Ruth J. Simmons, the ninth president of Smith College, the 18th president of Brown University and the first African American woman to head an Ivy League institution, will be the speaker at Smith’s 136th commencement. The ceremony will take place Sunday, May 18, at 10 a.m. in the campus Quadrangle. Simmons will join four other distinguished guests in receiving an honorary degree.
When Simmons became Smith’s president in 1995, she galvanized the campus through an ambitious campus-wide self-study process that resulted in a number of landmark initiatives, including Praxis, a program that allows every Smith student the opportunity to elect an internship funded by the college; an engineering program, the first at a women’s college; programs in the humanities that include the establishment of a poetry center and a peer-reviewed journal devoted to publishing scholarly works by and about women of color; and curricular innovations that include intensive seminars for first-year students and programs to develop students’ speaking and writing skills.
Simmons left Smith in June 2001 to assume the presidency of Brown University. One of her early initiatives was to appoint a committee to take the unprecedented step of exploring the university’s historical and economic relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade and to publicly report those findings. 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 launched diversity initiatives across the university.
Born in Grapeland, Texas, Simmons earned her bachelor’s degree from Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1967. She went on to earn her master’s and doctorate in Romance literature from Harvard University in 1970 and 1973, respectively.
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.