Ruth Simmons

Throughout her nearly three decades in higher education, Ruth Simmons has always found people eager to advise her on how to succeed in academia. Work your way up through the faculty ranks, they said. Don't get pigeonholed by focusing on affirmative action or African-American studies. Ditto for women's issues. Good advice, maybe, but Simmons, 56, the new president of Brown University, never paid much attention to it. "My career," she says proudly, "has always been about things I care about." She moved rapidly up the administrative ladder at several institutions after only a few years in the classroom. Then, at Princeton in the 1980s, she ran the African-American studies program and pushed for hiring such prominent faculty members as Cornel West and Toni Morrison. In the early 1990s, as Princeton's vice provost, she authored an influential report on the future of affirmative action at that university. When Smith College recruited her as president in 1995, she used part of the $300 million she raised to establish an engineering program, the first ever at a women's college.

Now halfway through her freshman year as Brown's first woman president and the first African-American president of an Ivy League school, Simmons has an even bigger platform for the issues that matter so much to her. When her appointment was announced late last year, Simmons garnered national headlines, even meriting profiles on "60 Minutes" and in People magazine--highly unusual for the increasingly corporate world of college administration. The publicity did not surprise her as it had five years earlier, when she took over Smith and was hailed as the "Jackie Robinson of high-er education." She admits to having been uncomfortable at first with the stories that recounted her personal life, from her upbringing in Texas as the youngest of 12 children of sharecroppers to her Ph.D. in Romance languages from Harvard. Her family was so poor that they didn't own any books. One of her most significant childhood memories is borrowing books from the local community center: "My goal was to read every book ever written."

Simmons, the divorced mother of two grown children, says that she now understands that her story can inspire the next generation. One of the best ways to do that, she says, is to visit inner-city schools. Such visits were part of her regular schedule at Smith, and she plans to continue the practice at Brown. "There are young people out there in the worst possible schools who have it in their mind that they're just going to break out and go to the best possible schools you can imagine," she says. "The only way for that to happen is for people to actually see you."

Brown is generally considered among the most progressive of the nation's elite universities, and is known for its open curriculum (no core courses are required for graduation). Simmons says she admires Brown's willingness to welcome new ideas. "It's a good fit for my candor," she says. "I like the emphasis on diversity. Nobody has found a way to get diversity right. It's something you just continue to struggle with." She made her first move in that effort a few weeks ago by recommending that the university institute a need-blind admissions policy, a step that campus activists say was long overdue. The policy, which would go into effect with the class of 2007, means that Brown will admit students without regard to their ability to pay--the practice at many other highly selective private institutions.

Simmons's goals for Brown are ambitious. In addition to increasing diversity and raising money, she wants to strengthen the role of the faculty and preserve the university's mission as a haven for academic inquiry. "I stayed in education because I believed in it," she says. "I thought it was the most important thing a person could do. University life is critical in our civilization. We either go on to improvements or we don't, and the story of what we do will be told in universities." At Brown, she's a key part of that story.