Her Day

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey ’78 / November/December 2001
September 15th, 2011

The inauguration of Ruth J. Simmons as Brown's eighteenth president took place on Sunday, October 14, in the long shadow of global terrorism and war. Yet nothing could dilute the historical import of what took place that day under a fine gray mist on the College Green: the marriage of a woman who seems to know exactly who she is and what her mission entails, to an institution craving exactly that certainty.

In her inaugural address, Simmons praised Brown for its "distinctiveness of vision, courage of action, and dedication to its own ideals…. Let others go their way," she said, "but Brown must be ever insistent on forging its own direction." She brought the crowd of 5,200 to its feet so often that the Brown Daily Herald reporters covering the event lost count early on. "Was that number five?" one student asked another during a particularly thunderous round of applause.

Over the past few years it has seemed increasingly clear that Brown has been foundering, its momentum and confidence buffeted by the brief tenure and abrupt departure of E. Gordon Gee, a president whose values came to feel incompatible with those of the University community. In his wake, faculty, alumni, students, and staff have seemed especially hungry for authenticity, for moral and intellectual clarity—for leadership.

To Simmons will fall the challenge of meeting that need.

Although she arrived on campus this summer and was administered the oath of office in a private ceremony in University Hall on July 3, her official inauguration, with its requisite pomp and circumstance, was scheduled for Homecoming weekend—just after her probation period had ended, Simmons wryly noted. In a procession that stretched from Pembroke campus to the Green, former Brown presidents Vartan Gregorian and Donald Hornig marched with Brown faculty and with representatives from more than eighty colleges, universities, and learned societies. Simmons brought up the rear, triggering a wave of applause that followed her passage along the streets. The applause became deafening as she passed the Third World Center on the corner of Brown and Waterman streets, where a small crowd of minority students roared its support. Simmons blew kisses in return. "It's amazing," Sara Griffin ’04, of Washington, D.C., said. "We're seeing history in the making. This university was founded by slaveholders, and now the granddaughter of slaves is president."

Once the parade had made its way onto a stage erected in front of Faunce House, representatives of the faculty, the staff, the alumni, and the student body took turns presenting their good wishes. After Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to head an Ivy League school, had welcomed her as "Sister President," on behalf of the academy at-large, Simmons settled into the serious business of the day. Donning the massive president‚Äôs chain with its gold scallop shell and enameled Brown shield, she shimmied briefly. She sat in the Manning Chair, the squat and unforgiving-looking armchair that belonged to Brown's first chancellor, Stephen Hopkins. And Chancellor Stephen Robert ’62 presented her with a tin containing a photocopy of the University Charter, the original of which was signed in 1764, "in the fourth year of the reign of George III," Robert said. "Don't laugh," he admonished the crowd. "They're on our side now!" Then, in a reference, perhaps, to the anthrax scare that was preoccupying the nation that weekend, he jokingly warned Simmons not to open the tin: "We don't know what's in it!"

Unfolding international events gave the weekend a somber cast. The usual Homecoming football zaniness had been supplanted on Saturday by a touching halftime ceremony on the fifty-yard line for three of the four former football players killed in the September 11 attacks. Diva Jessye Norman, who'd been scheduled to sing with the Brown orchestra Sunday night, canceled, choosing to remain in Paris. In her place, though, the Tougaloo College choir would give a gospel performance that was at moments chilling in its power. They'd sung Sunday morning in a moving worship service at the First Baptist Meeting House, attended by 1,000 people, and Sunday night, backed by the Brown orchestra, they would end the weekend with a performance of "America the Beautiful" that would leave many in tears.

Simmons's speech on Sunday afternoon began as an eloquent and passionate plea for higher education to rethink its values—to remember the arts and humanities. "In recent years," she said, "following the rise of state funding for scientific research, we have become increasingly besotted with highly specialized knowledge and the gadgets and frills needed to assure us that we are preeminent in our standing." The ability to attract funding is not the full measure of a discipline's merit, she warned: "We have come increasingly to believe that some disciplines that more easily give opportunities for research funding are more worthy and valuable than fields which merely offer an improved society, better mental and spiritual health, or great and enduring art," she said. "…If we fail to see the deep meaning and importance of all ways of learning, all subjects of inquiry and achievement, we will surely shortchange discoveries that a needful and anxious world awaits."

Simmons called for the nation's top research institutions to encourage meritorious work by admitting the best graduates of community colleges. "Elitism in education," she said, "should pertain not to the place where one studies or to the field of study undertaken, but to the singular devotion one has to the exacting devotion of discipline."

Most significantly, and most fervently, Simmons stressed the importance of excellent teaching, of supporting departments and schools of education generously, and of honoring the best students' aspirations to become teachers. (Among those seated on the stage with her was Kathryn Tancarell, Rhode Island's Teacher of the Year, one of those who had borne "official greetings" to the new president.)

"To have a guide," Simmons said, "… who not only leads us to the shore but repeatedly casts us back up on the sea until we can find our own way back to the shore is of inestimable value. And teaching, to my mind, wherever it occurs, is the lifeline for individuals, for communities, for nations, and for the world."

In the wake of September 11, the promise she offered felt much like hope.    

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is managing editor of the BAM.

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