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February 9, 2005

Ruth Simmons

Ruth Simmons is the President of Brown University. I had a chance to hear her speak and then joined her for a dinner yesterday. In the speech, she described her path from a small, East-Texas town where she was the twelfth child of sharecroppers to the presidency of an Ivy League university. I was particularly interested in her description of Houston in the 1950s. She said that a tight network of very talented Black teachers and ministers, plus a few lawyers and doctors, led the community and collaborated closely to help young people--they raised money for college tuition, picked out students' clothes, taught and counselled them. Because of segregation, these adults had no options other than to hold a few professional jobs within the Black community. This restriction was deeply unfair, but it meant that children who came from deep poverty had access to skilled and charismatic people in their own neighborhoods.

Dr. Simmons' parents were suspicious of schooling and constantly told her to take her nose out of books. She suggested three reasons for this attitude: her parents worked with their hands and distrusted "idleness"; they were afraid that Ruth might question racial injustice and be killed; and they worried that she might lose touch with (and respect for) her own family. A final reason could have been a kind of "bargain with reality." Since other opportunities had always been closed for African Americans, especially in rural East Texas, sharecroppers developed a pride in manual labor and a hostility to books to help validate their own lives. But Simmons was also exposed to community leaders for whom education was a route to freedom. Despite centuries of oppression, her teachers and other professionals prepared youth to become leaders in the hope that better opportunities would arise. I suspect that their hope was an essential precondition of the Civil Rights Movement.

February 9, 2005 6:18 PM | category: none


Are you a Brown alumn too? Or is it just a coincidence that the two of you had dinner.

As a recent grad I am a big fan of Ruth (Brown's gone informal in the past, oh, forty years). She pushed the board to move to need-blind admission, realizing that enough alumni would make contributions once the school moved to be need-blind. Previously Brown was need blind for the first 85-95% of the applicant pool, but need based for the following pieces.

February 11, 2005 10:45 PM | Comments (2) | posted by niq

I'm not a Brown guy. I just joined a bunch of faculty at the dinner for Dr. Simmons.

February 12, 2005 9:43 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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