“There is no part of a university I don’t know intimately,” says Dr. Ruth Simmons. “Whether it’s building buildings, solving budget issues, dealing with curricular issues, diversity issues, fundraising—I’ve done it all in one form or another.”
Simmons is the first African American to become president of an Ivy League school, during her time at Brown, from 2001 to 2012, and the first African American woman to become president of a major university, Smith, before that. She is also the first female president of Prairie View A&M University, where she’s served since 2017, first in an interim capacity, before finding such inspiration there that, last fall, she decided to stay.
The decision was a bit of a surprise. After all, in 2012 Simmons retired from Brown and settled in her home near Houston, where she could go to the grocery store in jeans without people stopping her. Back in the Northeast, she’d lived in a veritable fish bowl thanks to an illustrious academic career. Retirement, she says, was “fantastic.”
Nevertheless, last year she traded in her jeans for her signature colorful blazers and pearls, returning to work at the HBCU, the second-oldest public university in Texas, dating back to the Reconstruction Era, 1876.
“When you think about how it was founded,” the 73-year-old tells us during a visit to the President’s Dining Room, “when you think of the service it’s provided over the years, about the lives it has uplifted by the existence of this place, it’s overwhelming.” Her brother, Clarence, even went to school here in the 1960s.
But there are issues. Prairie View’s students struggle to finish their classes in four years’ time, and the graduation rate is less than 36 percent. The school is counting on Ruth the Truth, as students and alums call her, to help it rise from its 25th ranking among HBCUs, and she’s up to the challenge. “I love solving problems,” she says. “Maybe because I saw so many of them growing up.”
Simmons was born in a modest country home in the Dailey community near Grapeland, west of Nacogdoches, the youngest daughter of sharecroppers. She recalls her 11 siblings viewing her as something of a nuisance, another mouth to feed, a toddler resting on cotton sacks while everyone else in the family labored. “I always tell the story of how I had to go to the cotton fields like everybody else,” she says, “but there’s a lot of harrumphing about that in the family.”
Simmons remembers her early life as centered on the porch, where her mother told stories while shelling peas, ironing, and boiling pots of clothes. Her father, too, spun tales, in his case while slaughtering pigs or hanging meats to cure. Despite their hardship, everyone in her family could read and write, including Simmons’s parents. She still has their Bible with its inscriptions. “It’s very precious to me,” she says, “seeing how difficult it was for them to even be able to write at all.”
Seeing no future in sharecropping, her older siblings moved to Houston, settling on Lee Street in the Fifth Ward, where the entire family moved by 1952. Their father found a job as a janitor at a Bama jelly factory. Meanwhile, 7-year-old Simmons, a self-described mouthy loner, enrolled at Atherton Elementary.
At the time, of course, Houston was segregated. “As a child, I knew a lot of places I couldn’t go,” Simmons recalls. “I knew absolutely, without any knowledge of me, that people had consigned me to certain limitations. And I knew that was hooey.”
Meanwhile, her conservative Christian parents didn’t allow her to dance or wear pants, but Simmons did have one freedom: Every week she could walk to the nearby community center, the Julia C. Hester House, and bring home donated books, most of them classics. “Ivanhoe,” she jokes. “What child in the Fifth Ward was going to read Ivanhoe?” By the time she enrolled at Wheatley High, Simmons was performing on stage, taking roles in The Glass Menagerie and The Bald Soprano.
“The powerlessness you feel during Jim Crow and segregation—you have no tools. No wealth. No access. Nothing,” she says. “I quickly discovered that language offered a certain empowerment.”
Simmons’s mother passed away while she was in high school. Supportive teachers pushed her to apply to Dillard University in New Orleans. As a student there, Simmons wrote scathing editorials and protested things she didn’t approve of—her school’s required chapel service, for one—and generally drove her professors nuts.
“One day I got summoned to the president’s house,” she remembers, “and to my surprise, he said, ‘Every year we send a student to Wellesley College, and we want you to go.’” A Fulbright and a Danforth Fellowship followed her graduation in 1967. She studied abroad in Mexico and France, pursued a doctorate in romance languages and literature at Harvard, and then got her first post-graduate job, at the University of New Orleans, where she advanced practically overnight from instructor to, at just 29, an assistant dean.
“I was convinced that education could do virtually more than anything else to end the ills that I had seen as a young person,” Simmons says. “I didn’t see a better solution.” While she’s been credited for raising the profiles of African American studies at the University of Southern California and Princeton, for funding research into the history of Brown’s involvement in slavery, and for serving as provost of Atlanta’s HBCU, Spelman, it may be her presidency at Prairie View A&M that will define her legacy as both an African American icon and one of the greatest higher-education leaders in American history.
Simmons hopes to build Prairie View into nothing less than the best black university in America, with plans to recruit and maintain top-of-the-field faculty, improve academic programs, push for better financial aid, and raise a lot of money—at Brown she led a campaign to bring in over $1.6 billion for academic programs.
“The awe that I feel about the students who come here,” she says, “and what a difference this makes for them—knowing the things I can do, why would I ever withhold that?”