scholarship and physical expansion — our campus looks forward to the possibility of Simmons’ return. And if that is still a long time coming, let’s at least have her painting.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Manuel Contreras ’16 and Meghan Holloway ’16, and its members, Emma Axelrod ’18, Noah Fitzgerel ’17 and Aranshi Kumar ’17. Send comments to


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