MAKERS Profile

Ruth Simmons

First African-American Ivy League President, Brown

In this video

Ruth Simmons on escaping poverty and discrimination through education, speaking her mind, and lingering insecurity.
In 2001, Ruth Simmons made history when she became the first African-American president of an Ivy League university, as well as Brown University’s first female president. Prior to this appointment, she served as the first African-American female president of a major college or university when she took the reins at Smith College in 1995. Yet growing up, Simmons had much more modest ambitions. “I had one goal,” she recalls, “if only I could one day work in an office, because every woman that I knew was a maid… The farthest I could think was working in an office. That was it.” Simmons began her prodigious journey on a sharecropping farm in Texas, the youngest of 12 children. She attended Dillard University on scholarship and spent her junior year at Wellesley College, where she encountered President Margaret Clapp who opened her eyes to the possibility of women in leadership. Graduating Dillard in 1967, she studied in France on a Fulbright fellowship, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Romance languages from Harvard.   In 1983, after serving as associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Southern California, Simmons joined the Princeton University administration. She left in 1990 for two years to serve as provost at Spelman College, returning to Princeton in 1992 as vice provost. In 1995, she became president of Smith College, the largest women’s college in the U.S., where she launched a number of strategic initiatives to strengthen the college’s academic programs and inaugurated the first engineering program at a U.S. women’s college. Over the course of her career Simmons has been a visionary leader in academia, championing, and demonstrating, the power of education to transform lives. She stepped down as Brown president in 2012, but remains a professor of comparative literature and Africana studies at the university.

More From Ruth

Sharecropper to University President
Simmons reflects on the overwhelming enormity of her journey from sharecroppers' daughter to Ivy League president.

Reaching A Diversity of Students
Simmons explains how her desire to reach minority students propelled her beyond just teaching into administration.

The Future Crystallized
Simmons describes her powerful reaction as an undergrad to discovering that Wellesley had a female president.

New Roles in the Home
Simmons adherence to traditional household gender roles, quickly went out the window when she and her husband had kids.

Feminists in Waiting
Simmons reflects on young women's attitude towards feminism and the experiences that will eventually wake them up to its call.

On the Poverty Line
For Simmons, it's women and families on the poverty line who call for greater focus from the women's movement.

Rebellion Pays
Simmons was always warned her outspokeness and challenges to authority would hamper her career.

Pressure of Being a Symbol
Simmons discusses the pressure and  she felt being appointed the first African American Ivy League President as President of Brown.

Women's Financial Know-How
Simmons explains how women's financial illiteracy often holds them back and what skills they must learn.

An Almost Drop Out
Simmons discusses her difficult first year adjusting to college and coming close to dropping out.

An Odd Duck
Simmons bookishness as a child made her an misfit amongst her siblings, but ulitmately opened doors for her.  

The Miracle of School
Simmons was the first in her sharecropper family to consistently attend middle school and it changed her life.