By Norman Boucher / July / August 1998
November 30th, 2007
When William Simmons '60 leaves the University of California at Berkeley later this summer to replace Sheila Blumstein as Brown's new provost, he'll do so with a twinge of regret. As dean of Berkeley's Division of Social Sciences, Simmons has had a front-row seat for the political attacks that have buffeted California's university system in recent years, particularly on affirmative action policies. "There are," he says, "a lot of issues in California that the university needs to respond to, and I'll regret not being around to help shape a response. A battle like this would be a good reason for me to stay."

Provost William Simmons tries out a Brown chair.

The lure of Brown has proved too strong, however, and so in August he will leave his academic home for the past thirty-one years and return to the place that shaped his early and adolescent life. As provost and executive vice president, he will be Brown's chief academic officer, charged with ensuring that academic priorities drive all University planning and decision making.

A Providence native, Simmons earned his Brown undergraduate degree in human biology, which in the late 1950s included a study of the social as well physical aspects of biology. (The University did not yet have an anthropology department.) A strong influence at Brown, Simmons says, was J. Louis Giddings, an associate professor of sociology who directed the University's Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology until his 1964 death in a car accident. After Brown, Simmons earned a master's and Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard, then arrived at Berkeley in 1967.

A specialist in archaeology and social anthropology, Simmons has done the bulk of his research on Native American tribes, some of them in New England, as evidenced by his 1986 book, The Spirit of the New England Tribes.

As architect of what has become known as the American cultures program, he has also been an influential administrator at Berkeley. The program, which, he says, "is revising the way in which teaching is done about the United States," attempts to integrate a more accurate picture of U.S. history and culture into all disciplines by creating almost 250 new courses that address aspects of the country's ethnic and racial diversity. Students at Berkeley are required to take at least one of the courses.

An avid runner, Simmons is competitive enough to have won the 400-meter race in the Rhode Island Senior Olympics during a visit a decade or so ago. He has not competed in races, he says, since the day in Providence several years ago when he decided to train with a group of local high school track athletes. The resulting injury taught him a lesson about his own limits, and no doubt helped give him a more realistic perspective on what he's in for at Brown. When asked whether he would try to continue his research and teaching as provost, Simmons strikes a cautious note: "I think I'm going to put my feet on the ground first."

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July / August 1998