Distributed November 9, 2000
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Mark Nickel

Ruth J. Simmons

Remarks to the Brown community upon election as 18th president

Ruth J. Simmons addressed the faculty, students and staff of Brown University on Thursday, November 9, 2000, following the public announcement of her election as the University’s 18th president. Simmons delivered the following remarks at 3 p.m. in Sayles Hall.

Good afternoon. I stand before you this afternoon mystified and elated. On the one hand, I am mystified by the fact that I have been chosen as the 18th president of Brown, and on the other hand, I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead this outstanding University in this exciting time in history.

Brown, as you all know, is one of the most prominent and distinctive universities in American higher education. Through many eras, Brown has maintained its independence of direction and its commitment to remain an exemplary “university college.” From its very earliest days, courageous leaders like Horace Mann and James Manning set themselves apart by fighting for basic human rights, demonstrating indisputably not only that excellence in education coexists with responsible social behavior, but that promoting ethical leadership and public service is among the high aims of education. Today, the reformist tradition of Brown’s early days is evident throughout the University: a medical school that plays a defining role in health care in this region and the nation, new centers of study that are at the leading edge of developing knowledge in the service of society, leadership in reform and public policy, and the adherence to important and humane values that are an integral part of the spirit of the Brown community itself.

I was recently asked whether universities should teach values. My response was that universities, whether implicitly or otherwise, always, always teach values. They teach values in the way they hire and treat employees; they teach values in the way they admit students; they teach values in the way they set curricula and requirements. Thus, universities teach values even when they do not set out to do so. The values that Brown implicitly teaches its students are manifest in its open curriculum, the way the University stresses individual responsibility, in the value the University places on commitment to community involvement and civic engagement, and in its acknowledged recognition of the need for diversity in both social relations and intellectual choices.

Yet I know that, even with all of these important values and ideals, there are quotidian concerns. I am told that there is a sense on this campus and among many Brown alumni and supporters that Brown may not be achieving all that it could or all that it is required to do as a university of its stature and reputation. There is a sense that there are long-standing questions that Brown must address definitively if the University is to remain at the forefront of higher education. While the University’s standing can never be guaranteed from one era to the next, one can easily surmise that the absence of a coherent plan and strategies for ongoing improvement, renewal and advances, and too little intellectual and fiscal discipline could well erode the reputation and quality of any university over time. But I do not believe that can happen to this great University.

I have accepted this honor because I believe that Brown is poised to continue building on its exceptional place in higher education and I want to do all that I can to enhance the work that you have already accomplished and that you wish to begin. What will it take? I don’t know, and I am not prepared to say at this point. I will say this, however: If Brown focuses on the quality of its programs and the extent to which these programs are consonant with the core values and mission of the University, it will achieve its aim at the highest level.

What are those core values? The scale and intimacy of this community are certainly important to its success. One hears over and over again around this country how deeply satisfying the Brown experience is for students and faculty. And, by the way, people very much envy this university that intimacy. Bound together as learners and mentors, apprentices and guides, and colleagues and friends, Brown’s faculty and students have the privilege of an intensely rewarding intellectual experience built not just on a dominant-subordinate model of education, nor on crude competitive antics, nor on arrogant elitism, but on a deep and genuine mutual regard for different intellectual ends and approaches. Those who enter this environment face high expectations, but they receive the highest rewards at the end of their journey.

From time to time, the amity of this venture is interrupted by the jangling discord that is so much a part of college and university life. But as the historian Walter Bronson pointed out, that “tumultuous amity” has its role in the learning process; it helps us become more adept at repairing the bonds of friendship, community and humanity when they are inevitably severed. In that sense, Brown offers a fine example to the country and communities rent by narrow individual and group interests. How do we form, maintain and affirm the kind of rich social context in which we respectfully acknowledge rather than denigrate difference? How do we ensure that, using many different lenses, we come to see better the limitations of the socially constructed categories that divide us? How can we ensure that education itself is a resource to us in navigating these often perilous waters? Answering these queries is one of the most important dimensions of learning, for in seeking answers we have the opportunity both for agility and generosity of intellect and for a continuous expansion of methodologies and areas of learning.

