NORTHAMPTON, MASS. — Being "first" is becoming remarkably common for Ruth Simmons.
Five years ago she made history as the new president of Smith College, the first black woman to head a top-ranked American college or university.
Now Dr. Simmons, the daughter of Texas sharecroppers and the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, has done it again. Brown University announced on Nov. 9 that she will be the school's 18th president - making her the first African-American to occupy that position in an Ivy League institution.
"What she has done is not just shattering a glass ceiling, it's more like a sonic boom," says Gladys Styles Johnston, chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Kearney and one of only a handful of minority women to head an American research university.
Few university presidents are cultural icons as well as role models for aspiring students - but Simmons is breaking that mold, too. Newspapers worldwide reported her appointment. Now, network shows like "60 Minutes" are doing profiles. Even People magazine clamored for - and got - an interview.
Simmons's tenure at Brown in Providence, R.I., which officially begins July 1, 2001, is going to be one of the most watched in higher education for some time to come. Brown lost its previous president, E. Gordon Gee, to Vanderbilt University after just two years, and observers say it needs strong, deft leadership after a period of uncertainty.
"What makes me want to do this job is that I believe passionately in what colleges and universities do - because I've benefited from it," she says, sitting straight-backed in a formal chair in her Victorian office at Smith.
"My obligation," she says, "is to try to preserve the opportunity for future generations of students like me, who came from the margins of society and longed to believe in the democratic ideals that were being expressed to me as a child."
As head of one of the nation's elite higher education institutions, she is particularly intent upon ensuring a fresh focus on Brown's core egalitarian values - not just pumping up its endowment, she says.
She sees grave danger for the Ivy League and other top schools if the current push toward fat endowments and prestige overwhelms the original mission of bolstering democracy by producing an educated citizenry. Not that Simmons thinks endowments are unimportant. During her tenure, Smith's endowment nearly doubled.
"I don't want to see higher education segmented so that community colleges are for people like me - and universities go on to educate the elite, the 'haves,' " she says. "It's important for these universities to continue to be places that are validating their democratic ideals. They have to be seen that way. Because to the extent that they are no longer such places, I think society will feel very differently about supporting them."
That democratic ideal was instilled in Simmons as a child. She and 11 siblings watched their parents scratch out a living in the cotton fields of Grapeland, a rural east Texas town. When she was in seventh grade, the family moved to Houston's fifth ward, a notoriously impoverished part of the city.
Her early academic inspiration came from grade- school teachers who told her she could be anything she wanted to be - if she cultivated her mind.
"We don't have an exclusive system," she says. "Anybody can hit a homerun. That fundamental ideal is what makes this complex system actually work. When we stop having that, then we've lost a lot in this country. I want to be sure Brown is attentive to the kid whose family has no means, and who's somewhere hidden in the plains of the country, but aspiring to do something with their life. And if they want to go to Brown, and they have the ability, I want them to be able to go."
Along with developing those ideals, Simmons also learned to work hard. After the move to Houston, her father became a factory worker. Her mother cleaned houses. Together they fed the family, but could afford few extras. Still, Simmons learned key lessons from their hard lives. Especially from her mother, whose education stopped at the seventh grade, and who passed on when Ruth was 15.
"The people that I emulate probably would not be readily seen by others as role models," she says. "I admired my mother immensely. Yet she would never be someone who would be described as having done anything great or powerful.... But that is the most powerful force in my life - my mother, who happened to do daywork."
Her insistence on taking care of details and her first-rate intellect have taken her up the academic ladder. Graduating from all-black Dillard University in New Orleans, she married, had two children, and managed to earn a master's and doctorate in Romance languages from Harvard, too.
After separating from her husband, whom she later divorced, she and her children moved in 1983 to New Jersey, where her first job at Princeton University was counseling students. Her academic career took off when she became acting director of Princeton's fledgling Afro-American studies program - an anemic department at the time.
Simmons persuaded a raft of noted scholars to join the faculty, including philosopher Cornel West, who's now at Harvard, and writer Toni Morrison. She left Princeton for two years, returning as vice provost. When race issues flared, she wrote a report, since called "the Simmons report," that became a national model for improving race relations on campus.
In 1995, she was tapped to became president of Smith College, a women's institution in Northampton, Mass., that counts Nancy Reagan and Gloria Steinem among its alumnae. Simmons established a program of paid internships for all students and launched the first engineering degree program at a women's college.
Her rapport with students at Smith has been unusually strong, most say. "She's influenced me in a lot of ways," says Ohenewaa Larbi, a senior biochemistry major from Ghana. "As a black woman, it's very encouraging for me to see someone who's intelligent and humble at the same time."
Simmons's ability to connect with students may be due in part to the many teachers who bent over backward to help her succeed. It has made her a fierce defender of the right of universities to make admissions decisions that draw students from all sectors of society.
If that means admitting a student from West Virginia who has a 1400 SAT score over yet another student from New York with a 1420 to bolster diversity, then so be it, she says. But she's concerned that the public is not seeing the main point of this exercise.
"We are bringing people from all areas of society to ensure ... that people who graduate from Brown have a sense of the plurality of interests and backgrounds in this country."
The danger, she says, comes if institutions play the rankings game, build endowments, and adapt curriculum to meet the demands of those giving money - instead of hewing to their core purpose. If that happens, she suggests, higher education will go the way of professions that have found themselves the object of public mistrust and disinterest in recent years.
"I think the American public believes that a small number of institutions make it possible for the students they accept to become wealthy and successful," she says. "They fear that unless their children can get into those institutions, they are being locked out of the American dream. That's why the stakes are so high."
For a few Smith students like Ms. Larbi, memories of college may ultimately echo the way Simmons remembers her own education.
"My teachers didn't dismiss me as just another poor kid from a family that could never support their aspirations," Simmons says. "Instead of shoving me to the side, they said: 'You could do some things with your mind.'...
"It's impossible to describe what it is these teachers gave me. The only thing I can say is that I understood, early on, that what education had given me was richer than anything anybody could ever give me in the form of material goods. So I have my wealth. It's in my mind."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society