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Ruth Simmons recounts her journey from daughter of sharecroppers to trailblazing Ivy League president

On the Rhode Island Report podcast, the former Brown University president talks about the importance of teachers, the US Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, and legacy admissions to college

Ruth J. Simmons, former president of Brown University, has written a memoir titled "Up Home: One Girl's Journey."Brandon Thibodeaux/Bloomberg

PROVIDENCE — On the Rhode Island Report podcast, former Brown University president Ruth J. Simmons recounts growing up as the 12th child of sharecroppers in East Texas.

Simmons, the author of a new memoir titled “Up Home: One Girl’s Journey,” talks about the challenges she faced and the people that helped her while growing up in the segregated South, and she shares some of the lessons she learned while going on to become the first Black president of an Ivy League institution.

Among other things, Simmons emphasized how important teachers were to her and how they can shape the lives of their students.


“We have people meddling in education in outrageous ways today, disempowering the role of educators and especially teachers in the classroom,” she said. “And I just want to say how important that teacher in the classroom is to those students who are in desperate conditions, especially, who need a way to understand a different future.”

Former Brown University president Ruth J. Simmons has written a new memoir, "Up Home: One Girl's Journey."Handout

Simmons cited attempts throughout the country to dictate what teachers can say and what books students can read.

“We actually have here in Texas a superintendent who has eliminated libraries in certain schools and turned them into detention centers,” she said, citing a controversy in the Houston school district. “We’re at a point where we are much less interested in empowering educators. And to me, the way to make our schools perform at the highest level is really to empower educators.”

Simmons explains why her memoir ends after she concludes her academic studies and does not delve into her time as president of Smith College, Brown University, and Prairie View A&M University.

“For my students, the most persistent question that I get is not ‘What was your life like as a president?’ or ‘What did you do when you were at Smith?’” she said. “The question is ‘Why are you the person you are? Because we don’t understand when we think about your childhood and we think about what life was like in the country at the time — we don’t understand how you go from that point to where you are today.’ So draw a picture for us.”


A 1952 photo of Ruth J. Simmons when she was 7 years old.Handout

During the podcast, Simmons weighed in on the US Supreme Court ruling in June that ended the use of race-based affirmative action in college admissions, and on the push to end so-called legacy admissions, which give preference to children of alumni.

“Legacy admissions should comport with general admission,” she said. “It should not provide an advantage to unqualified applicants.”

Simmons also reacted to news that Dr. Melissa Gilliam will become the first female and first Black president of Boston University. “The fact is, when you become a president, you’re measured not by whether or not you did enough considering the fact that you were Black,” she said. “You’re measured by whether or not you served the university fully as a president.”

To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.