Making History

September 15th, 2011

It was a fall of making history. The big event, of course, was the byzantine manner in which we Americans settled on a president, but as the political pundits and the partisan lawyers reached the peak of their frenzy, another president was being announced. It was the appointment of this second, less visible chief executive that arguably revealed more about the movement of history than the sparring over the size of tax breaks and prescription-drug payments—anemic issues that, in the end, made up the bulk of what George W. Bush and Al Gore were fighting over.

On November 9—the day after the insomniacs and political junkies among us went to bed assured by the network anchors that G. W. Bush had won—two parallel lines of history converged when a fifty-five-year-old African-American woman named Ruth J. Simmons strolled onto the stage of Sayles Hall to accept the job of eighteenth president of Brown University. To fully appreciate the unlikeliness of an African American heading an Ivy League university, consider this: not so many years after the Alma Mater was being penned in 1860 to celebrate ‚ "youth's fleeting hours," a young slave named Emma Devon arrived alone in Oakwood, Texas, where she eventually married a man named John Campbell and began a family whose descendants would include generations of poor farmhands and sharecroppers. Consider, too, that in 1945, the year Emma Devon Campbell's great-granddaughter Ruth J. Simmons was born in a sharecropper shack on a cotton farm in Grapeland, Texas, Brown's bicentennial was a mere nineteen years away. The first appointment of either a woman or a black as a fellow of the Brown Corporation was still about a quarter-century away. Having an African-American woman as president of Brown was about as likely back then as the prospect of watching Nigeria become the first country to put a man on the moon.

Yet in November, as the other presidential election was becoming increasingly confused, clarity and relief suddenly swept across campus. In Sayles Hall the assembled faculty, staff, and students were rising to their feet with applause that rattled the frames of the portraits of the august white faces that had shaped the University for the previous 236 years. And issuing from the stage was the strong voice of a woman brimming with confidence and authenticity, yet "mystified and elated," as she described her emotions. The address that followed was interrupted four times by standing ovations. There were tears in many eyes as people responded to the power of Simmons's oratory, as they felt another racial barrier fall, and as they realized that the awkward chapter of Brown history that began with President Gee's resignation was now at an end. Nine months later, something new was being born.

But crossing the color line of the Ivy League presidency doesn't make the awareness of skin color go away. Racism is buried only when a person is judged regardless of race, which, after all, is a result of birth and not accomplishment. So what have been the accomplishments of Ruth J. Simmons? What are her ideas and how were they shaped? The suitability of these ideas for Brown will not begin to be clear until after July 1, when Simmons takes office and simultaneously becomes a tenured professor of comparative literature. But her record is there to be examined, a record of accomplishments both personal and professional. Raised in segregated Texas as the youngest of twelve children in a very poor family, Ruth Jean Stubblefield (Simmons is her married name) managed to get a scholarship to Dillard University, a historically black liberal-arts school in New Orleans, and then to earn a Ph.D. in Romance languages at Harvard. Her first job after graduate school was as an assistant professor of French at the University of New Orleans, where in 1975 she crossed over into administration by becoming an assistant dean of the liberal arts college. It was a time of juggling family and career. The mother of two young children, Simmons spent six years beginning in 1977 working as an administrator in California, first at California State University at Northridge and then as an assistant and, later, asso-ciate dean of the graduate school.

After separating from her husband, Norbert Simmons, in 1983, she moved with her children (a son, Khari, and a daughter, Maya) to Princeton, where she'd been asked to head the Afro-American studies program. (Simmons and her husband were divorced in 1989.) In the first highly visible success of her career, she managed to elevate the academic quality of a struggling program by both convincing the university to spend more on the program and by recruiting top faculty, including the prominent philosopher Cornel West (who has since moved to Harvard), historian Nell Painter, Langston Hughes scholar Arnold Rampersad, andnovelist Toni Morrison. One of the most frequently told anecdotes about Simmons involves  her resolution of the impasse created when Morrison refused to submit a résumé to Princeton as a condition of her employment: Simmons, revealing her characteristic combination of determination and pragmatism, wrote it herself. More significant, perhaps, was her vision for the Afro-American studies program. Simmons insisted that it rise above what she called "feel-good activities" and a tendency to be a vehicle for political expression and instead become a program as intellectually rigorous as anything else at Princeton.

