The libraries at Brown University contain some 6 million items—not just books but also Babylonian clay tablets and locks of Abraham Lincoln's hair. It's striking, then, that the woman in charge of this university came from a home where paper, pencils, and books were as hard to come by as a first edition of the Canterbury Tales.
Growing up on a farm in East Texas, the youngest of 12 children, Ruth Simmons could easily recount the story of her life as one of deprivation and hardship. Her father was a sharecropper and her mother was a part-time maid. Yet she's more apt to remember it fondly. "My journey has not been all that arduous, contrary to the way that my life is often presented," she says. "I had this wonderful grounding by my parents, and then an extraordinary streak of luck."
Those attributes took her from the farm to a series of important firsts: the first black president of a Seven Sisters school, the first African-American at the helm of an Ivy League institution, and the first female president of Brown. For all this, she credits a series of mentors who challenged, prodded, and supported her along the way.
Invisible creases. It began with ironing. Simmons, 62, would watch her mother diligently pressing fabric for hours. "I remember thinking what a horrible, horrible thing to have to do," she says. "And yet she would see a crease invisible to everyone else, and she would work on it and work on it until it disappeared." Simmons's mother died when she was 15 but not before instilling in her daughter the value of hard work. Simmons excelled at the segregated Houston public school she attended, encouraged by teachers who would, many years later, watch her being sworn in as president of Smith College. Her drama teacher helped her get a scholarship to Dillard University, a historically black college. And at Wellesley College, where she spent her junior year, she came to admire President Margaret Clapp, who helped change her notions of gender. "That was defining for me, the notion that women didn't have to play restricted roles, that you didn't have to hold back at all," says Simmons. "The faculty demanded that you work up to your potential." She later earned a Ph.D. at Harvard in Romance languages.
Still, leadership did not come easily. Her mother, Simmons recalled, "believed herself to be subservient to the interests of men," a traditional notion of gender roles that Simmons found hard to shake. "I expected that in my relationships with men, I should pretend not to be smart. I never wanted to be valedictorian because I thought it was very important for a boy to be valedictorian." She married at age 22, had two children, and is now divorced.
At Princeton, as the director of studies, Simmons took on what she considers among her most challenging assignments, a report on race relations that had strained the campus in the late 1980s. She interviewed students to gauge their impressions of the racial climate, marked at the time by campus police stopping black students for no reason. She offered a series of recommendations and helped rejuvenate black culture, enhancing the African-American Studies department by bringing in scholars like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, and Toni Morrison. "When we met, I immediately knew her milieu because I'd come from the very same place," says Morrison. "We did have a connection from the beginning."
At Brown, where Simmons took the reins in 2001, her successful fundraising, introduction of need-blind admissions, and personal charisma have made her a popular figure. A poll by the student newspaper put her approval rating among students at 87 percent, and her esteem only grew when she sparred in the media with conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly, who called her a "pinhead" for permitting an on-campus party sponsored by a gay-rights group called Queer Alliance.
Simmons has even personally recruited students to the campus. "It's probably the most important thing I can do on a national basis," she says. "[The best thing] any parent can do for a child is to give your child a sense of love and support and to be open to the idea that they need to learn."