Brown U. Names Ivy League's First Black President

Brown University has chosen as its next leader Smith College President Ruth Simmons, who will become the first black to head an Ivy League school.

Simmons, a sharecropper’s daughter who went on to earn a Ph.D. in Romance languages, became the first black woman to lead Smith College, an elite 2,500-student women’s college in Northhampton, Mass.

Brown has been seeking a president since February, when Gordon Gee announced he was resigning to take the top post at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

The Daughter of Sharecropper

Simmons was the youngest of 12 children of a Texas sharecropper father and a mother who worked as a domestic. Simmons earned a scholarship to Dillard University in New Orleans and graduated with highest honors in 1967.

She earned a Ph.D. in Romance languages from Harvard University, and worked several years at Princeton University as a teacher and administrator.

At a news conference today, she wept as she imagined what her parents would have thought of her appointment, and recalled the first time she told her mother she wanted to go to college.

“She said, ‘Possibly if you can get a scholarship you can go,’” Simmons said. “Her mouth said, ‘If you can get a scholarship,’ but her eyes said she didn’t think it would ever happen, so it’s been very important for me to imagine my mother would have been very happy.”

Simmons took over as the head of Smith College in 1995. During her tenure, the school’s endowment nearly doubled to $900 million. She also established an engineering program, the first at a women’s school.

Brown, which has 7,000 students, has an endowment of $1.5 billion, among the smallest of the Ivy League schools. Simmons, who was educated in segregated schools, said increasing financial aid was a top priority.

“A student with ability, irrespective of economic means, just has to be able to come to Brown. That’s a moral imperative,” she said.

Brown has been seeking a president since February, when Gee angered many on campus by announcing he was leaving after just two years.

‘An Extraordinary Leader’

Brown Chancellor Stephen Robert said Simmons was chosen because of her accomplishments in recruiting minority faculty, increasing undergraduate scholarships, and her general support for faculty and research.

“We have selected an extraordinary leader, a person of character, of integrity and of depth,” Robert said.

Smith credits Simmons with recruiting more minority faculty and increasing diversity on campus; improving undergraduate education through intensive seminars for first-year students; and creating a program that allows students to be paid for their summer internships.

“Ruth Simmons has provided outstanding leadership for Smith and we will be very sad to see her leave,” said Shelly Lazarus, chairwoman of the Smith board of trustees.

Simmons will start at Brown in July. She was introduced to students at an all-campus meeting.

“Her story is undoubtedly inspirational,” said David Moore, a 21-year-old senior studying English and philosophy.

Mathu Suvramanian, a 20-year-old junior studying biochemistry, said she was proud that Brown named the first black Ivy League president.

“I think she’ll be a much better fit than Gee,” Suvramanian said.