Students were bedecked in "We love Ruth" T-shirts. An exultant Cornel West
clamored to slap a high-five with Ruth J. Simmons, the 12th child born to
sharecroppers in segregated Texas, as she was inaugurated in October as the
18th president of Brown University. Requests by local and national news
organizations for an interview with the new president, the first black person
to lead an Ivy League university, were stacked up by the dozen. It was quite a
contrast, to put it mildly, from the bad vibes that periodically haunted campus
in recent years, starting with the administration of E. Gordon Gee, whose
unusually short 25-month tenure left a bitter taste with many, and climaxing
with the polarization that erupted last spring after the Brown Daily
Herald published an inflammatory ad, condemning reparations for slavery, by
right-wing polemicist David Horowitz
The acclaim that greeted Sullivan's selection in November 2000 reflects both
her remarkable personal journey and the collective longing for a leader to help
move Brown past these recent difficulties. And the 56-year-old, who previously
served for five years as the president of Smith College in Northampton,
Massachusetts, has mostly won raves while setting her early course at the
227-year-old College Hill institution. That said, Simmons hasn't been entirely
predictable, opposing an ongoing union organizing effort among graduate
students, for example, while strongly underlining the importance of free speech
on campus in her welcoming remarks to the Class of 2005.
Initially raised in a small East Texas town, Simmons moved with her family to
Houston. With their enthusiastic support, she pursued her education, earning
degrees at Dillard University in New Orleans and Harvard University, and her
subsequent academic career took her, among other places, from the University of
New Orleans to Spelman College and Princeton. And while Simmons attributes her
rise to the value of education, she has nonetheless encountered prejudice,
telling the New York Times of having faced surveillance while visiting
Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Ferragamo in New York. It's no wonder
Simmons told the Times that it's impossible to separate what she has
become from who she is and what she has experienced.
Simmons, joined by Laura Freid, Brown's vice president for university
relations, spoke with the Phoenix in her office at University Hall on
November 2. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: You've spoken of Brown as being at a crossroads. How would you
describe the primary challenges facing the university and how do you plan on
going about meeting them?
A: I think the crossroads of which I spoke pertains to higher education
generally, not just to Brown, and that part of what higher education has to do
is to sort out very carefully how it can serve the needs of the country and its
communities. And that's a very difficult thing to do, because we have to some
extent gone our own way and gotten far out ahead of, or separated from, the
issues of concern to our communities.
That crossroads seems to me to suggest that our responsibility in the next few
years is to figure out how to align those two interests somewhat more closely,
so that higher education doesn't go the way of some institutions -- becoming
irrelevant and overly elitist such that the public at large sees itself as not
having a stake in higher education to the same extent that it should. We are
here to serve the public interest.
We serve public interest best if we do that with a certain level of
independence because those who are responsible for preserving and advancing
knowledge have to have independence in order to do that well. It seems to me
you can have independence, and at the same time be relevant and interested in
what's going on around you. So part of what I hope that means for Brown is that
we're going to have the kinds of conversations that lead us to strategically
participate in what's going on around us.
I've just come from a meeting today of the various alliances and centers
involved in education in Providence and the state, and we're asking ourselves,
"What should we be in order to make a difference in our community." I'd like
for those questions to go on more and more at Brown, in terms of how we can
align our interests with those of the community that we're in. So that's part
of what I was saying.
Q: How do you see Brown's responsibilities in terms of the larger
communities of the East Side, Providence, Rhode Island, and the world?
A: It's very hard to figure that out. Part of what we were trying to do
earlier today is really to think hard about that, but here's some early
conclusions I would draw: First, Brown is a national university and it serves
Rhode Island best if it preserves its place as a national and international
university, there's no question about that. That means in terms of the scholars
that we attract to Brown, in terms of the residents who come to Rhode Island to
work at Brown, in terms of the students and every other dimension, we're going
to attract them internationally and nationally. I'm especially proud of the
fact that Brown reserves a certain number of places for Rhode Island residents.
I don't know any other institution like Brown that does it as overtly as Brown
does. That's a very good thing. So we will remain a national university and
interact on a national level as a great research university has to do.