This work led to a two-year stint as provost at Spelman College, where she also recruited high-quality faculty members and raised the historically black college‚'s academic standards by, among other things, improving faculty review. Then it was back to Princeton as vice provost, where she oversaw academic planning and managed budgeting. During this second period at Princeton, Simmons was asked to study race relations on campus. She authored what came to be known as the Simmons Report, which recommended more than a dozen specific program and policy changes and which is often cited as a model for similar studies.

The report reflects another of Simmons's characteristic beliefs, one that she mentioned in her November address to campus: that lofty, overreaching goals are less likely to trigger change than more modest, doable ones. For the most part, the approach has contributed to her reputation as an administrator who gets things done. Princeton president Harold T. Shapiro once described her as "terrific in battle, in the sense that she doesn't lose her perspective, doesn't lose her capacity to listen, and … doesn't forget her principles." He also praised her "clarity of vision, excellent judgment, extraordinary determination, [and] compassion for others," while Toni Morrison has lauded Simmons's ‚"first-rate intellect" and "unusual combination of real politics and integrity."

In July 1995, Simmons became what Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. called the "Jackie Robinson of college presidents" by becoming the first African-American woman to head a Seven Sisters college. Described by a New York Times reporter as having ‚"electrified" the Smith campus, Simmons continued to do what she has been principally known for: upgrading the academics of a university while improving the way the organization works. In her five years as president of Smith she has, among many other things, reduced the teaching load from five courses to four, raised money for and begun a program in engineering, overseen a number of building construction and expansion projects, and kicked off a $250 million fund-raising campaign that brought in $200 million in the first two years. In addition, she oversaw a college-wide self-study to determine what Smith should change about itself in order to meet the academic challenges of the early twenty-first century. According to Brown's Professor of American Civilization Mari Jo Buhle, who chaired the campus advisory committee on the presidential selection, Simmons "was to Smith what Vartan Gregorian had been Brown. She has this kind of presence that just brings people to her." As far as the committee was concerned, Buhle says, "Ruth Simmons was the only candidate we felt unanimously passionate about."

The BAM caught up with the new president during a visit to campus in early December.

BAM You lived in the Grapeland, Texas, area until age seven, when your family moved to Houston. What memories do you have of that period?
Simmons I have very happy memories from that period. When I was very young, we lived on a vast farm of sharecroppers. That's where I was actually born, in one of these sharecropper houses. It was a very happy time, because I was not old enough to pick cotton or to be involved in hard labor.

BAM How was it happy?
Simmons We were relatively free to explore the countryside—this is a beautiful area of Texas, beautiful—with a lot of pine trees and open space, and somewhat hilly. It was an opportunity for me to wander around the fields and streams and to enjoy playing with cousins and other very small children on this farm. So in many ways it was very idyllic.

We didn't have much money, but we had a lot of freedom as children. It was safe to wander about and to be creative and to develop games—we had no toys—and so nature was a big part of our enjoyment. We would pick wild fruit and swim in the creek and create our own toys with very primitive materials. I don't ever remember having a doll early in life. But it was a time when families were very close-knit. I had a lot of extended family, adults who watched out for me and took responsibility for me.

BAM How did your life change when you moved to Houston?
Simmons My parents were very strict. They kept very tight watch over us. Our lives were built around our families; we were not in any sense to be integrated into the evil city. So our little world revolved around our immediate residence and the people that we knew who lived in that block. Our job was to get to school and to get back but not to venture outside of that area. Keep in mind that this was in an era when it was still dangerous for blacks to wander too far afield.

BAM Your childhood experiences underscore the point that it's possible to be poor and have a dignified and happy life.
Simmons Most people don't know what the experience of being poor really is like. Poor people often compensate for poverty in many ways, and one of them is the source of support that poor people are sometimes to each other.

Many poor students come to college, and one of the things that they find is that it's very difficult in a college environment for them because people don't understand what poverty is. Many people make certain assumptions about the experience of students from poor families. But of course those are stereotypes. Poverty is not a state of mind, I often say, it's just the condition of your purse.

BAM And those students can end up feeling isolated?
Simmons Many of the students that I've talked to begin to internalize those stereotypes of poverty, and as a result they don't feel that they belong.

