When Ruth Simmons became president of Brown University in 2001, one of her first initiatives was to tackle the institution’s slave history, which she said had “simply been erased”.
A great-granddaughter of slaves, Professor Simmons appointed a steering committee to investigate the institution’s past, which discovered that many of the incorporators of the university had been involved in the slave trade or in a business that profited from it.
It led to the creation of Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, and spearheaded a movement that has since gained traction throughout the world, with many other universities launching initiatives to atone for their histories of slavery or oppression in the past decade.
But Professor Simmons, who is now interim president of Prairie View A&M University, said that there was a “great difference” between her response to Brown’s slave history and “what many institutions did subsequently”.
While most other universities focused on “trying to make amends” for their past, Brown’s main aim was to “own up to the history” and to use it to help understand “how we should be living in contemporary times”, she said.
“At the heart of our effort was something very basic, which is if we can’t tell the truth of our past, how legitimate is the work that we do in research at the university?” she told Times Higher Education.
“The educational dimension was the most important element for us.”
While she cautioned against the notion of creating “one model for every circumstance and for every institution”, she said that she was against the broad idea of universities removing controversial statues or artefacts that relate to uncomfortable aspects of their past.
Such an approach is “a kind of placebo. That is, it makes us feel good about having addressed that in the short term, but it does not erase the history,” she said.
“We ought to live with the residue of this history, so we are mindful constantly of what we must do to avoid it again. That seems to me to be very important.”
As well as being one of the first university leaders to fully confront a higher education institution’s slave history, Professor Simmons was the first black president of an Ivy League university.
While she acknowledged that the US no longer had an “official policy of segregation”, she said that the nation was “still doing things that accomplish segregation and the result is we have a fractured country”.
“I don’t know a time in recent history in our country when we would have tolerated the kind of hateful rhetoric against ethnicity, against religious groups, against poor people that we are tolerating in today’s version of segregation,” she said.
She added that universities can best respond to this climate by preparing students to become “fit leaders” but “somehow we are failing at that”.
“If you bring students to university who have not led a life influenced by the knowledge of many different people, many different ways of thinking, many different ways of living and worshipping, then they are not in the best position to play that leadership role,” she said.
“I can’t tell you why we have leaders that we have elected who absolutely don’t get it in terms of diversity. But I will take it back to their education – somewhere their education failed to deliver that to them.
“And, my goodness, we ought to be chastened by what we’re seeing today in terms of the bigotry among so-called well-educated people.”
Professor Simmons said that she was also concerned that women and minorities might “assume leadership positions worrying about how people think of them, and whether or not they’re going to overcome stereotypical assumptions about them”.
She said that when she became president of Brown, she learned that many people “quickly assumed that because I was African American” Brown would “go down” in prestige.
“I was quite alert to that and ready for that challenge because I did not let that impede my making pretty aggressive decisions,” she said.
“It is better not to worry about that. You will accomplish considerably more by leading from your own resources and from your own difference than you will by trying to imitate what others may want you to do and may anticipate that you may not do.”