Ruth J. Simmons: A Trailblazing University Leader

Ruth J. Simmons

The job of a University President isn’t a simple one. For a large, private university the unique hats one must wear are particularly challenging. These leadership positions involves many skills, including:

  • Motivating
  • Fundraising
  • Strategic Planning
  • Recruiting

Given these ‘hats’, to rise and successfully a single university or college is a uniquely-challenging thing for a person to accomplish. Ruth J. Simmons has led 2 universities (1995 – 2012) and is currently, after a five year break, leading a third.

  • An Executive Director who desires sustainability, who wishes to do more than simply survive, is well served if they can strategically plan, fundraise, motivate, and recruit.


Our Series on this blog

While Your Outcomes Well typically personally interviews each of the non-profit leaders we profile, we realized that we were missing showcasing some other great Leaders in the non-profit sector – who shared their thoughts with others. So this Series will be our first showcasing such a leader. The wisdom of the former President of Brown University, Ruth J. Simmons, will be shared, compliments of the New York Times (Adam Bryant), the Brown Daily Herald, and the Brown Alumni Magazine. The leadership lessons and life stories we’ve gleamed from these sources reflect the journey of an accomplished woman.

We fell they’ll be food for thought for Executive Directors who wear some of the hats cited above too.


  • What Ruth’s mother (Fanny Stubblefield) told her
I think somehow this sense of myself came from my mother, who instilled in [my siblings and I] very strong values about who we were. And this was quite essential at the time I grew up, because in that environment, in the Jim Crow South, everybody told you that you were worth nothing. Everybody told you that you would never be anything. Everybody told you that you couldn’t go here, you couldn’t go there. She would just constantly talk to us: Never think of yourself as being better than anybody else. Always think for yourself. Don’t follow the crowd. So we grew up with a sense of being independent in our thinking”. 
  • Leaders: Be respectful of those you lead, not ego-driven

It’s not all about you. It’s very important in a leadership role not to place your ego at the foreground and not to judge everything in relationship to how your ego is fed. And that seems to be all-important if you’re going to lead well. The other thing is just how unpleasant it is to work in an environment where you’re demeaned or disrespected”. 


Trailblazing at 3 universities: Ruth J. Simmons

Ruth Simmons was offered her first President position at Smith College. She was the first African American to lead a major university. The college is the largest of the Seven Sister schools. Six years later her trailblazing career would continue. Much to her surprise she humbly admitted, she was considered and selected as the 18th President of Brown University. She was the first African American to lead an Ivy League university; she was also the first female President of the 247 year-old university. Given what happened just 28 days after she started her position at Brown, 9/11, she had no time to coast. She led the RI university for 11 years.

Was the talented daughter of Texas sharecroppers, with a Ph.D from Harvard, done? No. Five years after stepping down from one of the most successful administrations in Brown’s long history (7th oldest college in the US), an opportunity to lead a Black college in Texas (where she grew up with her 11 older siblings) presented itself. After half a year as Interim President of Prairie View A&M University, Ruth Simmons accepted a position as the President of the HBCU in December 2017. She is the university’s first female President.

  • Simmons, once deemed America’s best college President (Time magazine), is a true pioneer in the field of higher education. To have led three major universities, including an Ivy League, Seven Sister, and HBCU, is surely the first for an African American. To know what she is confident (without being arrogant), keeps her ego in line, and practiced an open door policy at Brown (for students and staff) makes her journey even more compelling.
  • In reading material for this Series, I see more humility than hubris. I see more ‘we did’ than ‘I did’. A lot of Leaders should Lead Like Ruth.
  • Full disclosure. Simmons acknowledges being “impossible” when she was younger, but learning that amiable leaders -that respect those they lead- accomplish more, not less.

  • Team orientation, not “Individual glorification” is the way to go

I have always thought in leadership that it’s much easier to convey to people what they should do in different situations if you convey the underlying principles. I thought it was absolutely essential for all of us as a team to understand that we were there not for our own individual glorification, but to help everybody else thrive. And that meant working together well. I emphasized that more than anything, and I stressed that I would not have any tolerance at all for people who did not, in fact, strive hard to be a part of that team”.


Biography of Ruth J. Simmons

Ruth J. Simmons was sworn in as the 18th president of Brown University on July 3, 2001. She had been president of Smith College from 1995 until the time of her appointment at Brown. She is currently President of Prairie View A&M University, which she has lead since December 2017 – after six months as the University’s Interim President.

A native of Texas and a 1967 graduate of Dillard University in New Orleans, Simmons received her Ph.D. in Romance languages and literatures from Harvard University in 1973. She has written on the works of David Diop and Aime Cesaire.

In 1983, after serving as associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Southern California, Simmons joined the Princeton University administration. She remained at Princeton for seven years, leaving in 1990 for two years to serve as provost at Spelman College, returning to Princeton in 1992 as vice provost. In 1993, invited by the president to review the state of race relations on the Princeton campus, Simmons wrote a report that resulted in a number of initiatives that received widespread attention. In 1995 she left Princeton to become president of Smith College, the largest women’s college in the United States, where she launched a number of strategic initiatives to strengthen the college’s academic programs and inaugurated the first engineering program at a U.S. women’s college.

Simmons is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Active in a wide range of educational, charitable, and civic endeavors, she holds honorary degrees from numerous colleges and universities such as Amherst College, Bard College, Brown University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Dillard University, Harvard University, Howard University, Princeton University, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Boston University, Northeastern University, New York University, Mount Holyoke College, University of Pennsylvania, Washington University in St. Louis, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, The George Washington University, University of Southern California, Tougaloo College, Jewish Theological Seminary, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and The American College of Greece.

Simmons is the recipient of a number of prizes and fellowships. In 1997 she was awarded the Centennial Medal from Harvard University, in 1999 the Teachers College Medal for Distinguished Service from Columbia University, and in 2001 the President’s Award from the United Negro College Fund. She has been honored with the 2002 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal and the 2002 “Drum Major for Justice” education award from Southern Christian Leadership Conference/WOMEN. In 2004 she received the ROBIE Humanitarian Award, given by the Jackie Robinson Foundation; the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal; and the chairman’s award of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. 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. 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. In 2011, Simmons received The Rosenberger Medal, which is the highest honor Brown University faculty can bestow.

During her tenure at Brown, Simmons created an ambitious set of initiatives designed to expand and strengthen the faculty; increased financial support and resources for undergraduate, graduate, and medical students; improved facilities; renewed a broad commitment to shared governance; and ensured that diversity informs every dimension of the university. These initiatives led to a major investment of new resources in Brown’s educational mission. She concluded her term as president of Brown on June 30, 2012. Five years later (June 2017) she accepted an Interim President position at Prairie View A&M; she was named the university’s President six months later.


Photo credit: Brown University

3 quotes were from a New York Times article which featured an interview with Ruth Simmons (December 4, 2011, page BU2, “I was impossible, than I saw how to lead”, Corner Office, Adam Bryant).

Biographical profile from Brown University, with the exception of the references to her positions at Prairie View A&M University.

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