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

Transcript of news conference announcing Brown’s 18th president

Ruth J. Simmons, 18th president-elect of Brown University, met with members of the press prior to an all-campus assembly. The following is a transcript of that news conference.

Laura Freid, executive vice president for public affairs and university relations:

Good afternoon. I’d like to just lay out a few ground rules for this press conference. First, welcome. It’s a historic day in the history of higher education. I appreciate, we all appreciate, you all being here. I want to just like to let you know of some people in the room who are particularly important to Brown. First is interim president Sheila Blumstein. On my right, and the co-chairs of the campus advisory committee – I know they’re here – Professor Mari Jo Buhle and Professor Lina Fruzzetti. I’m going to introduce Chancellor Robert. He will introduce our new president-elect and she will make a few comments. After that I’ll emcee some questions for all of you. Please tell me your name and what organization you represent before you ask your question. This press conference will take about a half an hour. We don’t have a lot of time today so please make your questions short. Thank you. It is my pleasure to introduce our chancellor, Steve Robert. He heads the presidential search committee. He has been chancellor of Brown the last two years and he is a distinguished businessman from New York, and he has become a leader in higher education himself.

Stephen Robert, chancellor:

Thank you Laura, and thank you all for coming this afternoon. This is a historic occasion, not only for Brown, but also for the entire Ivy League. Today we announce the 18th president of Brown University and the first African American to be named president of any Ivy League institution, Dr. Ruth Simmons. Before I introduce Dr. Simmons, I want to express my gratitude to both the presidential advisory committee and the presidential selection committee of the corporation. We worked in a genuine partnership, committed to a single goal, finding the most qualified candidate for the most exciting job in higher education today. And I am pleased to announce that we have indeed found her. Now let me turn to the woman of the hour, Dr. Ruth Simmons. Dr. Simmons has been president of Smith College since 1995 and, in her tenure there, she has revitalized every aspect of that institution. She has launched the new building projects, established new avenues of intellectual pursuit, increased campus diversity, and improved the teaching environment for the faculty. She has also led an extraordinarily successful capital campaign that is years ahead of schedule. All of us have been impressed with her academic leadership, her impeccable character, and her unquestionable integrity. We could easily understand writer Toni Morrison’s assertion that Dr. Simmons has a profound perception about what makes an institution great. She is truly beloved by faculty, students and staff at Smith, and we have every reason to believe she will be a star at Brown. It is my great pleasure and honor to present to you the 18th president of Brown University, Ruth Simmons.

Ruth J. Simmons, president of Brown University:

Thank you, Steve. Well, I understand that I am to make just a few comments and take questions. I want to say my comments will be brief because I am giving an address a little later this afternoon. It’s very hard for me to explain what’s going through my mind and through my heart right now. It would be impossible for you to understand because you don’t know my personal circumstances yet. But when I was told I had been elected this afternoon as president of Brown, I said my ancestors are smiling. It’s a wonderful moment for me. It’s a wonderful moment for my family. And I am very grateful to the search committee, and I am very grateful to Brown, for being able to see my capabilities. It isn’t always that easy to do, I think, in a search. This committee in particular was very good at searching beyond the resume. At looking very hard at character. At delving deeply into the makeup of candidates. And I think they were able to persuade me because they were so good at doing that, and because they cared so much about Brown, that this had to be as exemplary a University as I always thought it was. So I’m very grateful to be here today. I’m very pleased to be here, and I’m anxious to get started.

I do want to say that I leave Smith with very mixed feelings. It is a great place. I loved it there, and I never thought anybody could persuade me to leave. So, in a sense, I’m surprised that Brown was able to do that. But being here today I know that it is the right decision for me. So, again to Steve Robert, I want to say thank you Steve for persisting and getting me to come here, and I really look forward to tackling all of the issues that are important to Brown.

Freid: I invite you all to attend President Simmons speech at 3 o’clock. And now anyone who wants to ask a question, and maybe our student reporters would like to start.

Patrick Moos, Brown Daily Herald: I’m Patrick Moos from the Brown Daily Herald

Simmons: Yes.... You’re not the one who broke the story are you? [Laughter in the room.]