But locally it seems to me that Brown has to behave somewhat differently. It
has to come down off the hill and be a partner with interests of the leadership
of our schools and the public leaders in the state, to try to help as much as
possible to strengthen the long-term prospects for economic viability and
cultural viability and so on in the region. You've got to do both.
But one of the things that we find hard to do is to be a partner, rather than
that sort of institution on the hill. And what I'm suggesting is that we spend
much more time following than we currently do. We are naturally disposed to
lead, but there are many ways in which we can be followers. On some of the
local questions, we ought to be followers -- we ought to be providing input.
And we ought to be following others' lead instead of trying to lead ourselves.
That's one of the things we were talking about today -- how can we involve
ourselves with the other colleges and universities in Rhode Island, including
community colleges, and be a partner with them to help address some of the
issues in the schools of Rhode Island under the leadership of the commissioner,
the superintendent, and so on.
Q: You're known as a lover of literature. If you were stuck on a
desert island, what five books would you want to have along?
A: [Bemused laughter] Oh no, a tried-and-true question. Gee, I mean, I
don't know. I have my favorites, and it changes from time to time, but I always
say that Song of Solomon [by Toni Morrison] would be one of them.
Recently, I've been rereading Montaigne's essays. I would say, maybe, that
would be a good book to have on an island, to be able to read and reread
repeatedly. I've spent some time in my life studying Proust, and Proust is
always nearby for me. It's the kind of work that you can read and reread and so
on because it's so rich, and so I would probably include that.
And then, I think I'd have to have poetry with me, but then I have a hard time
trying to figure out what to select, but probably an anthology that includes
poets from all centuries and across lots of different cultures, rather than
just one. I studied Aime Cesaire. He's a poet, a Caribbean poet, from
Martinique, for whom I have an affinity. So I might have an anthology of
poetry, more modern, but probably starting in the 19th-century, but probably I
would have a collection of Aime Cesaire's poetry as well. It would be a mixture
of Afro-American works, French and Francophone literature.
You notice that's there's nothing really contemporary in there. In part, the
reason for that is that I don't read very readily some of the more contemporary
things with the intent to do that repeatedly, but on occasion I can pick up a
novel or a history that's a contemporary work, but that's not where my heart
is. My heart is really more on the things that I've studied for years and that
I come back to periodically to understand better. And there are things that one
reads from French literature that you can read every year and learn something
new from those works, so that's what I would do.
Q: In many ways, you exemplify the best of the American dream, in
terms of your life story and your accomplishments and achievements. At the same
time, you've felt the effect of racism and prejudice -- you've described being
racially profiled during the most recent part of your life. What strategies do
you think would be most effective in reducing the amount of racism and
prejudice in America?
A: Education. The simple answer certainly is that. Racism is really the
result of ignorance and I believe that none of us inherently good or bad. Many
of us have the opportunity to be exposed to different things, and to understand
better the context of our lives and living in this world. And so, in a sense,
when we are given the opportunity to be exposed to different perspectives, we
have an opportunity to learn to reduce bigotry, and stereotyping, and
discriminatory treatment, and so on. I like to believe that people, their
natural impulse is to be fair, and if there are ways to show how inequities
lead to unjust and untenable conditions in the world, the normal person will be
inclined to work against preserving racism and bigotry.
There are two parts to this, you know. One is that all of us are victimized in
some way, meaning that if we use our experience in our area to help us
understand how others experience life, we can actually do a pretty good job of
it. And by that I mean a person who has grown up poor without advantages and
who has been ridiculed because of the clothes that they wear, the way that they
talk, and the social skills that they have, should be able to readily
understand how certain immigrant groups feel when they're ridiculed because of
the accent that they have, because of the culture that they bring with them,
and because of the way that they dress and so on. But we don't learn readily to
transfer those things from one situation to the next, and it seems that
education can help us to learn to transfer our experiences from one environment
to the next, so that we understand what others are experiencing.
It has to be an overt process rather than one that we stumble onto. And I
think education can help organize the way that we carry that out from the time
that we are very small children . . . Now when I start talking about this,
often people think I'm that talking solely about multicultural education.