I don't remember feeling that way as a college student. I always thought I belonged. In fact, I probably thought I deserved to be there more than a lot of other people who were there. So this attitude comes as a bit of a surprise for me, but it's very hard for some students who are from a background of limited resources to see their own worth. I always feel that the students who persevere and who get to college in spite of extraordinary obstacles are nobler somehow.

BAM Can you describe your experience attending Dillard University in New Orleans?
Simmons First of all, I was educated in segregated schools all my life. As a consequence, I knew that there was another world out there filled with people of different backgrounds, but that was very theoretical, because in no regular way did I have contact with that world. Then when I left high school, I went to Dillard, a black college, but for the first time I had white instructors. That was the first experience I had of intellectual engagement with people of a radically different cultural and racial background.

BAM You spent your junior year at Wellesley College, an experience that you've noted in the past was important to shaping your identity. What happened there?
Simmons When I went to Wellesley a number of things happened to me. First, at Dillard so many of my fellow students came from very limited economic circumstances, and so the shift from Houston to New Orleans was not so great for me. Wellesley was the first opportunity that I had to see close up the vast difference in the way that people in this country grow up and the vast difference in resources that they command. That was an eye-opener for me.

Second, that year was the first time I'd ever been in an environment where women were treated seriously. That was a shock to me, because I had spent most of my life in a family dominated by men. I have seven brothers and a very strong father, and the women in my family—I have four sisters—were expected to be deferential toward men. Men made decisions; men's lives were more important. Men deserved to be treated with great respect no matter what they had done in life. In fact, in my own family men ate first, because we were too many for everyone to be at the table at the same time. Men were served; women served themselves. When important matters had to be discussed, women were asked to leave the room.

When I got to Wellesley, I saw, my God, there was a woman running the place. And I was so startled by the role that women played at the college and in the classroom. One didn't have to hold back. And as you know, African Americans of my generation were all reared to hold back. Because not holding back could cost one's job, one's life, and do great harm to one's family.

Wellesley introduced me to the idea that I actually didn't have to hold back in terms of the force of my intellect, the force of my opinions, the force of my aspirations.

BAM You've said in the past that you would have progressed more rapidly in academia had you not been a woman, that gender has been a bigger obstacle than race. Why do you say that?
Simmons Because the academy has long been influenced by powerful male voices. Those powerful male voices shaped the academy. They even deliberately excluded women for a period of time. When they finally admitted women, they thought there were certain kinds of pursuits that were inappropriate for them, either because their minds were not strong enough or because the pursuit of those areas would somehow harm the traditional roles that women played in society.

The academy also excluded women's perspectives. And I would say that the denigration of those perspectives continues even today.

BAM How are women denigrated in the academy?
Simmons First of all, women often have different interests and different needs. For example, I had my first child when I was finishing my PhD at Harvard, and so I was a mother from the time I started in the academy. All the meetings are designed around the assumptions that people make about men's schedules. Faculty meetings are held at times that are difficult for child care, for instance. And the kind of schedule one has to heed, and the flexibility one has to have as a junior faculty member trying to build a career—these are designed around what a man's priorities and flexibilities are. And it‚'s still largely true in the academy today.

BAM When discussing your formative years, you point to three important influences: your mother; your kindergarten teacher, Ida Mae Henderson; and a high school teacher named Vernell Lillie. How did they influence you?
Simmons My mother was a very unusual person. I don't ever remember her saying anything mean about anybody. In my life she was a noble figure who was both wise and compassionate. She was both hardworking and very elegant in her approach to life.

Because she had so many children, my mother had to stay at home. But she also needed to earn money. And so for a part of my childhood after we got to Houston, she took in ironing. That was the term that was used: "she took in ironing." And that means that lower-income white families brought mounds of clothes to be ironed—this was in lieu of going to a laundry—and she would basically iron clothes. This way she could be at home and watch over us and at the same time earn a little bit of money to help the household. She also occasionally went outside the house to do domestic work in white homes, and on occasion she would take me with her.

Here's what I mean when I say that she influenced the way I think about work: I watched her iron those clothes meticulously. As a child very much thinking about how stupid this work was and how boring it was and how undignified it was and how horrible it was, I saw that this woman—in addition to having to have responsibility for all these children and in addition to being poor and in addition to having to care for all of us—she had to do this backbreaking work. Yet what she did was to carry it off with great dignity and with absolutely no complaint.

