Brown University President Simmons Steps Down

In 2001, Ruth Simmons left Smith College to take the helm at Brown University, becoming the first African-American president at an Ivy League school. She's guided Brown through financial challenges, devised a long-term Plan for Academic Enrichment and addressed multiple campus controversies.

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NEAL CONAN, host: In 2001, Ruth Simmons faced campus turmoil and a fiscal crisis as she was sworn in as the 18th president of Brown University, the first African-American to lead an Ivy League institution. Ten years later, she plans to step down at the end of this academic year. She admits to bouts of self-doubt along the way. Of course, there were controversies, but she's avoided conflagrations, and she will leave a reinvigorated university to her successor.

If you work in higher education and you have questions for Ruth Simmons about the past 10 years, the role of elite universities in general and about Brown in particular, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ruth Simmons joins us now from a studio on the campus there in Providence, Rhode Island. Congratulations.

RUTH SIMMONS: Thank you. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And - good to be - good to have you here. And can you briefly tell us what you've learned in 10 years as the president of Brown?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMMONS: Oh, if I can only do that briefly. Well, first of all, I've been so fortunate to be a part of an extraordinary community here at Brown. Brown is a unique university in higher education in this country. Its alumni are very devoted. Its students are brilliant, talented, creative. The faculty here are immensely devoted to the creation of knowledge and the teaching of our students, and it's just been wonderful to be part of a unique community. And in every way, every day, I've learned from just being here and interacting with these marvelous people.

CONAN: You were, as we mentioned, inaugurated there in a crisis and made a whole bunch of decisions real fast, pretty much on your own, off the hip. And you've said that, looking back, you've made no decision since then that way. Everything's been, you know, well, let's find out what they have to say. Let's get consensus. Let's - yet those initial decisions turned out pretty well.

SIMMONS: Yes, they did. And - but, again, knowing the kind of community that we are, where we value and respect the participation of everyone in the process of shaping who we are, it's just very important to us to have open, transparent dialogue, to have a decision-making process that includes a variety of stakeholders, and to move toward an outcome that we can all be proud of. We don't have to agree with everything that's decided, but we want people to feel that they have been allowed to participate.

CONAN: Allowed to participate. And most recently, I think, or maybe not most recently, but, recently, this was a decision-making process about the position of ROTC on campus, following the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," and that's all happened. Previously, Brown prohibited ROTC from being on campus because the military discriminated against men and women who were gay or lesbian. That's ended. ROTC is still not on campus.

SIMMONS: Yes. Well, we had a rather lengthy process which began with a committee, led by our dean of the college, to consider whether the original reasons for removing ROTC from campus still applied. Those reasons lay in faculty decisions about the importance of how faculty determine appointments to the faculty, how faculty determine what should be given credit, how faculty determine the makeup of the curriculum and the requirements.

So the committee reached the decision that it was still appropriate for faculty to make those determinations. And to the extent that an external body would want to make those determinations, the faculty are not prepared to give up that prerogative. So that was comment number one.

We did, however, feel that it was very important to state that we support and want to participate in the idea of contributing to the leadership of the military. That's our duty, as an American institution, to do that.

When we looked at the question of how we could do that, we thought that consistent with what the military has been doing in recent years, encouraging cross-institutional relationships with ROTC, that we could in fact accomplish this by participating in these cross-institutional relationships. We have one already with Providence College.

And what we want to do is to ask the military to assist us in expanding those relationships so that we can have Naval ROTC options for our students, possibly Air Force ROTC for our students as well. So the outcome is that the community was, of course, divided on this question, as you would expect. But we reached the conclusion that we really want to do both. We want to honor the faculty's role in making these decisions, but at the same time we want to make a strong statement about what our role is in preparing military leaders.

CONAN: Yet you - by not having an ROTC unit on campus, by continuing to prohibit it, you are perpetuating, are you not, the belief that lead institutions like Brown are anti-military?

SIMMONS: We are not prohibiting ROTC. That's a mischaracterization of what we've done. What we've said is that at this time, these cross-institutional relationships seem to be working very well. If, at some future point, that's insufficient for what we want to achieve, then the question of ROTC on campus will come back. But it's not true that it's banned from campus. What's true is that we endorse the idea of these cross-institutional relationships, which is essentially the same as most of our peers have recently done.

CONAN: It seems like you're trying to have your cake and it eat too.

SIMMONS: Shouldn't we?

CONAN: Well, if you're denying your students choice, if you are denying diversity on campus...

SIMMONS: No, we're not - no, no, no. We're not denying choice. We are expanding the choice that our students will have access to by developing more programs. We are also - I think I failed to mention that we're establishing an office on campus to support our veterans who are - students who are veterans as well as our ROTC students.

CONAN: We're talking with Ruth Simmons, who at the end of academic year, leave as president of Brown University after more than 10 years there. If you'd like to ask her about her experiences at elite university, in general, or at Brown, in particular, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can begin with Andre. Andre with us from Goose Creek in South Carolina.

ANDRE: Hey. How's it going?

CONAN: All right. Thank you.

ANDRE: Hey. My question was what has been your role at the university in increasing your engineering program as well as increasing your African-American involvement in those programs and African-American retention rates in those programs?

SIMMONS: Thank you very much for raising that. As you, no doubt, are suggesting, the participation of minorities in STEM fields is a major issue for higher education in our country. We have recently spent a lot of time expanding our engineering program and trying to encourage more enrollment, generally, in engineering because it's such an urgent issue for the country; for more students to enroll in these fields, particularly engineering. So the number of majors in engineering at Brown has increased recently, and we're very pleased about that.

