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Ruth J. Simmons

Leading the Way and Inspiring Others

Ruth J. Simmons, Ph.D.
President of Prairie View A&M University
1967 Fulbright U.S. Student to France

As an HBCU scholarship recipient at Dillard University in New Orleans and as the first African American president of an Ivy League university, Dr. Ruth J. Simmons’ educational journey has been long and varied. The common thread in a career of many firsts? A life-long passion for cross-cultural understanding and showcasing Black excellence in academia.

Ruth J. Simmons

After her graduation from Dillard, Dr. Simmons traveled to Lyon, France as a 1967 Fulbright U.S. Student of French language and culture. She remembers her experience fondly: “When I set sail in 1967 on the Paquebot France to my Fulbright at the Université de Lyon, I did not understand fully where that journey would take me. During my year in France, my knowledge of French language and culture grew, exposing me to French-speaking countries of Africa and the Caribbean. Because of that experience, I was able to understand better how becoming a professor could enable me to make a significant contribution to the world. Discovering who I was and what I could do, at a time when I was being told by many that I could do little, was the most enlightening and empowering experience of my young life.”

Returning to the United States with broadened horizons, she earned a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literature from Harvard University. Throughout her career, she has served in many capacities: as an assistant professor of French language and assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Orleans, as provost of Spelman College, and vice provost of Princeton University. Currently, Dr. Simmons serves as the president of Prairie View A&M University, continuing her long-standing support of HBCUs.

In 1995, Dr. Simmons made history. Named the president of Smith College, she became one of the first African American women to head a U.S. college or university, and created the first women’s college engineering program in the United States. Dr. Simmons repeated the feat in 2001 at Brown University, becoming the first African American president of an Ivy League institution, and earning the title “America’s best college president” from Time Magazine.

While at Brown, Dr. Simmons led several initiatives to bolster the institution’s academic, moral, and international efforts. Through the Plan for Academic Enrichment (PAE), an ambitious program to reach new levels of institutional excellence, the university successfully enhanced facilities, academic programs, and supported greater institutional diversity. In turn, the university received a robust influx of donations totaling $1.6 billion. The Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice researched, compiled, and reported on the institution’s relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, in turn creating a set of initiatives to address the legal, moral, and ethical ramifications of the report. In cooperation with Santander Bank, Dr. Simmons established Brown International Advanced Research Institutes (BIARI), an annual series to convene a rising generation of scholars from developing countries to address pressing global issues.

For her teaching, advising, and leadership, Dr. Simmons has received more than 30 honorary degrees and many other prominent awards, including CBS’ Woman of the Year, the National Urban League Achievement Award, the President’s Award from the United Negro College Fund, the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, the Foreign Policy Association Medal, the Fulbright Association’s Lifetime Achievement Medal, and the Centennial Medal from Harvard University. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Simmons to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.

After a lifetime of leadership, Dr. Simmons reflects: “In so many ways, the Fulbright experience was pivotal in paving the way for the leadership role that I have played in higher education.”