Now, that had a terrific influence over me because it made me feel that I had no right as a human being to be less worthy than she. And so my task was to care as much about my work—which after all was far more interesting and far better remunerated—to care as much about my work as my mother cared about hers. To have a sense of responsibility, to see dignity in what I did, irrespective of what I was being paid.

BAM And Ida Mae Henderson's influence?
Simmons I was a kid from very poor surroundings. My first encounter with wealth was perhaps the moment I walked in the schoolhouse door and I looked around and I saw this wonderful place where there were books and chairs and desks. Not only was there a wealth of material at my disposal, there was a guardian of all of this wealth who was cheerful and open-minded and who thought that I was wonderful, treated me as if I was really the most special person in the world. And that's what teachers do to children. They teach them that their mind is very special and that if they care for it they could do wonderful things with it.

Along the way there were many teachers like her who encouraged me, who said that I mattered when I thought I didn't, who said I was smart when I thought I wasn't, who said I had the possibility of doing something with my life when I couldn't quite believe it—îthose are the people who kept my hope alive for years. I was especially close to Mrs. Lillie in high school because she was a very special teacher for me then. But there are many others, many others.

BAM How did you choose French as your undergraduate major?
Simmons When I got on the train to go to college, that was the first time I'd ever ventured out from the little cocoon that my family had created for me. And I left Houston and went to New Orleans alone on the train, terrified. By the time I got to college, I began to meet new people and to see a new city. It occurred to me that the world was a lot larger than I had thought and that it might be possible as a human being to learn considerably more about myself by learning about these different areas of the world. When I thought about how I might do that—remembering always that I had no resources, none—it occurred to me that languages might offer opportunities that I just wouldn't have otherwise.

BAM Why languages?
Simmons The reason is actually quite utilitarian. If I mastered languages, I would have an opportunity to travel around the world. I could be an interpreter, I could do all kinds of different things, and I thought that as a young person I would not get those opportunities otherwise. And I craved learning about the world more than anything else.

So I started with Spanish, and it dawned on me: Well, gee, why don't I try to go to Mexico to learn Spanish, because Mexico is close and I could get there cheaply. So I talked my scholarship funders into allowing me to use part of my scholarship funds to go to Mexico. And then after I did that, I went to live with a family in Mexico and studied Spanish.

BAM This was for a year?
Simmons No, it was a summer. After I did that, I was hooked. There was something so rich about entering another culture as a stranger. It's an unforgettable experience. And what it inevitably does is allow you to look back on your own culture from an entirely different perspective. And as a young African American, I needed desperately to do that, because the country was in turmoil. And I needed to understand this country of mine, because I needed to have hope in it.

Standing outside the country in Mexico and looking at the cultural dynamics of a different society probably saved me. Because I could have been a very angry person.

BAM How did that experience give you hope?
Simmons Other cultures looked unflawed to me when I was a young person. And this culture looked like one of the worst in the world. I needed to stand in another culture to see the challenges that other people faced, to understand how the challenges of my own country came about. Because when you're mired in this country, it's easy to think that the flaws are not part of other cultures. But they are.

BAM In graduate school at Harvard in the early 1970s you studied the Romance languages. But your real specialty seems to have been the Negritude movement [which in the early decades of this century attempted to integrate African influences into French culture]. What drew you to that subject?
Simmons Well, here I was, a young person searching for identity, studying French. I'm studying La Chanson de Roland and Renaissance literature and ideas that, one might say, were far afield of what I was experiencing as a human being. At the same time the student body is in turmoil at Harvard. There are sit-ins, and there is black-power rhetoric everywhere. And then I discover something really quite remarkable when a visiting professor, Mercer Cook, comes to teach the Negritude movement.

BAM And what did you discover?
Simmons I discovered that the same kind of thing we were discussing as students at Harvard had been undertaken by people like [the Martinique poet and playwright] Aimé Césaire and [the Senegalese poet and statesman Léopold] Senghor, and that there had been a movement in France to challenge some of the thinking of traditional French society in the same way that we were challenging the traditional thinking here. And at the heart of all of this was this notion that my heritage—that is, African heritage—was a heritage to be taken seriously, to be understood, to be studied. Probably because of that I finished my PhD. Without that I probably would have dropped out of graduate school.