That's a small part of it, actually, but it is a part of it. And I think that
today, whether in the elementary schools or all the way through college, we
have to work to eliminate ignorance about other people. That means we have to
incorporate in our curriculum the kinds of experiences of other countries and
other cultures that allows us understand that we are one of many, and allows us
to understand that while we value what we are and who we are, that what we are
and who we are is not necessarily superior to everything else in the world.
If we understand that fundamentally, we are more open to learning from all
other cultures and validating the things about those cultures that are good to
validate, and we will also learn to be more critical of our own culture. That's
part of what education does for us. It teaches us to assess ourselves, our
experiences, and our backgrounds, and not simply to receive culture and to
receive what is given us uncritically.
I look upon education as helping to eradicate some of the ignorance that
generates the hatred in world, and there are people out there who hate us as
Americans because they have a stereotype of Americans. We don't like that very
much. So what we're asking, really, is for all Americans to take a lesson from
how unfair and unjust that is and incorporate in our lives all the measures
that prevent us from becoming the same limited, bigoted people that despise us
basically. So it's the same thing.
Q: Brown has somewhat of a reputation as a bastion of political
correctness, at least among some people. You've spoken vigorously about the
importance of free speech on campus. What else do you plan to do to effectuate
a readily acceptable atmosphere for free speech on campus?
A: Well, one of the things that I want to do -- I want myself to be
provocative in articulating different perspectives on behalf of people who feel
silent. That's one of the things we try to do in leadership, to lay out for our
communities all the different ways of thinking, not in the sense to advocate on
behalf of those points of view, but to make sure that by speaking them people
feel comfortable entering the realm of public discourse. And so, part of the
reason for talking about free speech was to enable people who wanted to talk
about free speech and to make sure they understood that the public realm was
their realm, too, not just that of those of us who happen to agree with each
other about certain areas of politics and ethics and so on.
In addition to that it seems we have an obligation to ensure there are many
different perspectives on the campus. Now, "Tilly" Tilghman, who's president of
Princeton, feels Princeton does not have enough students with green hair. It's
a button-down place, she thinks, which just doesn't very readily feel welcoming
to a person who's a little different, and her example of needing more students
with green hair is precisely the same thing that you're talking about. And that
is, the university is a place that ought to be ensuring all the time that there
are many different perspectives on the campus, because you cannot educate and
you cannot be educated if you don't have that.
So that's what we try overtly to preserve in a university, that diversity of
perspective and diversity of background and, of course, in admission. We work
very hard to make sure that our students come from all over the United States,
and all over the world in fact. Now, we love Rhode Island and we could probably
fill the class with Rhode Islanders, but we think we give our students a better
education if we have students who come from Wyoming. And so, we look for people
from Wyoming, and Alaska, and Hawaii, and Texas, and so on. That's just what we
do. I think we're trying to do that in lots of different ways, by looking for
people from variant geographical backgrounds, looking for people who express on
their applications different perspectives.
The perspective that people have -- that there is some kind of uniform way of
thinking at Brown -- is dead wrong, I have to say, because when I enter
discussions at Brown, I find points of view all over the map. So I think we
want to continue to look for that difference of perspective, and I think that
as a leader what I try to do is, again, to be provocative and constantly
bringing to the center unfavorable views -- presumably unfavorable views -- as
a way of jarring people into thinking about things that they don't want to
think about, as a way of challenging people to look at every side.
Q: What do you think would be the most effective response to the
crisis facing the United States in the aftermath of September 11?
A: One of the things that I know, and I hope that all Americans know
this, is that in this country, the average citizen has about one-millionth of
the information that those who represent us in the highest councils have about
what's actually going on. And so, we can certainly have our opinions about what
would be the best course, but we should not pretend that we know everything and
that we can even have an informed judgment as they about what is going on, and
what we should do to preserve the safety and security of the country.
Now, having said that, if you ask me what the best course is in resolving
conflict, I think everyone would say the same thing. Under ideal circumstances,
you try to bring people to the negotiating table and you try to reason with
them, to reach a point of common perspective. Following a hostile act in which
lives have been lost, it's very hard to do that, and at this juncture, because
of the unwarranted attack against Americans, it would be hard to believe that
we have a good chance at bringing people to the table given what has
I like the fact myself, in the debate about the right course of action, there
will be a diversity of viewpoints, and I know that in Washington, in debating
the course, that's appropriate for us . . . I tend to think that our job in
universities is to debate the issues, to seek expertise in these areas, and to
try to add to that debate to the extent that we can, as long as we have
relevant expertise, and to leave in the hands of those who have the full array
of information the responsibility of judging the best course for us. What else
could we expect of people who represent us?
