Explore. Learn. Lead.
A conversation with Dr. Ruth Simmons, Board Chair of The Holdsworth Center
A conversation with Dr. Ruth Simmons, The Holdsworth Center board chair and the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution. Simmons grew up in Texas during segregation and was the youngest of 12 children in a family of tenant farmers. She graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans and from Harvard University, and served in various academic roles before becoming the president of Smith College in 1995 and Brown University in 2001. Simmons retired in 2012, but recently stepped into a new role as president of Prairie View A&M University.
How was education pivotal in rising above the hurdles put in front of you?
When I was growing up in the Fifth Ward in Houston, that was the only world that I knew. And what did I know? I knew I could never aspire to any type of profession. I knew I could not go downtown and eat at a restaurant. I felt people thought I was ugly and unworthy.
But there was a bright spot. There was a community center in my neighborhood with books. I started to understand that the little world I lived in wasn’t really the world. Learning that was the single most important thing in my life.
Education taught me to be more open-minded, to wait to learn about people and not to presume that the people who hated me were evil. It taught me to care about the fact that the world is a complex place.
Going to school every day was a miracle for me. I just fell absolutely in love with the whole experience of learning. I remember the day I asked my mother if I could perhaps go to college. I think the look on her face really said it all; what an impossible idea.
When I did go to Dillard, I was enthralled with the idea of a liberal education. I thought it was a solution for all the ills that I had seen growing up. That was the period I really found my rebellion. What it formed in me was the ability to assert my views and have the courage to be alone in my views.
I was always unable to sit and take it. I always spoke up for myself. And it worked for me.
Can you recall a teacher who had a big impact on your life and journey as a leader?
We are never sure when or how we will stumble upon that person who will change our lives in some dramatic way. For me, that person happened to be a teacher of speech and drama named Vernell Lillie. She thought that arts and speech and drama would help me find my way through life, to gain self-confidence, to learn to convince people of my opinions and finally, to deal with searing racism.
She also brought to my attention the possibility of going to college. There was no one in my family who could help me with that, so she took it upon herself to pick out a college for me and help me get a scholarship. I am grateful for her and for all public school teachers who take that kind of broad interest in their students.
To be a leader is one thing. To be comfortable in your leadership is quite another. She gave me that comfort with who I am and how I can express myself as a leader. She is still one of the most important people in my life.
How did you feel when you were approached about becoming the next president of Brown University?
I didn’t want to fail. I felt responsible to the future and to opportunities that others might have after me.
If you look at the composition of presidencies across the country, you’ll still find it isn’t really what it should be. I know so many outstanding, qualified people who don’t get the chance that I have gotten. Every time a black person becomes an icon of success, we also know that the next person will have a better time—or a more difficult time—because of what we do.
I always return to this fundamental principle. I am who I am. I am different by virtue of where I was born and the time that I was born in. My perspective is what is most valuable about my leadership because my experience has been different.
How important is it to hear opposing views, and as a leader, to protect those views?
One’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views.
My coming of age was marred by the wide acceptance of the violent suppression of speech. Any criticism or complaint that was deemed unsuitable was met by violence against one’s family and against one’s person. No open forum of expression existed for me and mine in the Jim Crow South. Once you have tasted the bitterness and brutality of being silenced in this way, it is easy to recognize the danger of undermining free speech.
My first year after leaving Smith, I had to insist that Brown permit a speaker whose every assertion was deeply offensive to me, in that he maintained that blacks were better off having been slaves. I could have avoided the talk, as his ideas were known to me. But to have done so would have been to choose personal comfort over a freedom whose value is so great that the hearing of his unwelcome message could hardly be assessed too great a cost.
To be any kind of leader, educational or otherwise, what is the most important skill to cultivate?
If you can’t make human connections, our world is at risk, no matter how good we become at solving problems.
As we get caught up in practical issues, we have to think about the way we all link together as human beings, and to draw people from disparate parts of the world together.
Even as president of the United States, your influence is circumscribed by who you are as a human being and your ability to reach other human beings. How do you build those skills, work across those divides and help people see you on a human level?
At The Holdsworth Center, we focus on helping leaders grow and mentor other leaders. Why is this important?
I think of leadership as service to the mission of the organization that one leads, but also service to the people who are on one’s team. A focus on service really keeps the attitude of a leader in the right place. It is not the leader himself or herself that is important to the equation, but all the other aspects of that community of leadership.
True leadership means that every part of that equation is leading. The team is leading and the people who are serving are leading. It is very important for everybody to feel engaged.
When you retired from Brown, you said that you wanted to find a way to give back. How do you feel that your role as chair of The Holdsworth Center allows you to do this?
I believe that The Holdsworth Center holds great promise for the students of Texas. If we can help public schools put a dynamic leader on every campus in Texas, we will do much to help push education forward for the benefit of students.
I think in education we tend to focus on the nuts and bolts of curriculum or programs. But at its heart, learning is about relationships. A great leader in the principal’s office and in the classroom is essential to student success. Like me, students need great leaders and teachers to push them to see the larger world.