Dr. Lindsay Whorton, president of The Holdsworth Center, recently interviewed Dr. Ruth Simmons for a virtual session with Leaders from our District Leadership Program. Ruth is the president of Prairie View A&M University and the former president of Brown University and Smith College. She was the first Black woman to serve as president of an Ivy League institution. She also chairs The Holdsworth Center’s board of directors. In the interview excerpt below, questions and responses have been edited for space.
The full 75-minute interview is available for streaming and download. In it, Ruth discusses:
- the importance of empathy and focusing on the human elements of leadership
- being bold and authentic as a leader
- balancing hope with realism
- talking to students about race
- preparing students for the new postsecondary
Lindsay: In a global pandemic, where the tasks that face leaders feel like impossible work, I’m curious – what are the things that you do for yourself to reconnect with a sense of hopefulness?
Ruth: I’ve thought a lot about what I’ve seen in my lifetime that comes close to this. And one of the things that I remember as a child is being in school and training for the eventuality that we were going to be attacked by Russia. For a lot of people that will not ring true today, but we were having drills in school and at home thinking that something could happen at any moment and we might not survive. That was a very uncertain time.
I work hard not to be a bureaucrat in the sense of just ticking off the boxes. I never ever want to stop there. I want to think about what people are experiencing.
I remember the day the Twin Towers were struck. I was president of Brown (University) at the time, and suddenly all of my students from New York gathered on the front lawn of the university. I had to step up and say something to them – they knew that they were possibly losing family members and friends in New York.
I thought that what my students most needed was to be with other people. I feared them going back to their rooms on campus and grieving and being fearful. Everybody’s instinct was to cancel class, because it seemed insensitive to do what one would normally do in such a tragic circumstance. Against all advice, I insisted that I would not cancel class because I thought it was important for all of the students to be together, not back in their dorm rooms.
I think what one always remembers in circumstances like this is fundamentally, what do we as human beings need?
I work hard not to be a bureaucrat in the sense of just ticking off the boxes and thinking, “Well, if we do this, then this will occur, or we need to make arrangements to ensure that we have enough PPE, or we need to make sure that we’ve wiped down all the surfaces.” I never ever want to stop there. I want to think about what people are experiencing.
Because even if we protect people, they can still come out of it wounded irreparably. We have to care as educators, we have to care for the human element even though we’re dealing with all of these myriad details about how to keep life and limb together.
Lindsay: I know one of the things you’re thinking about is, at some point in the coming months, you’re going to welcome thousands of students back to Prairie View and our district leaders are facing that same opportunity in the coming months. And those students are going to return to school having experienced a global pandemic, having experienced economic uncertainty, having witnessed police brutality and a heightened awareness of the racial injustice that has been a part of our history for so long. And I’m curious, what advice do you have for district and campus leaders about how to welcome those students back to learning environment?
Ruth: The first thing to do is to try to feel what it’s like to be in their situation. To be young and to think that the whole world is open to you, and suddenly to be hit with this conflagration of issues that make you feel as if somehow, you’ve stepped into a very bad film. You have to feel what that feels like in order to be credible to young people.
What would it be like to live through this moment without any context for it, really? And find yourself suddenly terrified? About everything. Terrified about the fact that that a pandemic, or a major challenge of that kind can derail your life. It’s been relatively secure, and you’ve been able to make your plans to go through school and on to college, and suddenly you know that that is not promised to you. That it can be disrupted because your parents can lose their jobs, not because of anything they’ve done but because the world economy has brought that on.
Imagine what it’s like for a young person to think that they could leave home and never return because they don’t know how they’ll be treated if they are stopped by a law enforcement official. They just don’t know. And what if they’re one of those unfortunate young people who is killed or injured by a racist law enforcement official?
We have to feel the terror that they feel, because we can only put our arms around them if we know what it feels like if you’re in that kind of situation. So, when you say to a young person, “I know what you’re feeling,” they know whether or not that’s real.
Should we be surprised that we have difficulty talking with people who hold very different views from our own? We’ve never learned to do that. I promote the idea of actually learning how to do that.
Reflecting on that in preparation for their return is very important. Be prepared to listen to the stories they will come back with of things they have experienced or endured. And listen without judging. Listen without placating or patronizing. Because there’s nothing worse to a young person than to feel people are doing exactly that, only pretending to get it.
As human beings, what we’re trying to do is to understand what other people are experiencing. I don’t think you just happen upon it. I think it is something that you learn to do over time. The sooner you start practicing it, the better.
There is a school of thought today on the importance of empathy for leaders. It used to be we didn’t talk about empathetic leaders, because that was considered to be a weakness.
What we expect today of our leaders is something very different. Yes, you might know how to manage people or budgets, or you might have a good sense of organizational structure and behavior and so forth. Yes, all of that is possible in a leader. Added on to that is the capacity to understand what people are feeling and what their needs are as human beings. I think that’s going to be more and more true as we return, people are going to be watching carefully to see whether or not we have that capacity.
Let me give you a concrete example. Most of us educators don’t worry so much about the kind of iconography around us. We see it all the time, we’re accustomed to it and it’s just not much of a factor for us. But clearly, it’s a factor for young people and it’s tearing places up around the country right now because young people are rejecting the ideas of what we should emulate.
One of the things that I think is helpful is to encourage teachers to look around at the materials they put in classrooms and in the hallways and so forth, and the materials they use in their teaching. Ask how these children, coming from where they come from, will relate to all of those surroundings. What will it mean to them in terms of the way they think about themselves? What will it mean in terms of what they think teachers think about them? It’s all wrapped up into the same thing. There are students who are saying that certain portraits in their schools make them feel bad. Or they are saying the absence of certain kinds of portraits make them feel devalued.
We have to have ways of instructing people in what it is like to be different. That can be seminars, it can be films, it can be readings, it can be all kinds of stuff. It should be a combination of some formal things but also firsthand testimony. To have colleagues who experienced (racism) provide insights is very important. I would encourage thinking about ways of bringing those different perspectives into the conversation and then having people really ask themselves what they would do in those circumstances, how they would experience it. This can’t be done overnight. It takes a long time to build up enough knowledge to be conversant with the many ways that people receive and interpret the reality around them. But you can do it in a way that doesn’t alienate people.
People used to ask me when I was in the Northeast, how was it possible for me to speak to so many different groups? I grew up in the South and during segregation – Blacks and Whites, believe it or not, interacted. It’s true that there were rules of interaction, and you absolutely understood that as a Black person. But at the same time, there was a kind of cordial approach that most people used in interacting with each other. This is learned behavior. It doesn’t come so naturally to us. We learn to do it. In order to get a driver’s license, we have to take a course and we have to learn the rules of the road. As human beings, we never learned the rules of engagement. So should we be surprised that we have difficulty talking with people who hold very different views from our own? It shouldn’t surprise us because we’ve never learned to do that. I promote the idea of actually learning how to do that.