Higher ed pioneer who shattered glass ceilings to speak at UO

Ruth Simmons, the youngest of 12 children of sharecropper parents who went on to become the first African-American president of an Ivy League University, will give a virtual talk at the university Nov. 18.

Simmons will speak on “Civil Society’s Debt to Higher Education” as the next guest of the African-American Workshop and Lecture Series, sponsored by the Office of the President and the Division of Equity and Inclusion. The session, from noon to 1:15 p.m., will be moderated, and questions for Simmons can be given in advance of the event through a Qualtrics survey.

Throughout her career, Simmons has been a prominent advocate of equal opportunity education for students of color and women. Currently president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas, Simmons held administrative and professorship positions at the University of Southern California, Princeton University and Spelman College, and served as president of Smith College and Brown University, where she was also a professor of comparative literature and Africana studies.

At Brown University, Simmons established the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. The committee, which included faculty members, undergraduate and graduate students, and administrators, was charged with investigating and preparing a report about the university’s historical relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

The committee also organized public programs to help the campus and nation reflect on the meaning of that history today and the multifaceted historical, political, legal and moral questions posed by the present-day confrontation with past injustice.

Yvette Alex-Assensoh, vice president for equity and inclusion, sees Simmons’ work as closely tied to the UO’s work and aspirations.

“As our campus builds on the work of implementing diversity plans and leans into the work of anti-racism and other forms of anti-oppression, President Simmons’ examples of courageous action come at a crucial time,” she said. “Simmons established the first engineering program at a Seven Sisters college, achieved record-breaking fundraising goals and led the nation’s conversation about the pivotal role that slaves played in providing physical and economic resources for Ivy League institutions.”

Alex-Assensoh said the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice demonstrates how the UO needs to reflect on how its history has affected the current environment and how the campus can move forward.

“This is critical and urgent work, and Ruth Simmons can help us with guidance and hope in this challenging journey,” she said.

Simmons is the recipient of many honors, including the President’s Award from the United Negro College Fund, Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, Foreign Policy Association Medal, Ellis Island Medal of Honor and Centennial Medal from Harvard University. She has been awarded numerous honorary degrees and was named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.

The event is free and open to the public, but preregistration is required. For further information, see the Division of Equity and Inclusion website.

By tova stabin, University Communications