An important aspect of Brown’s investment in intellectual expansion is its undergraduate curriculum, a vehicle that allows for the development of creative and original thinkers and doers, and which eschews the one-kind-fits-all model of many curricular approaches. More demanding than the formulaic approach of fixed requirements, this approach, at its best, demands engagement and facilitates the development of a true scholarly disposition. It is also an approach that reaches into the fixed realms of consciousness and sets free the distinctive interactions that give rise to new approaches and, occasionally – very occasionally – to new knowledge. Most importantly, in an age when the core purpose of education is often lost in a miasma of competition and crass assessment and where the raw experience of confronting great and enduring ideas grows rare, the Brown curriculum helps to restore, I think, the elemental relationship between ideas and the human spirit. And is that not the noblest purpose of education? I rather think so.

The Brown student is legendary and is, by many accounts, the most appealing in the country. Joyful and intelligent, humane and concerned, Brown students are said to be the happiest and the most balanced in the Ivy League.

Brown’s faculty is said to be selfless and a model for its ancient guild. Brown’s professoriate is a great resource to this University. It must be supported in its endeavors at the very highest level. Collegial associations, tireless efforts on behalf of the common interests and the well-being of the University – these are the old-fashioned values that one dare not invoke in some settings today. But I’m told that at Brown, idealism in the faculty still prevails.

I am aware that many will be eager to hear how I plan to approach the many questions that await resolution and implementation. There is no question that the ground has been very well prepared for fruitful and purposeful initiatives. I will want to take a period of time to understand more fully the pros and cons of the many priorities that you have already identified. But I have a concern. My main concern will be that we not overshoot and that we set a group of goals that can be achieved. I don’t like losing. And so, whatever agenda we set, I intend that we accomplish it, and I will not settle for less. The idealism of the effort is important, but the effectuation of the end is even more important. I will work to make sure that we agree on a reasonable and modest initial set of aims and that we marshal our resources to make sure that these aims are attained at the highest level. I want to make sure that, whatever we elect to do, we will do it thoroughly and well.

Given what I know of Brown, I expect that we will focus immediately on student aid and faculty resources, for faculty and student well-being are the pillars of academic excellence. If this foundation is not strong, we can hardly expect to remain at the forefront of higher education. In addition, there are some long-standing concerns about how Brown should deal with the many harrowing aspects of diversity. This is an area to which I have devoted substantial effort over a very long period of time, and I would expect to play a direct role in how we implement the report of the visiting committee on diversity.

President Sheila Blumstein and I have agreed that over the coming months we will spend a lot of time together so that I can be ready to start in earnest on July 1. I will spend my initial months meeting with many of you to learn more about the intentions and opportunities that are evident in all that I have read and heard. I would expect to be able to say more about what I think we should undertake after a brief period of intensive discussion with department chairs and other faculty leaders, as well as administrative and student leaders.

Now, having said all that, let me offer a deeply personal perspective about my assumption of this role – because I hope you understand that this is a very emotional day for me. I understand the import of what has happened here today, and I am touched by it. I feel exceedingly proud to be here, but more than that, I am proudest of Brown.

It is impossible for me to stand before you without remembering that I have arrived at this place through the brutally hard and sometimes demeaning labor of humble parents who had none of the opportunities that I have known. Yet I am also acutely aware that I was afforded an education because of scholarships made available to me by the selfless generosity of people who reached out to unknown children to help them make their way through life. I am here because of my parents, but I am also here because of those unknown donors. They helped me to understand something very important: that poverty is not a state of mind nor a definition of one’s character, but merely the condition of one’s purse. I think it is the duty of education at every level to care about the opportunity for children of limited resources to establish an intimate relationship with ideas and high ideals. I hope that Brown will want to play a leadership role – a leadership role – in insisting that elite universities remain steadfastly and resolutely the province of excellent minds and not just of fat purses.

Higher education today is caught in an ever-widening dilemma in which silver and gold dominate our thinking and our planning. In the lure of this gold are the seeds of irrelevance, self-satisfaction and loss of public trust. Universities exist not to amass wealth but to release minds and to amass knowledge. I will be intensely interested, you can be sure, in improving both the capital and operating funds of the University – but I hope never, ever to lose sight of the fact that Brown’s core values, and not the size of its endowment, will forever be this University’s greatest asset. Brown must fix and stay its course and not imitate the gold chase of so many in higher education today.

I wish to thank Steve Robert and the Corporation’s selection committee and the Campus Advisory Committee for encouraging me to stand for this position. I would not have thought it possible for a person of my background to become president of Brown University. But then, Brown didn’t forget its values. It gives me enormous pride and joy to think that I will serve as president of a place that not only has ideals I can share, but also earnestly seeks to live those ideals.

Thank you very much.


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