Ruth Simmons made history in 2001 as the first African-American president of an Ivy League university, but she isn’t done yet. After stepping down from the University in 2012, she retired to her hometown of Houston. But that retirement was short-lived — in October, Simmons was named president of Prairie View A&M University.
Called “America’s best college president” by Time magazine in 2001, the much-beloved Simmons instituted a number of ambitious initiatives during her 11-year tenure as president of Brown. While serving as Brown’s 18th president, Simmons notably started the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, established need-blind admission and introduced a $1.6 billon fundraising campaign.
Simmons is “an extraordinary leader — a simultaneously thoughtful and forceful person who led from the front,” said Director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and Professor of Africana Studies Anthony Bogues. “She is guided by how can she make a lasting difference to an institution.”
These lasting differences include substantially growing the faculty, expanding the campus and increasing financial aid, similar goals to what Simmons hopes to accomplish at Prairie View.
At first glance, Prairie View may seem vastly different from Brown: It is a historically black institution within the Texas A&M system, attracts mainly in-state students and possesses a significantly smaller endowment than Brown. However, Simmons’ main goals — to “give students the benefit of working hard on their behalf, to identify strong faculty, to strengthen the curriculum and, of course, raise substantial funds for financial aid”— remain the same.
Increasing financial aid is an especially important goal for Simmons, who wants to ensure that Prairie View “eliminates financial burdens for the stratum of our students that cannot afford education even in the state system (and) that we eliminate any impediment to even the neediest of families to come to a place like Prairie View,” she said.
Simmons was first introduced to Prairie View as a teenager when she visited her older brother, who attended the school. After retiring to Houston, Simmons was asked by Prairie View to serve as its interim president and assumed the role July 1. Her initial interest in the short-term position was “really as a family member of people who had attended,” but she credits the students as her reason for taking on the full-time role of president, starting February.
“Students have always been my downfall. Students were my downfall at Brown and again at Prairie View,” she said. “I couldn’t say no to helping these students; they are courageous, they are strong, they are striving and they are going to be successful. I just want to do everything I can to help them.”
Simmons, who attended Dillard University, a historically black institution, has long maintained that historically black colleges and universities play an important role in educating people of color, especially first-generation students. “I always felt that I did well at graduate school at Harvard and beyond because of my experience at Dillard,” Simmons said.
Simmons said she views her return to Texas as a return to her roots. “I’m a hometown girl, and everyone has really acknowledged and appreciated my return. They appreciate the fact that I was up (East) with those hoity-toity schools, and I am willing to come home and get right to work here, in the state system. It’s been wonderful to be back,” she said.
Looking forward, “there is a reason she is considered one of the country’s all-time great college presidents. She has shown time and again that she knows how to not just lead but elevate universities,” said Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System John Sharp. “Guided by her previous experience, that is exactly what I expect her to do at Prairie View.”