Moos: Well, we’re a team.”

Simmons [laughing]: O.K., now you don’t want to take responsibility for it. O.K.

Moos: But coming from an institution like Smith, which is all women, how do you make the transition to Brown with kind of a different student body makeup? And then, what are your plans for tackling diversity at Brown, which is has been kind of a hot topic recently?

Simmons: First of all, you may not know that I’ve moved between co-ed universities and women’s colleges a number of times. I think in higher education we think too often of university and college types. And we think pretty rigidly about those categories. They’ve been meaningless to me. Smith has wonderful students and I know that Brown, too, has wonderful students. Smith students are very activist. They are in my face all the time about things that need to be done. And I understand that Brown students are also very active. So I think there are many similarities, and I look forward to getting to know Brown students. That’s one of the main reasons, actually, that I accepted the job. Because of Brown students. I know many people who have taught them. I know many people who know them well. And they’ve always commented on how exciting it is to teach students at Brown. So that is one of the things I most look forward to.

As for diversity, well, I’ve spent so much time working on diversity issues in my career, I’m very excited to do that at Brown. I know that it’s never easy. And, as much as one works to attain good ends in this area, there is always more to do. It’s never settled. It’s never solved. And I would hope to bring that level of understanding to diversity issues here at Brown. But, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work at it earnestly and continuously; we should. That doesn’t mean that it can’t get better; it can. But we should be realistic in our expectations – there will always be work to do when it comes to diversity. It’s important work but it is, in many ways, enduring work.

Pat Healy, Boston Globe: I wanted to ask you, Dr. Simmons, what persuaded you to take the job and why did you need to be persuaded? Was it concerns at all about the last presidency?

Simmons: Well, I had to be persuaded because I was exceedingly happy at Smith. It’s been a terrific experience for me. We’ve done an immense amount in a six-year period at Smith. I guess, for a long time, I thought it couldn’t get any better than what I was experiencing at Smith because college and university presidencies are not always happy affairs. The degree of success one attains depends on a lot of factors. It depends on how the institution and the president feel about each other. It depends on the ways the campus works, the role of the president and what the span of authority is. It depends on the personalities of individuals involved. It depends on so many things. It’s just hard to get it right. And at Smith, we got it right. I love Smith and they loved me – until yesterday. (Laughter in the room.) So, it’s just been a wonderful experience and I have nothing but praise for Smith. So, my first question when I was called was why would I want to leave Smith because it is so wonderful for me. And I guess that was the hard part, trying to think about what I could do here that would be meaningful and worth disturbing what I was doing at Smith. That was the hardest decision. There was no question in my mind of the importance of Brown or about the desirability of this position. The fact that it didn’t work out in one instance didn’t say to me that it should be a problem for me. But the piece that was important for me to resolve was whether or not I could make a difference here. And, I think over time, I was persuaded that I could. I don’t know, I always get the race question. And I know none of you would do that. On one level, one doesn’t want to feel, ever, that one is chosen because of one’s race or gender. But on the other hand, let me tell you what happened to me this morning when I left the hotel and I was being driven to campus. A taxi cab pulled alongside the car with a driver who I could see out of the corner of my eye was trying to get my attention, and I thought it was a bit odd. He was waving, and I looked over and he held up the newspaper and he pointed to my picture and he said “Yesssss!” (Simmons stuck her thumb in the air.) The point is, if that means something to a taxi driver in Providence, if it means something to a 5-year-old in Fifth Ward in Houston, Texas, it’s worth giving it a shot. So I’m here because I think my doing this means something for other people, and I think it will certainly mean something for me. And I owe it to all the people who helped me along the way, to contribute something and that’s what I’m trying to do. Did I get off the question a little bit? [Laughter]

Martha Bebinger, WRNI: I wanted to ask you a little bit following up on that. How do you see yourself becoming part of the larger community?

