Breaking Academic Barriers: Ruth J. Simmons Is The First African-American President Of An Ivy League College

February 28, 2013  |  

Ruth Simmons in 2007. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Ruth J. Simmons achieved two major firsts. She was the first woman—and first black person—to become president of an Ivy League college. In 2001, this great-granddaughter of slaves was sworn in as the 18th president of Brown University. At the time she also held an appointment as professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Department of Africana Studies. Prior to this she was president of Smith College from 1995 until the time of her appointment at Brown.

Simmons was born in Texas in 1945 and graduated from the HBCU Dillard University in New Orleans in 1967. She received her Ph.D. in Romance languages and literatures from Harvard University in 1973.

According to PBS, in 1983, after serving as associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Southern California, Simmons joined the Princeton University administration, where she remained for seven years. In 1990 she served as provost at Spelman College for two years. But she returned to Princeton in 1992 as vice provost, she remained at the university until 1995. In 1995 she became president of Smith College, the largest women’s college in the United States. At Smith she inaugurated the first engineering program at a U.S. women’s college.

Simmons served on a number of boards, including the Dillard University’s Board of Trustees, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Texas Instruments.

Even the government tapped her expertise. She was appointed by President Obama as a member of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.

Simmons, herself, is the recipient of a number of prizes and fellowships, including a Fulbright Fellowship to France. She was selected as a Newsweek “Person to Watch” and as a Ms. Woman of the Year in 2002.  In 2001 Time magazine named her America’s best college president, and in 2007 she was named one of U. S. News & World Report’s top U.S. leaders and – for the second time – a Glamour magazine Woman of the Year.

During her tenure at Brown University, Simmons created an ambitious set of initiatives which led to a major investment of new resources in Brown’s educational mission and a successful $1.6 billion campaign, reports PBS.

She stepped down from her position at Brown in 2012.

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