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Universities Can, and Should, Be Engines for Change, Says Brown University President Simmons

You could be forgiven for wondering whether Brown University President Ruth Simmons has reached the point in her career where she could safely rest on her laurels. But Simmons, who has a formidable set of accomplishments to her name -- including being the first African American president of a Seven Sisters college, first woman president of Brown and first African American president of an Ivy League school -- has at least one more goal in sight. Universities, she says, have a duty to teach and model diversity as a core value of democracy.

And diversity isn't simply a matter of quotas; its meaning changes as society evolves. "Whatever you think diversity is now," she told a recent Columbia audience, "it'll be something else in 50 years."

Currently, she noted, educators have their work cut out for them in attempting to move the discussion beyond concerns over affirmative action and in encouraging their students to embrace diversity as part of the model for democratic citizenship. "Diversity in higher education has been a moving target since the '60s," she said. "After four decades of affirmative action, the question of diversity still lingers."

Simmons delivered these remarks at the second of this term's presidential lectures, held in the Low Rotunda on March 8. Click to view the video of her lecture.

Calling her his "dear colleague and friend," Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger complimented Simmons for her tireless campaign on behalf of opening up higher education to disadvantaged minorities. "Her work at Brown University, in particular to address the complicated issues of diversity and their inextricable relationship to academic excellence," he said in a written statement, "has been exceptional and has resonated at colleges and universities throughout the nation."

A self-described fierce advocate of affirmative action, Simmons also acknowledges its limitations. "Affirmative action was designed as a narrow solution to discrimination, not a public policy," she said. Once more people are in the door, we face the challenge of "valuing all the people in the room" -- which is where the real debate about diversity begins.

In Simmons' view, educators should seek to promote diversity not only because it helps to counteract racism but because it could help build better democracies. As one of the last bastions of free speech, universities should uphold diversity as a standard for citizenship, she said.

"Universities exist to examine, to elucidate… [They are] not a praise song for any single culture," she said. To do that, she added, they must be defenders and advocates of free speech, even for people who preach hate and intolerance, noting that teaching students how to deal with what she calls "nasty ideas" is a vital part of any university's mission.

Simmons learned to confront nasty ideas long before she ever imagined setting foot inside a university. The 12th child of sharecroppers, she was raised in the small East Texas town of Grapeland during a time of bitter segregation in the South. She explained that in a curious way, she felt fortunate to have grown up in the era when "one was assaulted daily, because our elders taught us how to deal with that."

Learning how to face bigotry with courage was an important early lesson -- one that helped her earn a doctorate in Romance languages and literature at Harvard, teach at Princeton and ultimately launch a career as one of the nation's top educators.

Before coming to Brown, Simmons served as president of Smith College (1995-2001), where she established the Picker Program in Engineering and Technology, the first undergraduate engineering program at a women's college.

At Brown, Simmons has created an Office of Institutional Diversity, which administers the University's affirmative action policy and supports programs that embrace a spectrum of ideas and perspectives. She has also been instrumental in implementing a long sought-after need-blind admissions policy that allows the right of any student to apply without consideration for financial need.

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Published: Apr 03, 2006
Last modified: Mar 31, 2006