TxEd Talks digital series: Conversation with Dr. Ruth Simmons

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Dr. Shari Albright: I’m Shari Albright. I’m president of the Charles Butt Foundation, and I could not think of a more auspicious day to get to interview you. It is International Women’s Day.

Dr. Ruth Simmons: Yes.

Dr. Shari Albright: I am probably going to embarrass you in the introduction by holding up some of the absolutely barrier breaking, game-changing, women-accessed ability producing things that you have done over an amazing career. I’m thrilled to be here on International Women’s Day with you, Dr. Ruth Simmons.

Dr. Ruth Simmons: Thank you.

Dr. Shari Albright: When I read over your bio, and I’m fortunate enough that you and I get to know each other and work together through one of our sister organizations, the Holdsworth Center, you have opened doors in all kinds of ways. First African American president of an Ivy League University, Brown University.

You were the president at Smith College, a women’s university, and brought engineering programs, the first time to a women’s university. You have led at the top levels in the Ivy Leagues. Not only that, you were an amazing professor of French all on the way. I’m hoping that you’ll help us understand the journey that has gotten you to this point in time as a public school student from Houston. Can you tell us what brought you here?

Dr. Ruth Simmons: Actually, first of all, thank you for having me. It’s good to be with you, as always. I think about that every day because our understanding our own stories at a profound level is key to helping unlock those stories for others. I reflect on this a good deal.

I guess I would say my story is about teachers, teachers, teachers, teachers, because first of all, I was born in circumstances that were not at all enviable; child of sharecroppers during an era when African Americans did not have full rights as citizens, and where there was outward consistent denigration of African-American. As a child, the outlook was grim for me, and I was taught not to expect anything much of life.

What the future held for me was, perhaps, work as a maid like my mother and sisters and eeking out a living to the best of my ability. There was no credit given for my intellect because it was thought that there was a ceiling for me in terms of what I could do as an African American and by the way, as a girl too. I had the good fortune to encounter teachers who had a different vision for me. I like to remind teachers that often for their children, they are providing a look to the future in a way that children could not possibly do it for themselves, and sometimes their parents can’t either.

My teachers put me on a path to learning, and then on a path to being very excited about learning and what I could do through education. Then putting in my mind that I could actually go to college and have a profession, and then finding a college that would actually take me, and then finding financial aid for me to be able to go to college. Everything that I have been able to do from where I started is the consequence of teachers taking an interest in me.

Dr. Shari Albright: Absolutely, yes, and what heights, they would be so proud, Dr. Simmons, I can’t imagine.

Dr. Ruth Simmons: Well, I’m very fortunate because my teachers were able to come to my installation as president of Smith and at Brown as well. I’ve been able to talk about what they did for me in public forums so that they were able to come to understand how meaningful it was to me that they took an interest in me and that they believed so deeply in the transformative power of education that they led me to a career in education because I so admired them.

Dr. Shari Albright: Absolutely. The career you’ve had in education has spanned such an array of university leadership, your own teaching, your own work. I know you had the opportunity to look at our poll this year, and I’m just curious from that lens that you bring, what surprised you, what maybe brought you hope and what concerns you?

Dr. Ruth Simmons: Well, I won’t say what surprised me. I will say what pleased me was the very significant number of parents who are pleased with their child’s public school education. We hear so much today that is disparaging of schools, disparaging also of teachers that seeing the facts behind how people really feel and how they relate to this wonderful enterprise was very gratifying to me.

I was incredibly heartened by that. At the same time, I was also surprised by the fact that there’s such a gap between those who have children in schools and those who do not. I guess I would say, I would’ve expected people of intelligence and goodwill to be more expansive in their interest in public schools and in their interest in the quality afforded our children when they are in learning establishments.

I’m disappointed by that. Nevertheless, ever hopeful, I believe there’s an opportunity always for people to learn more about what it is that motivates teachers in these schools, and why it is with all that we hear about the problems of schools that there’s still children soaring as a result of their education in these schools.

I know that that’s an elixir of some kind that we don’t really have yet a formula for, except that we do know that our minds develop in many different ways depending on the stimuli that we receive, depending on the people that we interact with, depending on the resources that we have at a given time.

Through all of that, we still are able to produce students who love learning and who are willing to go on learning and achieving for the rest of their lives. That is the underpinning of this quality of life that we have in this country, is the fact that we are educating so many people and that they have a good prospect for meaningful lives.

Dr. Shari Albright: Absolutely. I want to go back to just something you were talking about, that difference between people who have children in schools.

Dr. Ruth Simmons: Yes.

Dr. Shari Albright:: We’ve seen in national polling for years, those who are closest to schools appreciate them the most.

Dr. Ruth Simmons: Yes.

Dr. Shari Albright: I think back on Robert Putnam’s work about our kids and that whole notion of seeing that common good of public Ed. Do you have any notions about how we foster and close that gap or that tension between those who know schools well and those who don’t? What do we do in–

Dr. Ruth Simmons: I think we are very fond of classifying things, of dividing things up, and not working hard to see the commonalities among things. That’s a lazy way of confronting life.