Simmons: I don’t know the city well enough yet to know what would be best. I will say, though, I’m here first for Brown. There are things that I must do for the University that are immediate, I’m sure. And my first obligation is to that. Having said that, I live in this country. I love this country. I was formed by it. My daughter and son live here. There are children who are growing up in a society which does not yet get it right in terms of education, in terms of quality of life. Given my own circumstances and what I went through as a child, I have to pay some attention to that. So I help in any way that I can but I want to utilize my time wisely. So I will await guidance on what I can do, frankly, I just don’t know enough now what that will be.

Jeniene Phillips, New England Cable News: I just have to ask: The personal circumstances you spoke of, was that the taxi cab driver and, if it wasn’t, do you mind sharing that with us? And the second thing is, in the University press releases, it said one of the reasons they chose you was because you were willing to take risks. And I would like to know what risks you are going to take.

Simmons: First of all, when I referred to my personal circumstances, I just meant that... I’m happy to say my sister is here, my older sister. She’s two years older than I am.

Her sister, Marie Raymond: Thank you, Ruth. [Laughter in the room.]

Simmons: She’s a bit of a know-it-all, but we grew up, like so many of our generation in the South in very limited economic circumstances. You probably don’t know Houston well enough to know what Fifth Ward is, but it is a very impoverished area of Houston, just in the shadow of the downtown skyscrapers. Our parents eked out a living in that area, and so we didn’t have much. We went to segregated schools. We went to schools where we had wonderful teachers, to be sure, but they were different from the schools that other children went to at the time. But we were afforded an education. Because we had the opportunity – I particularly had the opportunity for scholarships – I just feel so strongly that every child in this country, irrespective of their circumstances, should be entitled to a good education. Every child. So that’s what I mean about my personal background. I just feel very passionately about that. Now, your other questions was what?

Phillips: The risks that you are going to take.

Simmons: Oh, the risks that I’m willing to take. I don’t think that they meant that I was foolhardy. I’m actually a very boring person. I don’t do a lot of bold things. But when it comes to education, I believe that we have to apply the same rigorous assessment and some of the same daring that one finds very commonly in journalism or in mini-industries. So the whole notion that we should build programs and that they should endure 200 years just because they were created, the whole notion that we ought to always be the same, no matter what, is a notion that I don’t subscribe to. There are many wonderful and interesting things that society requires of us. I think it is the task of the university to respond to the needs of society. Yes – we have to be a center of knowledge, and we have to protect that very jealously. But at the same time, there are so many things that we can do. I am very proud of the fact that Brown has a strong interest in public policy and of reform of education. Those are just the right kinds of things to be involved in. So I think that’s what they meant. I started a program in engineering at Smith, the first ever at a women’s college. I always believed that universities ought to be constantly alive to the possibility of doing something new and of doing something better and I’m not afraid to push that kind of thing ahead.

Linda Borg, Providence Journal: Can you tell of one person who really made a difference to you as a child?

Simmons: My kindergarten teacher, Ida Mae Henderson. At the time I went to kindergarten my parents were sharecroppers, and we were living on this poor farm at some distance from school. I recall the first day that I went to school, it was magical to me because here was a place that was bright and orderly and something terrific happened there. I could have a pencil and paper; I could have books to read. That seems like a simple thing today, but for me it was like winning the lottery. That was the beginning of my odyssey, that day. This teacher had a wonderful lilting voice. She loved her students. In fact she called us all babies. In fact, she’d say, “Ruth baby, why don’t you think of doing this?” She loved us, she held us close, she inspired us to do more than we ever thought we could do. I have to say – perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I like to do that to torture Laura because whenever I say ‘perhaps I shouldn’t say this’ she gets nervous. But a number of people told me as I was coming along that I would surely one day become a president of a college or university. I had a mentor who was wonderful for me, who encouraged me along the way. But he said, ‘Ruth, you certainly have the ability to become a college president, but you’ll never become president, of course, of an Ivy League university. But you can become president of a college.’ I guess what made a difference for me with this Ida Mae was, never in her instructions to us, never in her vision for us did she say ‘You can do this, but you can’t do that.’ If I’m here today, it’s because in my heart of hearts, when I was small I grew up believing that I could do anything. I didn’t know if society would permit me to do it, but I knew I could do it. So that’s why Ida Mae Henderson is so important to me.

