There was a time when big-league university presidents really mattered. The New York Times covered their every move. Presidents, the real ones, sought their counsel. For Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower, being head of Princeton and Columbia, respectively, was a stepping-stone to the White House. Today, though, the job of college president is less and less removed from that of the Avon lady (except the house calls are made to the doorsteps of wealthy alums).
Ruth Simmons, the newly installed president of Brown University and the first African American to lead an Ivy League school, is a throwback to the crusading campus leaders of old. She doesn't merely marshal funds; she invests them in the great educational causes of our day. With the more than $300 million she raised as president of Smith College from 1995 to 2001, Simmons established an engineering program (the first at any women's school) and added seminars focused on public speaking to purge the ubiquitous "likes" and "ums" from the campus idiom. At a meeting to discuss the future of Smith's math department, one professor timidly requested two more discussion sections for his course. Her response: "Dream bigger."
Her own dream was born in a sharecropper's shack in East Texas where there was no money for books or toys--she and her 11 siblings each got an apple, an orange and 10 nuts for Christmas. Though she was called n_____ on her walk to school, entering the classroom, she says, "was like waking up." When Simmons won a scholarship to Dillard University, her high school teachers took up a collection so she'd have a coat. She went on to Harvard to earn a Ph.D. in Romance languages.
Simmons has made diversity her No. 1 campus crusade. She nearly doubled the enrollment of black freshmen at Smith, largely by traveling to high schools in the nation's poorest ZIP codes to recruit. Concerned with the lives of minority students once they arrive at school, she has fought to ease the racial standoffs that plague so many campuses. At Smith she turned down a request by students to have race-specific dorms. In 1993, while vice provost at Princeton, she wrote a now famous report recommending that the university establish an office of conflict resolution to defuse racial misunderstandings before they boiled over.
Her first task at Brown will be to heal one such rupture last spring after the student paper published an incendiary ad by conservative polemicist David Horowitz arguing that blacks economically benefited from slavery. "There's no safe ground for anybody in race relations, but campuses, unlike any other institution in our society, provide the opportunity to cross racial lines," says Simmons. "And even if you're hurt, you can't walk away. You have to walk over that line."