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Ruth Simmons by Julia Goldner


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Biography of Ruth Simmons as a leader in all parts of life, written by Wharton MBA student for a course on leadership from the point of view of the whole person.

Published in: Leadership & Management
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Ruth Simmons by Julia Goldner

  2. 2. KNOWLEDGE FOR ACTION Ruth Simmons’ story: From poverty to elite academia 2 Life story highlights Professional achievements “There were many times when I personally had to struggle,” she says, “but I didn’t give up. By struggling, I came to understand what I could do.” • Born youngest of 12, in Grapeland, TX 1945 • Daughter of a tenant farmer (sharecropping) and a maid • Earned full scholarship to Dillard College • Attended Harvard for Ph. D. in French literature • Married in 1968, divorced in ‘83; has two children • Has worked in higher education at University of South Carolina, U of New Orleans, Princeton, Smith, and Brown • Won Fulbright Scholarship while at Dillard • Ascended quickly in higher education, and in 1995, became the first African American president of Smith College • In 2001, became the first African American president of Brown, and more broadly, the first in the Ivy League • Still holds professorship at Brown • Awarded over 30 honorary degrees "My career," she says proudly, "has always been about things I care about.”
  3. 3. KNOWLEDGE FOR ACTION Simmons personality: Real, Whole, Innovative 3 Be Real Be Whole Be Innovative “I came to understand the value of education, not just to enable me to make a good living, but to enable me to make a worthwhile life.” - Ruth Simmons "There has been an attitude of say nothing, offend no one, but that's not the way I wanted to do the job. I'm prevented from engaging in partisan politics, but I've never hesitated to be political when required. I want people to see me as a woman of integrity - not some two-dimensional cut-out." - Ruth Simmons “Her presence at Smith has changed the agenda for most people. On campus, everyone thinks in a way they didn’t think before—in terms of possibilities. She took away our limitations and brought us back to Oz.” - Brenda Allen, director of institutional diversity at Smith
  4. 4. KNOWLEDGE FOR ACTION Key examples: Simmons’ domain alignment / misalignment 4 Work Family Self Community Family/friend neglect • On leading an elite higher education institution: "You know, this is a 24-hour job," she says, "so I often have no time for my family or friends. You wouldn't believe the amount of horrible messages I get from people telling me what a lousy friend I am." Involvement in corporate America • Came under scrutiny for Goldman Sachs board position during Great Recession • Took a different approach to board membership: “If I can give a very substantial injection of humanistic thinking into corporations, boy, that would change things a lot.” Education innovator • Founded engineering and finance programs and Office of Institutional Diversity at Smith • Established the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice at Brown • “She has [encouraged] civility and [invited] difference. “Ruth has created an atmosphere of understanding [at Smith.]” “ Vocal civil rights activist • While at Dillard: "There was a rule that every student had to attend chapel," she says. "It felt wrong to insist that atheists or Jews should be made to go to something that contradicted their beliefs, so I refused to go on principle. The college threatened not to allow me to graduate unless I backed down, but I stood firm.”
  5. 5. KNOWLEDGE FOR ACTION My lessons learned 5 1. Carve out time for friends and family. Though Simmons has lead an impressive, accomplished life, she admits to neglecting those closest to her. Though not stated explicitly, it seems Ruth could feel guilt and regret about ‘being a lousy friend.’ 2. Modify life and career goals actively. Ruth started with modest goals as a child, first focusing on building a life around anything but domestic housework. As she attained education, recognition, and award, she adjusted her expectations and goals to reach her full potential (i.e. initially, she resisted the Brown presidency, but readjusted her view and saw it as an incredible, historic opportunity) 3. “Assert views, and then have courage to be alone in one’s views.” Ruth is a vocal civil rights activist –standing up for people of color and women time and time again. She articulated that 4. Have hope in humanity. Ruth was raised in a world and time of segregation and bigotry, but seems to hold conviction that people will see the error of their ways. She feels a broader, more diverse purview makes people better – and that society will come around to that.
  6. 6. KNOWLEDGE FOR ACTION From Ruth Simmons’ first Convocation at Brown “You know something that I hate? When people say, “That doesn’t make me feel good about myself,” I say, “That’s not what you’re here for.” If you come to this place for comfort, I would urge you to walk to yon iron gate, pass through the portal and never look back. But if you seek betterment for yourself, for your community and posterity, stay and fight. Fight for the courage to be a true learner. Fight for the dignity of your intellect. Fight for the compact that preserves our liberty. For the privilege of being in a place that is dedicated to overturning lies. Fight for the place that each of you has earned in the timeless moments of the history of Brown.” Ruth Simmons, 9/4/2001 6