In 2001, Ruth Simmons made history when she became the first African-American president of an Ivy League university, as well as Brown University’s first female president. Prior to this appointment, she served as the first African-American female president of a major college or university when she took the reins at Smith College in 1995. Yet growing up, Simmons had much more modest ambitions. “I had one goal,” she recalls, “if only I could one day work in an office, because every woman that I knew was a maid… The farthest I could think was working in an office. That was it.” Simmons began her prodigious journey on a sharecropping farm in Texas, the youngest of 12 children. She attended Dillard University on scholarship and spent her junior year at Wellesley College, where she encountered President Margaret Clapp who opened her eyes to the possibility of women in leadership. Graduating Dillard in 1967, she studied in France on a Fulbright fellowship, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Romance languages from Harvard.
In 1983, after serving as associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Southern California, Simmons joined the Princeton University administration. She left in 1990 for two years to serve as provost at Spelman College, returning to Princeton in 1992 as vice provost. In 1995, she became president of Smith College, the largest women’s college in the U.S., where she launched a number of strategic initiatives to strengthen the college’s academic programs and inaugurated the first engineering program at a U.S. women’s college. Over the course of her career Simmons has been a visionary leader in academia, championing, and demonstrating, the power of education to transform lives. She stepped down as Brown president in 2012, but remains a professor of comparative literature and Africana studies at the university.