I would say the problem the causes are manifold first of all, I always blame universities for their role in not doing what they should be doing in order to encourage a more holistic view of education by the uninformed.

For those who are not close to the schools and not well-informed, they might take their information from snippets of information. They might take their information from symbolic acts that they see. They might take their information from a whole set of influences that really have nothing to do with the schools but have more to do with how we treat the schools.

My view has always been that we should work hard on eliminating the many ways in which we institute barriers to understanding how good our schools actually are.

I’ll give you an example in university life. Departments of education in universities, colleges of education are often poorly supported and not treated equally within universities. That’s very important, because if I say to you that professor X is a Nobel prize economist, you’re going to be very impressed with the Department of Economics and with the field of economics and how wonderful it is that economics receives a Nobel Prize. Where’s our Nobel Prize in education?

From giving up prizes to honoring people who are outstanding achievers in the field to setting up appropriate rewards for colleges of education, schools of education, honoring teachers in the way we honor others in society, all of that really sets up a dynamic that leads people to think, “Well, there must be something that isn’t very good about education if all of those factors pertain.”

The MacArthur Foundation has long given awards to geniuses. Genius grants. Why don’t we have something like that for teachers? Why don’t we give teachers, acknowledge outstanding teachers with a grant like a MacArthur grant? Why is it that people who go through that program, the MacArthur program, come out and they find their careers greatly enhanced? Because the MacArthur Foundation has announced that they are fantastic human beings doing wonderful things.

Dr. Shari Albright: Yes, label them as geniuses.


You have set in so many leadership positions across both turbulent times and calmer times. I’m wondering what you would share today with our education leaders. How do they navigate some of the challenges that are before them? Because we know how essential leadership is. It can be make or break.

Dr. Ruth Simmons: It can but what’s helped me through these decades of incredible change is just trying to stay focused on what it is that I value, what it is this profession means to me, what it means to the world, and trying to stay close to that, and protect it, and to learn constantly to articulate it to the best of your ability, because other people need to understand it, too.

I haven’t changed very much in this– I recently read some things that I wrote, really at the beginning of my career, and I was shocked to see that they are indistinguishable from what I would say today.I think in part because I have felt the same way, just as passionate about what I do, just as strong in my belief that this is an exceptional path for someone to pursue, to be able to influence the lives of young people, and to know that thousands or tens of thousands of young people that you have influenced are doing productive things today. I don’t know any other profession that can get anywhere close to that.

The satisfaction that I derive from era to era, in spite of what’s happening in spite of noise, in spite of disappointments, is always that that never stops happening. Whether it’s a person who comes back 20 years later, and says, “I want to introduce you to my family, because you had such an influence on me,” or whether it’s a person who says that they chose a path because they saw in me something that could be done, and they never looked back.

It is tremendously satisfying to know that you can do something constructive in a world where things are not always constructive. The kind of person who wants to be on the better side of that, there’s no better place than education.

It doesn’t matter what we go through in education, there will always be perturbations along the way, but if we hew to what we know, if we hew to what has been true since the dawn of schools, and continue to promote that, continue to foster it in the teachers who come to us and the students who come to us, I don’t see how we could fail to be strong in every era.

Dr. Shari Albright: I agree. That’s a beautiful message for us to end on today. I cannot think of anyone else that I would rather hold up and celebrate on International Women’s Day. I am grateful for our friendship and our colleagueship, and I am grateful for the immense contributions you have made, not only to higher Ed, but to education writ large. You just stand as an iconic pillar in this work and are an inspiration.

Dr. Ruth Simmons: Thank you.

Dr. Shari Albright: Thank you so much for being here with us today.

Dr. Ruth Simmons: Thank you. My pleasure. Thank you.

We are excited to debut the first installment of our TxEd Talks digital series featuring Charles Butt President, Dr. Shari Albright, and Dr. Ruth Simmons, President Emerita of Prairie View A&M University, Smith College, and Brown University. The two discuss Dr. Simmons’ journey to her current position, the current state of public education in Texas, and how educators deserve more respect.

This interview was filmed in conjunction with our first TxEd Talks event, Beyond Division in Pursuit of a Unified Vision, during which a panel of experts who will strive to answer the question: How do we negotiate the tension between the strongest support and sharpest criticisms of public education? The current climate surrounding the public opinion of Texas schools can seem at odds. How can the majority of Texans support public schools and yet also the majority identify challenges public schools need to overcome? That answer lies in the data from our 2023 Texas Education Poll, “Strong Support, Clear Challenges.” We found that Texans’ support of public schools drives them to want the absolute best for the more than 5 million students attending a Texas public school. Texans shared that the journey to excellence requires facing tough challenges.

Be on the lookout for the next installment of the TxEd Talks digital series!