BAM Then you became an assistant professor of French at the University of New Orleans but very quickly began taking on administrative duties. What prompted you to do that?
Simmons I had very bad advice as a young faculty member. It's even fair to say I had no advice. People talk a lot about mentoring today, but I had no mentoring. I was the only African-American faculty member in all of the humanities at the University of New Orleans when I started. People didn't quite know what to do with me. And so they mostly kept their distance. I had no one to say, "Here is the way an academic career works. This is what you have to do to get tenure. This is what you have to do in order to get published."

But I was an inveterate organizer, partly because I was arrogant, I think. And I thought I knew how to do things better. When I started teaching French, I didn't like the way that language courses were organized, and I had the chutzpah to try to tell my older colleagues how to organize language teaching. And I took it on. The dean noticed this and wanted me to become an assistant dean in my second year—my second year!—as an assistant professor. I think that would never happen today, because assistant professors are very protected and no one will touch them until they get their research done, until they get tenure, and so on.

BAM That eventually led to your job as acting director of the Afro-American studies program at Princeton.
Simmons When Princeton came to me and asked me to direct the program, I was very annoyed because that's not my field. And so I challenged them and asked, "Why are you asking me to do this? I'm not a specialist in Afro-American studies, and you know that. Are you asking me to do it because I'm black?" I thought I was being stereotyped.

But on the other hand, I was soon overtaken with the idea that I actually knew what to do.

BAM What did you do?
Simmons I wanted to build a program that had the same stature as other academic programs at Princeton. I was angry that the university permitted a program of very minimal quality to exist alongside departments of extraordinary stature. I thought the program lacked rigor and the university was not investing appropriately in Afro-American studies. I thought it represented the worst of the way the academy treats African Americans.

And what did I do? You know, the strength of any academic program is its faculty, so I started trying to recruit faculty. Not just to Afro-American studies but to the university generally. And I think it worked out okay. We recruited Nell Painter, a historian, and Cornel West, who was a philosopher. Toni Morrison came into the creative writing program. Many more people were recruited eventually, including Arnold
Rampersad, who's a scholar of Afro-American literature and author of the masterful study of Langston Hughes.

BAM You then became provost at Spelman College and, later, vice provost at Princeton. How would you compare these two experiences?
Simmons Well, they're very different kinds of institutions. At Spelman the charge was to try to do something similar to what I had done at Princeton, and so I became, in a sense, specialized in faculty recruitment. That work was building work: creating governance structures and recruiting a lot of new faculty.

The work at Princeton was more focused on implementing innovative ideas, on trying to do institutional planning. I was secretary of the budget committee. My duties at Princeton were heavily related to budget and planning.

BAM While you were vice provost at Princeton, you authored a 1993 document that came to be known as the Simmons Report and that is sometimes held up as a model for improving race relations on campuses. Can you describe the report and how it came about?
Simmons At the time, Princeton was having race-relations problems, and I was becoming known as the problem solver, the person who gets called on to do special projects. This was one of those special projects, and the university needed to review the problem of race and come up with a set of recommendations. So they came to me and asked me if I would take it on. And again I had the same reaction: "Why are you asking me to do it? Just because I'm black?" I was the budget person; I was the priorities committee. I was not the race person on campus.

But still, because it was such a need, I decided to take it on. And I did what your [Visiting Committee on Diversity] has done. Except you brought in a lot of people to study the situation and to issue a set of recommendations, and I refused to use that process. I basically did it myself. I had an advisory group on campus, but basically I wrote the report and developed the recommendations, about eighteen recommendations, calling for specific measures to alleviate some of the difficulties on campus.

BAM Why did you choose not to bring in outside experts?
Simmons I'm one of those people who thinks that we waste too much time in the academy with the structures that we use. I knew it would take a lot of time, and I didn't think it would produce a better outcome than what I thought I could do. And so sometimes it's very useful for people to make decisions. The academy has great difficulty with that. We believe that a group should study everything.

BAM That's particularly true at Brown, where the idea of consensus seems very important.
Simmons Yes, it's very important, and I am one who uses it all the time. But there are some moments when I think you don't use it. I thought we had an urgent problem at Princeton; I thought we needed to address it as quickly as possible. I had the credibility to do this and wide acceptance among different groups on campus. And sometimes you go to the consensus model because you don't have that.