Q: It has been almost 20 years since A Nation at Risk documented the
failings of public education in America. Certainly, there are many individuals
and families that place great value on education in this country, but it seems
as if we as a culture really do not. How do you see the outlook for public
education in this country, particularly the troubled, larger school systems in
cities such as Providence?
A: Well, I would say we do place a great value on education. But I
think what has happened, certainly since World War II or maybe I should say
more since the '60s, is that we've come to understand the great marketability
of education, and the great commercial and economic use of education, and what
has happened, instead of appreciating the profound impact that education has on
the human psyche, and on the human intellect, and on the human well being --
instead of just appreciating education for itself -- we've come to appreciate
education for what it puts in our purse.
Now, as a consequence of that a number of very unfortunate things have
happened. First of all, we've somehow decided that there are some schools that
are good and some schools that are bad. There are some teachers who are good
and some teachers who are bad. There are some universities that are elite and
some that are OK. If there's one thing that's happened in education, vis-a-vis
the issue of quality, we've driven a wedge between that which we value in
education and that which we do not value. There was a time in this country
where that didn't exist.
Now, what do we do now? Now, that we've decided that there are certain kinds
of education that are privileged and worthwhile and so on -- and certain kinds
that are just not very good -- what do we do now?
One of the things that we've been talking about is a way of focusing on the
expertise of the teacher and bringing support to the teacher, so that everyone
who's in education knows. However much we talk about education, we know that
legislators can not just fix education. We know that governors can not do it.
We know that businessmen can't do it. There's only one group of people who can
really address education -- that's the teacher and the principal. It's really
down to the parent, down at ground level. That's where it happens. The support
that has to be brought to bear in the classroom and in the school -- that's the
question we're trying to answer.
At one time we didn't need to ask that question, because we didn't have fancy
things. There was a one-room schoolhouse on the plains or in the rural area of
a state, and that one-room schoolhouse was responsible for bringing all of
those children along to productive lives, and it happened, in spite of the fact
that there were many different grades in the same room. You had students all
the way from one through grade 12, with one teacher teaching them all.
Today, we have highly specialized education, so that you have students of like
ability grouped together, and then you have students [who are] supposed to be
taught to their grade level and development, and so you have all kinds of
expertise and resources and technologies, and now, we have complete
dissatisfaction with our schools. What does that say to you?
Well, I tell you what it says to me. It's that we've become distracted in this
country about what education really is. We've come to believe it has something
to do with all of the baubles associated with education, and the fundamentals
we've left aside. Well, the fundamentals have to do with the relationship
between a teacher and a learner, the climate that's established in the
classroom, and the autonomy that the teacher has in being able to reach a
student. That autonomy has been interrupted mightily by a set of standards and
measures imported from some place else.
So imagine in the United States, in the extreme case, let's say that you've
got a system of education. Why don't you go to another country, let's say
Thailand. Why don't you import the standards and culture of Thailand to our
schools here and then ask our teachers to teach it? That's what it's like
having businesspeople sit in New York, designing programs . . . .
Q: What will your short-term focus be during, say, the next five
years at Brown?
A: My short answer is that the top three goals are faculty, faculty,
faulty. I am interested in strengthening all of our academic programs, and in
offering more financial support to students, so that their academic experience
We can improve our academic programs in several ways. First, we are thinking
about expanding the size of the faculty so that we can have smaller classes --
over time we have crept up somewhat in the ratio of faculty to students. We
also want to offer more financial support to lower-income students, to make
sure that all of our students have the same number of hours in the day to
devote to their academics, Additionally, we are looking at increasing the
number of teaching assistantships available to graduate students to further
reduce class size.
At the core of what we do is the educational experience we offer to our
students. Making Brown the best university it can be and luring the best minds
here are my primary goals.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com.
Issue Date: November 30 - December 6, 2001