In terms of minority participation in these fields, we still face a challenge, I have to say; the same one that's faced by most universities in the country. Instead of really finding that this number is growing dramatically, we find it's still a struggle to encourage students to enroll in engineering. Part of the reason for that has to do with the prerequisites for engineering. The fact that - as you know, students are required to have certain levels of mathematics and science courses coming out of high school to have a fair chance of succeeding in engineering at a university like Brown.

And that's the major struggle that we have, trying to identify enough students from their high school experience who can qualify for engineering programs in the major engineering programs in the country. This is a goal that remains for us, however, and we continue to work at achieving that.

ANDRE: I have one slight more question. Like, what kinds of community outreach programs have you, as the president, have been involved with to increase enrollment?

SIMMONS: Well, the admission office has been involved in a number of them, and they're the fairly classic measures that you are probably familiar with, if you know admission work at all. We have a relationship with a number of organizations that we target precisely because they identify minority students who are interested in coming to a place like Brown. So we have - had great success at this. Another important component of our recruitment, actually, is that our alumni have gotten involved in this more recently in a very, very vigorous way.

They have spent countless hours calling students, contacting them to see if they can answer questions about their careers and about enrolling in a very competitive academic environment, and that has helped also. So our aim is to put our students and perspective students in touch with people actually working in the field wherever possible to give them a sense of what it's actually like to study in the field over time and to move into a career after that. So all of these measures work to a degree. But frankly, there is no one thing that will accomplish what we seek in this area. We have to do a lot of different things. Involve alumni; go to - at the high school level to encourage high schools to offer the kinds of programs that students need in order to pursue engineering. All of that must be done.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Andre. Let me ask about the flip side of that question as institutions like Brown seek to attract the best and brightest minority students. Well, they would not be attending, perhaps historically, black colleges. That's where you got your degree, though, you've worked since - got your Ph.D. at Harvard and worked since at Princeton before going to Brown.

SIMMONS: Mm-hmm. Well, it's true, but I think that, certainly, I'm involved still with a number of historically black institutions on a purely volunteer basis. And I must say that in spite of the fact that many students are able to come to places like Brown, there are still a tremendous demand for HBCUs - Howard University, Dillard, Xavier, Hampton. All of these institutions have enormously positive stories to tell.

Last year, I had the chance to go Morgan State University, and I was so inspired listening to the stories of those young people who end up going to Morgan State for a host of reasons because it's convenient to them, because it has given them a chance to go to college when they otherwise would not have the chance because something in the culture of the place appeals to them and they feel that that will help them advance and do well academically. All of those reasons, a mix of reasons.

And I have to say, honestly, that, you know, I would never have gone to college if I had not had a chance to go to Dillard University, and it's hard to describe how meaningful that experience is for someone coming into university life from a family with no experience of college education before, and how thrilling it is to be in an environment where everybody is seeking your success. Because the story of HBCUs is a story of propelling students forward into the middle class, into professions, continuing a tradition that began after slavery was abolished, which is making it possible for African-Americans to move into the mainstream. They're still doing that work.

CONAN: All of that is true. Many of them are struggling.

SIMMONS: Many of the colleges are struggling. Yes. And I think that for a host of different reasons. Some of them are not struggling, by the way. But there was - as you might imagine, when these institutions, elite institutions were segregated, there were many spaces for African-Americans in historically black colleges. With more options today, then naturally, these institutions are having to retool and revise their offerings and try to find ways of being relevant today. That's true for many institutions, not just historically black ones.

CONAN: We're talking with Ruth Simmons, the president at Brown, at least until the end of this academic year. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Payton on the line. Payton with us from Fayetteville in Arkansas.

PAYTON: Yes. Hi. My question was about - actually, I heard on NPR today a report about the rising cost of tuition. And my question that I want to pose is just how the cost has change since you started as president at Brown and what you see is the future for making college more affordable across the board for everyone.

SIMMONS: Well, this is a huge national issue, as you know, and one that we obviously are struggling to address. The fact is the internal rate of inflation within the higher education is very costly because of all the things that we're trying to do, the laboratories that we have to build, the resources that students need for highly technical fields today. All of these things create costs that must be met.

At Brown, we are very fortunate to be in a position to be need-blind. This is a change that I implemented after I came to Brown, and it's probably the thing that I'm proudest of in my time at Brown. That is to say, to make sure that no student, no matter their economic circumstances is prevented from coming to Brown because of their family circumstances. We guarantee enough financial aid for them to come to Brown. They are admitted without our knowing their actual financial need, so that's why it's called need-blind. And once we admit the student, we discover what need - the financial need they have, and then we meet that need.

So we are obviously proponents of raising funds to support financial aid so that no student will be denied matriculating because they happen to be poor. That's not a solution for all institutions, and so obviously we need to moderate the rate of increase of tuition, to reduce the costs internally to make sure that college education will be affordable in the future.

CONAN: Ruth Simmons, thanks so much for your time, and, again, congratulations on highly successful term as the president of Brown University.

SIMMONS: Thank you.

CONAN: Ruth Simmons joined us from Providence in Rhode Island, at campus, at the studio there. Tomorrow, NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner joins us to answer your questions on Medicare after the health care overhaul. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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