But I asked for a number of things when I undertook the report. The first thing I insisted on from the president was that I'd be given the resources to implement whatever
I recommended. And I got that agreement in advance, which was unheard of and probably very unwise for him to do.

BAM You've often said that the best thing for economically disadvantaged students is a liberal arts education. What do you mean?
Simmons Students who have been in some way disadvantaged by their economic circumstances will not have had the leisure to become familiar with world literature and world art. They will not have had the capacity to enjoy many different types of music. They will not have had the experience of wide travel. They will not have had the cultural advantages of many of their peers when they go into the professional world. What I'm saying to them is that if you major in the liberal arts, you get to catch up.

I had a student come to see me yesterday at Smith who wants to major in classics—an African-American student. But she doesn't know quite what to do, because she thinks that's not a practical thing to do. Well, who said that because you're black and because you're poor, you don't get to have the same advantages that everybody else has in the academy? You can do classics if you're African American. You can do German. You can do other liberal arts. You are not required to do business just because your family has toiled for centuries without means.

I really fight about this with families who try to insist that their kids major in a technical area. Because the gift of education is a gift to be who you are and to be that at the very best level. That's the gift of an education.

BAM Perhaps these students' families just want to make sure their children will have jobs after graduation.
Simmons It's not a question of whether they'll get jobs; it's a question of whether they will make $10 million a year. And I'm saying, you don't have to make $10 million a year as an investment banker to be happy. You can be happy knowing that you have lit a fire in a child's mind that is going to endure—endure—for sixty years. You could work for a long time as an investment banker and never have the satisfaction that that gives. I think in education we ought to make it clear that every area of learning is a valuable area of learning that continues to advance the frontiers of knowledge, that continues to provide what society needs to flourish. That's what we should be promoting.

BAM What are your impressions of Brown so far?
Simmons The most important impression to me so far is that the place has high aspirations. That was very important to me in deciding to come. Because that's been my life. I like being associated with places that want to do things. I like being associated with places that are not satisfied with what they are. And it seems to me that Brown is very energetic, very earnest in pursuing improvements.

That's not always true in higher education today. There are a lot of big institutions that are very self-satisfied. Brown isn't. I think Brown aspires to be a place that values human qualities more than anything else. And that means the desire to interact with other people is important, the values of respect and kindness are spoken of unashamedly here. The goal of diversity is a sincere goal here and not a perfunctory one.

BAM But it's been a very difficult goal for Brown to implement.
Simmons It's never implemented. The making and remaking of this country is an endless enterprise. It changes from generation to generation. And so it will always be with universities. Whatever diversity is today it will not be 100 years from now. So diversity is something to be worked at all the time. It's not something that you fix. It's not something that gets settled once and for all. It's a dynamic part of the institution. It's something that one commits oneself to and works at energetically all the time.

BAM During your press conference and your address to the campus community in early November, you identified three areas as needing attention: faculty resources,
the opportunity for talented students without economic means to attend Brown, and the need to deal with "the harrowing aspects of diversity." Why those three things?
Simmons What I was trying to signal was my own values as a university president. And number one, my first commitment will be to provide the resources that this faculty needs to do its work. Number one. Secondly, I want to make sure that the student body here represents the best minds in the country. Not the best minds who can pay. The best minds in the country.

BAM Are you prepared to commit yourself to a need-blind admission policy?
Simmons I'm prepared to commit myself to go as far as we can afford to go to make it possible for any young person who is bright enough to be admitted to come to Brown.

And then the final issue of diversity, I just happen to think that the goal of improving what we do in the area of diversity is something that has been a lifelong interest of mine; I certainly don't intend to leave it at the gate when I come to Brown.

BAM You mentioned in your address that universities exist “not to amass wealth but to release minds and amass knowledge.” Yet we often hear that the principal job of a university president these days is to raise money.
Simmons That will not be my principal job. I wouldn't have come to Brown if the Corporation had said that they wanted that to be the focus of my job. At the same time, I recognize that I will have to raise money. But what raises money are good ideas and good performance on the part of faculty and students.

Look, I'm not going to be a symbolic president for Brown. I expect my hands will be in more things than people want. And the place will just have to live with that, I guess.    

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Related Issue
January/February 2001