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: Just after schools said they would be closing and many of us were sheltering in place, you said to me, “Think about how many leaders are going to emerge from this time.” Tell me more about that idea.
Ruth: When leaders are following in the footsteps of others, it’s easier to go along without doing anything different or remarkable.
As an educator, you can never accept hopelessness. You have to always find ways to demonstrate to young people that there is a possibility for change in their circumstances.
When you’re thrown into battle with something rare and unexpected, leaders must rise to the challenge of sorting it out. How are you going to fare as a leader? How are you going to address all the issues that arise that you’ve never seen before?
We became leaders because we have the capacity to figure all that out. We have to get busy and dig down deep to do things in a novel way, to assert our opinions and our leadership in a very different way from that of others.
Out of that comes something very different from what you’d see in a circumstance in which you’re just following a route that’s been laid out for you.
Lindsay: The thing that struck me when you first made that comment was how hopeful of an idea it was in the middle of something that seemed really challenging and full of risk. I know you’re not someone who’s Pollyanna or diminishing the truth of things. How do you think about striking this balance between realism and hope?
Ruth: We’re all formed by the circumstances that we were born into. I was not born at a particularly hopeful time for African Americans in this country. I was born in the rural South at a time when African Americans had very few rights and were effectively silenced.
I grew up on a sharecropper’s place where I was expected to be quiet and never think that I had any agency or rights as an individual. When we went into town, we were schooled that we must never speak out of turn, never stay on the sidewalk when a white person was walking, never cause any disruption or do anything to be noticed. We were schooled to make ourselves small, to make ourselves invisible so that we would live to adulthood.
But there were marvelous people in my life who knew how to instill that bit of hope in otherwise hopeless situations.
If we do not believe that civil society will right itself through our actions and participation, then what are we doing? We have no choice but to be hopeful about that.
I always think of my first-grade teacher Miss Ida May Henderson. She was a marvel. Her voice was full of light. When you walked into her classroom and she spoke to you, you felt that you were the most important person in the world. In a very bitter time, I grew up learning to be hopeful. There was no objective reality filling that hope; other people were bearing that hope for me.
In times like this, my students often come to me and say, “Ruth, what am I going to do? There are no jobs, I don’t know if I can stay in school. What am I going to do with my life?”
As an administrator, an educator, you can never accept hopelessness. You have to always find ways to demonstrate to young people that there is a possibility for change in their circumstances. That’s the kind of time we’re in now, where we’ve got to dig down deep to what motivated us to find hopefulness and use that to inspire students.
Lindsay: I’m going to read you something that you said in 2018, according to The New York Times. And then I’d invite you to go a bit deeper and bring this thinking into the present moment:
“I worry a lot about our students having the skills and the experience to promote respectful interactions with the right wide-ranging group of people. Students can be quite passionate about what they see on the national scene and how sometimes dangerous they think it is. But we’ve got to try to find a way on our campuses not to taint the national picture as hopeless or being antithetical to anything that we can think of as good and admirable. The last thing we want is for our students to bow out and decide that it isn’t worth trying to do anything about a hopeless situation. And I do think that civility goes hand in hand with being hopeful. Hopeful that the next person you meet will be able to converse with you in a respectful way. Hopeful that the next election cycle is going to give you a chance to be engaged and able to do something that makes you feel a sense of your own agency. Hopeful that things will get better rather than worse. So much of what we have to do on our campuses is really to hold open the possibility for people that civil society will in the end right itself if enough of us are engaged.”
Ruth: I still believe that, and I say it in one form or the other all the time to people who are very concerned about the state of affairs today. If we do not believe that civil society will right itself through our actions and participation, then what are we doing? We have no choice but to be hopeful about that.
When you live in society, you’re dealing with people who you don’t know well, who hold very different views, who look different and who feel differently about the same phenomena. All of that is going to be the case, no matter where we are in the world.
Our intellect is probably the thing that makes it most difficult for us. We are thinking beings. We can question things. Naturally, there’s going to be conflict. There will be issues of bias, there will be issues of discrimination.
So, what do we do about that? Well, you know, I’m sitting here at a university because I believe we educate people about their responsibility as human beings to relate to other human beings and to grow from that, learning how to associate with human beings of every type, every stripe.
I had been taught all of my life living in Houston that I was inferior and would never have an opportunity to do anything different from what my parents had done. My father was a laborer and my mother was a maid. It was dangerous to aspire to anything different. I wasn’t fit for anything, certainly not higher order thinking, that was absurd.
And then I decided to go to Mexico and to live with a Mexican family the summer of my freshman year of college. Getting outside of the norms of my neighborhood and going to a different country, I began to appreciate how that culture and society were formed very differently and interact with people who were so very different from me. That really started the process for me of understanding what education actually delivers, if we were open to it.
Right now, given the issues we’re facing, we must hold on to that ideal and insist that we do the hard work of interacting, of trying to cross boundaries and ultimately trying to work out solutions, because we believe we can develop a society that is interactive and cooperative. I just believe in that so profoundly. If I can’t work for that, I don’t think I would be willing to do anything.
Click here to view the full 75-minute interview between Dr. Ruth Simmons and Dr. Lindsay Whorton.