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Ruth J. Simmons: From Brown to Now

Former Brown University president details journey since stepping down

<p>After her departure from Prairie View, Simmons accepted two new positions in 2023 — one as a Distinguished Fellow at Rice University, and the other as a Senior Advisor to the President of Harvard University.</p><p>Courtesy of Nick Dentamaro/Brown University</p>

After her departure from Prairie View, Simmons accepted two new positions in 2023 — one as a Distinguished Fellow at Rice University, and the other as a Senior Advisor to the President of Harvard University.

Courtesy of Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Adored, disarming and dedicated. When asked about former University President Ruth J. Simmons, her peers were far from speechless. But despite her admirable career and undeniable popularity, they all agree that she falls short in one crucial area.

“Everybody tells me that I have absolutely failed at retirement. And I have to confess — that’s true,” Simmons said lightheartedly.

Since stepping down as president of the University in 2012, Simmons has held a number of roles in the time since, forming countless relationships and making lasting impacts across the country. Last semester, she spoke with The Herald about her journey from Brown to today, offering an inside look into her most recent endeavors.

Back to Houston


After completing her term over a decade ago and welcoming former Princeton colleague Christina Paxson P’19 P’MD’20 to the University, Simmons returned to her home city of Houston to take time off post-Brown. Yet according to Simmons, the phone simply did not stop ringing. 

“When I stepped down from Brown, my intent was actually to retire and not have a full-time position,” Simmons said. “It’s just that when matters arise that are important to me and consistent with the values that I’ve had over my career, it’s very hard for me to turn away from them.”

Simmons was swiftly approached by numerous organizations, including a large university offering her a presidency position, she said. Simmons did not say which university reached out, but she declined.

Simmons went on to serve in a variety of roles in the following years — such as positions at the National Museum for African American History and Culture, The Holdsworth Center and The White House’s presidential commission on historically Black colleges and universities —  all while dedicating herself to improving public education in Houston. In 2014, Simmons also joined the Board of Trustees at Rice University, assisting the institution as an advisor and lecturer. 

Eventually, Simmons would receive an offer from the chancellor of Texas A&M University to become the interim president of Prairie View A&M University, an HBCU in Prairie View, Texas.

“I had turned down two presidencies before he approached me, but I thought, well, this is to the benefit of a sector that I care a lot about, and that is HBCUs,” Simmons said. “If I were to reject this, I wouldn't be proud of myself. How deep could my commitment be if I was not willing to do this?”

Once Simmons began her position at Prairie View, she was asked to stay on as the permanent president of the university, having exceeded the administration’s expectations. Citing her own enriching undergraduate experience at Dillard University, an HBCU, Simmons happily accepted the offer, hoping to leave a positive mark on the university. 

“When I went to Prairie View, it was with the idea that I would try to instill in the students and in the university the same kinds of values that I had held all of my life,” Simmons said. “I promised myself that I would never settle for any less than what the students actually deserve, and I was very firm in my view.”

Although intending to carry out her full term, Simmons announced to the university her early resignation as president in February 2023, four months earlier than anticipated.

In a letter to the community, Simmons explained that she had been informed she could only continue as president with limited authority for the duration of her presidency.


“I couldn't be president and do nothing,” Simmons said. “The students deserve better. The campus deserves better. And I would resign rather than do that.”

Rice and Harvard

After her departure from Prairie View, Simmons accepted two new positions in 2023 — one as a president’s distinguished fellow at Rice University, and the other as a senior advisor to the president of Harvard University. 

Today, Simmons helps develop a variety of programs at Rice in addition to advising the office of the president, Reginald DesRoches. When DesRoches first came to Rice as dean of engineering in 2017, Simmons was already established at the university as a member of the Board of Trustees. 

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Simmons quickly connected with him and became his mentor, DesRoches told The Herald. 

“I would constantly lean on her. She would always find time to chat and give me advice,” DesRoches said. “She was extremely instrumental in both my decision to become president, but also in getting the job. She was just always very thoughtful and very helpful.”

When selecting Simmons as a distinguished fellow, DesRoches cited her “experience and wisdom,” and the pivotal role her advice will play in reconciling the university with its history of slavery and racism. 

“We are going through a really unprecedented time of change and growth and transformation, and to have her there as somebody that … leadership can lean on for advice and thoughts … is just great,” DesRoches said. 

DesRoches described the excitement that overtook Rice’s campus when Simmons was announced to be returning to the administration after leaving the Board of Trustees in 2018, pointing out her “disarming” qualities and overall humor. 

“Everybody just simply adores Ruth,” DesRoches said. “The number of emails that I received when people got the news that Ruth was coming was probably comparable to the number of emails that I received when I was named president.”

Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy and vice provost for special projects at Harvard University, echoed DesRoches’s praise of Simmons’s reputation and work. In an email to The Herald, Bleich explained Harvard’s decision to hire Simmons as a senior advisor on HBCU partnerships. 

“Simmons approaches her work with deep compassion, intellect and experience — the secret sauce of her wildly successful and impactful career,” Bleich wrote. “There is no leader in higher education who Harvard can learn more from as we look to deepen and strengthen our partnerships with HBCUs.” 

Simmons expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to work with the Harvard administration and said she has witnessed firsthand the disparities separating HBCUs and predominately white institutions.

“I've always been very concerned about the divisions in higher education,” Simmons said. “Institutions like Harvard (have) a special responsibility to assist HBCUs.”

Simmons will be working remotely with Harvard this year, remaining in Houston to continue working with Rice simultaneously.

The future

When asked about the future, Simmons described her commitment to continue making a difference, devoting her time to her passions and ambitions.

“There is nothing special about my career. I’ve just put one foot in front of the other with a certain persistence in a belief that we can do things if we would only take that first step,” Simmons said. 

“Wherever Ruth has gone, she has left an impact,” DesRoches said. “I trust that she will leave her legacy at Rice, just like she's left a legacy at Brown and everyplace else she has been.”

“At this dangerous time in the country, when extraordinary violence and hatred is being spewed, this is the last time in the world for me to sit back,” Simmons said. “All voices are needed … to hold back the tide of returning this country to the 19th century. So, I’m in it for the duration, whatever it takes and whatever my energy allows me to do.”

Natalie Villacres

Natalie Villacres is a senior staff writer covering the University Hall beat. She is a junior from Queens, New York City, majoring in education and psychology.

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