February 23: Dr. Ruth Simmons

Prairie View A&M University College President Dr. Ruth J. Simmons was the first Black woman to serve as president of a major college or university in the U.S. when she was named president of Smith College in 1995. Having served as provost at Spelman College previously, Simmons was no stranger to all-women’s education, and as president of Smith, she started the first engineering department at an all-women’s college in the U.S.

In 2001, she became the first Black president of an Ivy League institution when she succeeded Gordon Gee as president of Brown University. While at Brown, she led an inquisition to better understand the role the university’s founders had played in the slave trade and to reconcile those findings with the university’s history. She retired from Brown in 2012, expecting to settle quietly into retirement in her home state of Texas.

But when Prairie View came knocking, she said she thought about the impact the institution had on her brother, a graduate, and the the role her alma mater, Dillard University, had played in her life.

“I grew up in a segregated neighborhood in Grapeland, [Texas], with very little experience with the world,” she said in a 2018 interview with The New York Times. “The transition that Dillard enabled for me was extremely valuable. As an undergraduate, I began to grow a sense of confidence that helped me move from a fairly insular environment to a bigger stage when I went to graduate school.”

“ My aspirations for Prairie View are to essentially make sure the university is continuing to do the same thing for students today that it did for my brother — and Dillard did for me,” she said. “And that is to offer the advantage of a strong education that will prepare students for the careers they want, in a social and cultural context that helps them develop the confidence to perform after graduation.”

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com