PV A&M Pres. Ruth Simmons reflects on historic academic career

Dr. Ruth Simmons has had an amazing journey - from growing up in Houston's Fifth Ward to making history in the hallowed halls of the Ivy League.

Video Transcript

[UPLIFTING MUSIC]

RUTH SIMMONS: I never had a toy as a child.

MELANIE LAWSON: Ruth Simmons was the youngest of 12, born to sharecroppers in Grapeland, north of Houston. Lunch every day was--

RUTH SIMMONS: A biscuit in a bucket with syrup poured over it. With 12 children, you never got a lot to eat.

MELANIE LAWSON: But her life changed when she was old enough to go to school.

RUTH SIMMONS: I remember the day I walked into the classroom, and my first impression was, my goodness, there was a lot of light. And it was orderly. And there was a place for me. First time in my life, you know in a crowded household, there was actually a desk for me.

MELANIE LAWSON: That love for education stayed with her when her family moved to Houston and her mother died. And that's when her teachers at Fifth Ward's Wheatley High School stepped in.

RUTH SIMMONS: I was truly, sort of, wracked by grief. And I was for about 10 years thereafter, actually. That was a moment when my drama teacher came into my life.

MELANIE LAWSON: Her teachers pushed her to go to a historically Black college, Dillard, in New Orleans. They even gave her money and--

RUTH SIMMONS: Took me to their houses and went into their closets and found clothes for me to pack to go off to college.

MELANIE LAWSON: She spent a year at Wellesley, an elite women's college in Massachusetts. It felt alien, she says, coming from a family where her dad and brothers ruled the house.

RUTH SIMMONS: And here I am in this environment with women who believe they can do anything. It's-- it was bizarre.

MELANIE LAWSON: It was also instructive. And so was a French professor there when she struggled in his class.

RUTH SIMMONS: He refused to allow me to drop the course. And I said, well what am I to do? And so he said, I thought very unsympathetically, work hard. Go to the Language Lab. And that was it. Well, I thought that was the most inhumane thing that I encountered.

But what did I do? I went to the Language Lab. I worked hard. And then I mastered French. So, um, so I've often said to my students, that was a pivotal experience for me because, from that moment on when that occurred, I was never again afraid academically.

MELANIE LAWSON: She never looked back, going to France as a Fulbright scholar, getting her master's and PhD at Harvard. And she was hired at Princeton, where she recruited more black professors and staff.

RUTH SIMMONS: Princeton gave me an enormous amount of self-confidence about my ideas, about what I could achieve. So I wanted to bring scholars to Princeton to demonstrate that African-Americans were every bit as smart as the smartest of-- well, maybe-- maybe not all like Einstein. But-- but definitely in the same league.

MELANIE LAWSON: Then Smith, another upper crust women's college, hired her as their president, the first black woman ever. She spent six years there before making history again, when Brown, an Ivy League University, offered her their presidency. But she was apprehensive.

RUTH SIMMONS: And I've always been very leery about the efforts to pretend inclusion and diversity. And I didn't want to be a figurehead, appointed to do something because people wanted to feel good about it. You're picking somebody who was born in that shack, who grew up next to the railroad tracks, who went to a Black college. And you're saying that's the best person to be president of an Ivy League college. Are you sure you want to say that?

MELANIE LAWSON: After 10 years and more than a billion dollars in fundraising, she retired to Texas. And that's when Prairie View came calling. She wants to give students at this HBCU as much as the Ivy Leagues could.

RUTH SIMMONS: What kind of grounding can we give them that will allow them to have a long and successful career? That will allow them to have confidence in themselves? That will allow them to stand alongside anybody in the world and feel that they matter and that they are equal?

And, to me, Prairie View students deserve that as much as students at Brown deserve it. And-- and so what I want to do is to make those opportunities available to them the way they were made available to me.

MELANIE LAWSON: She's already getting some major help. MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, just gave PV $50 million, nearly doubling their endowment. Simmons couldn't believe it when she got the call.

RUTH SIMMONS: I thought, oh no. Oh no. I have misunderstood what they said. They probably said $15 million, and I'm thinking it's 50. So I composed myself, and I said, would you just repeat what you said? And then she said, five-zero, $50 million. So, honestly, I was-- I was thunderstruck. It was a surprise beyond any probably I've ever had in my professional life.

Here's the thing that I-- that impresses me about this. Her teacher was Toni Morrison at Princeton. And I like to think that Mackenzie Scott is who she is because she had the advantage of having the kind of education I was describing earlier. Difference came into her life as a student.

But that difference-- and, when you have the mighty Toni Morrison as your mentor and your professor, something has to change in your life. And it did for her. And so I'm ever-grateful to her for seeing that difference makes a difference.

[UPLIFTING MUSIC]