Pamela Ferdinand, Washington Post: I was wondering what your priorities here are going to be?

Simmons: I am going to talk a little bit about that in my speech. First of all one has to be very careful about coming in from the outside and deciding before even researching it and talking to people, what has to be done. I would never insult the wonderful people who work here by doing that, because I know I have much to learn and I intend to learn. Having said that, I will say that one of the reason, I think, that the committee was interested in me, was because I was very forthright in saying what I was interested in doing. So I will tell you a couple of things that I would like to explore. First of all, I believe that faculty and students are the most important part of a university. Now if you look around you on a university campus you see lots things. You hear people talking in an animated way about the technology and about the physical plant and about the walkways and so on. It’s the faculty. It’s the students. So I certainly plan to focus on faculty resources. The faculty has to be supported at the highest level. Why? Because this university is at the highest level in this nation, so its faculty have to be both the best that it can be and have the support to be able to do that. Secondly, as you know, and as I just implied, to me the notion that a student with ability, irrespective of economic means, just has to be able to come to Brown. That’s a moral imperative. So I’m very interested in finding ways for students who come from the least favorable circumstances to be able to come to Brown. I never want elite higher education in this country to become the province of the rich. It’s very important, not just for these universities, it’s very important for the nation. Because right now in this country there are kids all over the place who believe that if they are smart enough, and if they work hard enough, they can go to the best college in the country. Now imagine what that fuels in young people. It certainly fueled a lot in me. That’s what we have to represent for students, a place where if you’re smart enough, you can go. So I want to make a way for all students to be able to come to Brown if they have the ability.

An unidentified member of the audience: Does that mean need-blind admission?

Simmons: Perhaps.

Anna Cabrera, Providence American: There are a lot of young girls saying, ‘I want to be her.’ What do you say to them?

Simmons: I say you can be. One of the things I hope to do is spend some time in communities talking to boys and girls about this sort of magical thing they think is so impossible. That’s one of the reasons I go into high schools in the inner city and into grade schools in the inner city. To talk to young people about how it is possible for someone to be born in Fifth Ward and to become president of Brown University. We often want to mythologize all of that. How rare and wonderful that is. Well, the fact is there are a lot of people who came along with me in my cohort who were a lot smarter than I, a lot nicer than I, who had a lot of ambition, who fell by the wayside. There are things that parents need to understand. They need to understand, for example, how to avoid having their kids tracked. I was never tracked. I was in a full curriculum all the way through high school. When I chose college, I was not tracked. I chose a liberal arts education. So many of the students from the inner city are told that they have to study a narrow area, a specialized area, because they’ll be able to get a job. I didn’t do that. I studied French and I feel passionately that the liberal arts degree is absolutely the right degree for those born in deprived economic circumstances. The liberal arts degree gives them back everything that people have had that they didn’t have growing up. When I was growing up I didn’t go to museums. I didn’t go to restaurants. I didn’t go to theaters because I didn’t have the resources to do that, so I had to do a lot of catching up when I got to college. So I studied art and music; I studied different civilizations. I’m very grateful that I did that because today, if I’m having dinner with a queen – of England that is – [laughter] I’m just as comfortable as I am talking to you here. I yield nothing. I feel at home everywhere. The liberal arts did that for me. That’s what I want every child to know. How to feel comfortable with the world that they live in. How to learn about that. So that is what I would hope to say to them.

David Rising, Associated Press: You talked a lot about your background. What do you think your parents would say to you today?

Simmons: Well unfortunately my parents are both deceased. I remember the day I asked my mother.... I generally can’t talk about this, so if I don’t get through this, I’ll just stop. I remember the first time I asked my mother if I could go to college. She said, hesitating, ‘If you can get a scholarship, you can go.’ Her mouth said, ‘If you can get a scholarship,’ but her eyes said that she didn’t think it would ever happen. So it’s been very important to me to imagine that my mother would have been very happy. So.... I have to stop there.

Freid: Thank you, Ruth. And thank you for giving the newest member of our community such a warm welcome. Those of you here who have press credentials, wear your credentials and that will get you into Sayles Hall, and that will begin at 3 o’clock. Thank you.


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