PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas – Dr. Ruth J. Simmons took the mantle this weekend as the first woman and eighth president of Prairie View A&M University, marking the special occasion with the creation of a $100,000 scholarship to honor her parents.
The Fannie and Isaac Stubblefield Endowed Scholarship will be matched by an additional $100,000 from the Texas A&M University System and its Chancellor John Sharp.
“How could I turn away from doing for other young people what was done for me?” Simmons asked during her inaugural address, reminiscing about her journey from her days as an undergraduate student at Dillard University to earning a doctorate from Harvard. Along the way, she said she encountered “teachers who cared enough to help a poor student.”
“Poverty is not the state of one’s mind, it is the condition of one’s purse,” she told the hundreds in attendance during the outdoor ceremony under overcast skies on a cool, windy spring day. “My mother and father lived most of their lives at the poverty level, raised 12 children to adulthood. They taught us how to live with dignity and purpose, insistent on us showing the basic respect that they were never afforded. This $200,000 will be the beginning of my commitment to give as much as I can to ensure that our students have the support they need to complete their studies.”
Simmons also announced a $20,000 fund to support four student scholarships annually.
“When we first found out Prairie View was in need of a new leader, we knew Dr. Simmons was retired, we knew she was living in Houston and we knew it was a long shot,” Sharp said. “She and I had a meeting and as I sat there listening to her talk about Prairie View and the impact an education from Prairie View had on her own brother, I saw her love for the university. Watching her accept this challenge was the most exciting moment of my career.”
He added: “I guarantee you that you will not find a president who is more dedicated to the students than Ruth is. In every conversation we’ve had, the students have been her main concern. It’s no wonder they call her ‘Ruth the Truth.’”
A humble upbringing
Born on a farm in Grapeland, Texas, alongside 11 siblings, Simmons fought back tears as she recalled her educational struggles and growing up poor during the height of segregation.
“My parents kept us safe at a dangerous time. Without their sacrifice and teaching, I could not stand here today,” Simmons said as she took the helm of the institution which was founded as Alta Vista Normal School for Colored Youth in 1876 to educate former slaves.
Her inauguration at PVAMU brought Simmons’ academic career full circle. She graduated from Phyllis Wheatley High School in nearby Houston’s fifth ward in the 1960s and made history as the first Black and first female president of Brown University. She also held administrative roles at the University of Southern California, Princeton University and Spelman College before her appointment in 1999 as president of Smith College, the largest women’s college in the United States.
In her speech, Simmons mentioned Massachusetts education reformer Horace Mann – who entered Brown University at age 20 and graduated as valedictorian – as a role model.
“Like me, he was born on a farm with limited access to education. Like me, he found the town library as a resource,” she said. “I concluded that in spite of the limitations of segregation, I could hope for a brilliant future.”
Those in attendance represented universities across America and included Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; Dr. Johnetta B. Cole, the first Black female president of Spelman; Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University; and actor Chris Tucker.
“Chris Tucker reached out to me after Hurricane Harvey and asked how he could help. There were students who needed help, including automobiles being flooded,” Simmons said before asking Tucker to stand. Through the gifts of Tucker and numerous others, students were able to replace lost items.
“We are grateful for her humble beginnings here in Texas, and we are grateful to her for her academic leadership here at Prairie View,” Lee said. “She believes that nothing is broken and that human beings can thrive.”
Dr. Walter E. Massey, former president of Morehouse College and now chancellor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, gave the keynote address, praising Simmons’ work in academia.
He said Simmons’ decision to lead Prairie View demonstrated the importance of HBCUs.
“HBCUs have a commitment to student development. They do more with less and do it well because they have no choice,” Massey said. “She is in an ideal situation. No doubt, many HBCUs are at a critical point. Their numbers have been decreasing over the years and today there are less than 100. Pressure to raise money is the main reason many presidents leave.”
However, Massey said, beginning in 2016, the remaining HBCUs have started to achieve record enrollment. He also noted that PVAMU’s College of Engineering is a leader in producing black engineers and number one in producing black architects in America.
“So, congratulations, Prairie View, for selecting the right leader at the right time,” he said.
Leading Prairie View forward
Simmons’ inaugural address drew heavily from Mann’s philosophy of “the progressive nature of the human race.” She said 142 years after PVAMU was founded, it remains an “engine of progress that has helped form productive lives.”
“New challenges have risen to undermine the value of liberal education. The fact that 90 percent of those who graduate high school are expected to pursue higher education is a stunning accomplishment,” Simmons said. “Of course, their paths will vary from intermittent enrollment to continued studies, from private institutions to public institutions. There is a high priority that we provide the access and financial means for them. However, in the context of the greater access and increased enrollment, there are three challenges at this present moment: First, the need for high-quality education experiences across the spectrum of higher education; second, the inequities of preparation and increased time to completion; and third, the need to manage the soaring costs.”
She said the role of Prairie View is to provide the “highest quality education to its deserving students so they will have the unobstructed opportunity to enter professions that satisfy their interest and goals,” Simmons said.
Drawing from the eloquence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Simmons said King is esteemed and remembered because his writings left an impression on generations of Americans.
“We will institute a program to ensure the importance of written expression, no matter their field of study. We will also refocus efforts on the humanities and social sciences, which helps youth understand where they stand in relation to history and culture,” she said. “Understanding one’s place in the world is vital to the knowledge needed to address the future and one’s role in it.”
Simmons said she will also address high attrition rates.
“This is a compelling challenge for Prairie View. Forty-seven percent of our students are like me, first-generation college students,” she said. “Nationally, the completion rates for Hispanics and African-Americans lags those of Whites and Asians. We will institute a pathway of guidance to minimize that time. We must address retention and increase advising.”
Affordability contributes significantly to completion rates, she noted.
“However much we strengthen curricula, increase faculty and staff and broaden extracurricular opportunities, we will never be able to improve retention with our colored demographic if we don’t set a course for raising scholarship aid that definitively, over time, address the problems our students have,” she said. “We will undertake an ambitious campaign to address these students’ needs.”
Simmons called on alumni to increase funding for students by establishing endowed scholarships that will grow over time and helping to increase students’ ability to access financial aid.
“When I was born on a dimpled knoll in East Texas, I couldn’t have known the path my life would take,” Simmons said. “Through persistent hard work, education and the help of so many educators, I learned about the rich possibilities of human endeavor. I believe my path to Prairie View was written in the heavens. I pledge to lead with the whole of my heart and mind for as long as God gives me strength.”