NEW ORLEANS (October 31, 2019) – Dr. Ruth J. Simmons, Class of 1967 and the first African American to lead an Ivy League institution, lauded Dillard University for the preparation that helped her to go beyond modest beginnings and attain her success.
Speaking before a crowd of more than 100 people Oct. 20 at the Founder’s Day Convocation celebrating DU’s 150th anniversary in Lawless Chapel, Simmons said, “Dillard gave me room to grow up, out and inwardly…This was the place that raised me.”
Simmons served as president of Brown University from 2001-12 after leading Smith College starting in 1995. She is now president of Prairie View A&M University. She earned a doctorate from Harvard University, has worked at many prestigious colleges, served on high-profile boards and earned many honors, such as a Fulbright Fellowship to France. She is a founding board member of the Smithsonian’s African-American Museum in Washington, D.C.
But she said when she boarded the train “with great trepidation” to attend Dillard from the Fifth Ward in Houston – one of 12 children whose mother had died two years before – her goals were modest: “My parents had an eighth-grade education. I aimed for no accolades.”
She said her goal was what her parents wanted for her – to be an “honest, respectful, decent human being.”
Luckily, Simmons said, the self-described bookish misfit and trouble-maker without social skills “met educators who wanted the best for me.” Dillard was “the place that gave me the room to be stupid…to find my voice…a place that embraced me and allowed me to become the person I wanted to be.”
The lessons learned at Dillard helped her to persevere when she went to Harvard, where she said professors “put me down.” She said DU helped her “find her purpose and prepared her for the challenging leadership roles” in her career.
Dillard has “done that for thousands and helped to shape this country,” Simmons said. “What an awesome, awesome feat.”
She warned the struggle is “far from over” and encouraged students to “stand up for the rights of all…It’s about speaking truth to power.”
She encouraged DU students to understand their worth because people will challenge it: “Always fight for your worth. and arm yourselves with tools of confidence for the rest of your life.”
Simmons said institutions like Dillard need to be celebrated for its “deliberate and intense efforts to development in excelling, thinking, leading and creative problem-solving.”
She said society still tries to cover bullying with “political correctness,” but students must hold on to hope: “Hope is not diminished by bullying. Hope is the future and essence of mankind.”
She encouraged students to understand the past as a “how-to manual to maintaining a vibrant future…We must tell our complete history to get a better understanding of the future.”
Despite the challenges she has overcome, Simmons said when she is asked why she isn’t angry, she responds, “Why should I be angry? I rock! I rule! There’s nothing to be angry about.”
Dr. Walter Kimbrough, university president, reminded the graduating class of 2020, dressed for the first time in their graduation regalia, that “graduation is tomorrow,” so the seniors need to start thinking about life after Dillard.