Black woman breaks into higher echelon

January 6, 1995

Smith College, one of the United States' most prestigious women's higher education institutions, has chosen a black woman, daughter of sharecroppers, to be its next president.

The decision by Smith, one of the more conservative of the top women's colleges known as the Seven Sisters, to appoint Ruth Simmons to the presidency is being seen as a breakthrough.

It is the first time an elite northeastern institution has appointed a black person to the top job on campus, the first time a black person has headed one of the Seven Sisters colleges and the first time a black woman has headed a top-ranked college or university anywhere in America.

"I grew up in circumstances that really should have prevented me from being here today," said Dr Simmons. "It was clear in the Jim Crow South that I was not to expect opportunities, but I knew that my mind could take me anywhere and I guess it has."

Founded in 1871, Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is the alma mater of Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. Today it has 2,700 undergraduates and is the US's largest women's college.

Dr Simmons, 49, will become the ninth president. She is a great believer in the value of women's colleges, saying they enable young women to achieve more than they could in a mixed setting.

One of 12 children, Dr Simmons's own education includes a first degree from Dillard University in New Orleans, postgraduate degrees from Harvard University in romance languages, and a Fulbright year in France. Her scholarly work centres on Caribbean and African literature, and she has written a book on education in Haiti.

She has worked in university administration at Spelman College, the historically-black women's college in Atlanta where she was provost, and Princeton University where she rose to vice provost. At the latter she revamped the black studies programme, and brought the Nobel prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, as well as Cornel West onto the staff.

"Ruth Simmons is perhaps the most visionary leader in higher education," said West, who works today at Harvard. "She is, in many ways, responsible for creating the critical mass of black scholars at Princeton, and for allowing that programme to soar even higher than we expected we would."

* Neil Rudenstine, president of Harvard University, is expected to return to work next term. He is recovering from what officials describe as "severe fatigue and exhaustion" which caused him to take a medical leave of absence last month.

Aged 59, Mr Rudenstine is expected to resume his full duties by the end of February. His doctors found nothing wrong with him.

They "believe that his condition was related to overwork and insufficient sleep", said Dr Daniel Tosteson, dean of Harvard Medical School.

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