Ruth Simmons.

“The fundamentals of learning tell us that it’s much better when you come into contact with difference, because you get to do all kinds of things that prompt your thinking about that difference,” said Ruth Simmons.

Harvard file photo

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‘What’s at stake is the future of the country’

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Sharecroppers’ daughter who became college president argues for diversity in education

A sharecroppers’ daughter who went on to become the first Black president of an Ivy League institution, Ruth Simmons has a unique perspective on why diversity is critical to preparing students to lead, work, and live in an increasingly globalized world. Simmons, the former president of Brown University and currently president of Prairie View A&M University, testified on Harvard’s behalf during a 2018 trial of a lawsuit challenging Harvard’s right to use race as one among many factors in its admissions practices. In a 130-page ruling issued in October 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs found that the University’s policies don’t discriminate on the basis of race, don’t engage in racial balancing or use quotas, and don’t place undue emphasis on race in considering applicants. Last week, a federal court heard oral arguments in an appeal of that decision. Simmons recently spoke with the Gazette about the importance of diversity in education.


Ruth Simmons

GAZETTE: In your opinion, what is fundamentally at stake in this case?

SIMMONS: What’s at stake is the future of the country. As I said during the trial, I’ve lived through the period in this country when we did not have the good sense to have a plan to bring different groups together to explore our responsibility to share the governance of the country, living in silos, as we did during the segregated period in this country. That was not a useful way of empowering people, of working with others to bring about important advancements in society. That’s one aspect of it.

The other aspect was that the nation concluded following the Civil War and Reconstruction that African Americans in particular did not have the intellectual capacity to advance to higher levels of learning. And that attitude pervaded education, and in general professions in the country, for a very, very long time. I hope we now know that conclusion was erroneous and self-interested on the part of people who wished to preserve privilege for a narrow segment of society. So now we’ve reached the point where we’re beginning to understand that individuals from many different backgrounds can contribute, importantly, to the advancement of the country. Why are we trying to go back to a period where we don’t try to plan for the integration of difference? I think it’s an indication of moving backwards, reimposing upon the country the trenchant unfairness that we dwelt in for so many years.

And I think that continuing to bring students together as they learn enables them to do the most fundamental work that human beings need to do: to learn about other people. If we don’t learn about other people, we are subject to stereotyping, to bias, to unfair treatment of others, purely on the basis of our lack of knowledge and lack of experience working with other people. For leaders especially, this is a very particular problem. Imagine a nation that produces people who go on to leadership in the country, who are totally unaware of difference, who have no respect for people who are different, and who stoke the kind of divisions that divide a country. That’s where we are right now. And if there’s anything that tells us how important this case is, it’s to look at where we are today and the kind of hatred and violence that is aroused against groups.

GAZETTE: During your testimony, you spoke about needing leaders fit for the times. You also referenced the enduring schisms in society based on political, cultural, and religious differences, and the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. What, if anything, have the intervening months taught us about the importance of educating future leaders who reflect the broad diversity of the American experience? 

SIMMONS: I would say that if I thought and felt that way when I was testifying, I feel that way even more today. Look at all of the incidents that we’ve seen since then that point to the dangers of ignorance around diversity, the dangers of separating society into enclaves, the dangers of resentment. I am so fearful for the country, so very fearful for the young people who have to grow up in a world where these schisms multiply because our leaders are insufficiently capacious in their caring and concern and their knowledge. If anything, I think we should bear down much harder in trying to put people together, trying to ensure through the programs that we offer that they have the capacity to interact with people of different races, of different religions, of different preferences and so forth.

GAZETTE: Can you say more about how diversity in education can help overcome the racial discrimination and racial injustice the country is facing?

“Imagine my surprise to find today at the end of my career that we’re back in the soup and almost as bad as ever. It’s immensely disappointing to me. So I asked myself, ‘What can we do this time?’”

SIMMONS: The fundamentals of learning tell us that it’s much better when you come into contact with difference, because you get to do all kinds of things that prompt your thinking about that difference. Let me give you the example that I typically use.

I was at Wellesley College in a Greek philosophy class, and for some reason the professor used the example of apartheid in South Africa. Well, as a young person, I was quite passionate about the injustice of apartheid in South Africa. I didn’t really think very deeply about it. I just thought from an emotional level that it was simply wrong, and I thought of white South Africans as being evil, not unlike most of my peers at the time [who felt the same way]. As the discussion went around the room and students participated, it was evident that pretty much everybody in the class condemned apartheid as being unjust. But there was one girl who raised her hand, and when the professor called on her, she said she disagreed. Well, it startled me at first. But then she identified herself as South African. She was white South African. And she went on to argue why apartheid was not the evil that we thought it was. And she said at the end simply, “It’s our country too.”

There are two things about that encounter: First, just the idea in that era of encountering a white South African in my classroom was extraordinary. Secondly, she put a human face on this system that I thought about, and she forced me to think about the fact that there were countless people in South Africa who felt passionately that they had a right to do what they were doing to Black South Africans; they had a right to the country; it was theirs because they made it what it was. And I had to think about that. And so I explain to people that today, when I think about that course, I cannot remember a single person in it, but I have never forgotten her. And that was decades ago.

That’s what learning does. The encounter with difference can do that in a much more powerful way than simply knowing the facts, or reading about it, and it forces you to think about things in a different way. Now did she convince me of her position? No. But more importantly, she forced me to think about the way in which I was considering a problem in South Africa, and the way in which I was painting every single white South African with the same brush. Encounters like that taught me to be much more open-minded in the way that I encountered people, and in the way that I considered the political environment, and in the way in which I treated human beings who disagreed with me. And I would say that as a leader, the single most defining attribute of my leadership is the ability to do that. And that’s what I long for our future students and for citizens of this country: to have leaders who are prepared to hear their perspectives, prepared to respect them, in spite of the fact that they might disagree with prevailing views. All of that is so vital to something we call democracy. Because if we believe that we are entitled to govern as a people, then how do we govern if we cannot talk to each other, if we cannot know each other?

GAZETTE: You mentioned your time at Wellesley. What are some other ways you experienced diversity as a young person?

SIMMONS: When I was a child, I knew that the world thought of me as being unworthy, a blight on the world. I knew that because people spoke openly about how unworthy African Americans were. And they consigned African Americans to a certain station in life because of that unworthiness. That’s the reality that I that I grew up in, but somehow I had a sense that could not be right. And so, I wanted to probe. I couldn’t learn that in Houston, where I grew up, because Houston was very segregated. And so at the first opportunity, I went to Mexico because I got a scholarship when I was 17 or 18 years old to travel there to learn Spanish. I just wanted to see: Is this the reality of every culture? Is this what I have to look forward to no matter where in the world people live? Would this be the attitude everywhere? And that started me on language study, because I just knew as a child that there was something wrong with our country, that it was sick. And I needed to find a way to think about what my future could be in the country that hated me. Could I ever learn to be at peace in an environment that treated me so unjustly?

That learning process was very important to me, as was the fact that my first encounter with difference was actually in Mexico, not in my own country, because I was in segregated circumstances here. Then I had an opportunity to go to Wellesley and to study for a year. And from there, I went to France to study for four years. So I was clearly in search of difference myself. How could I learn about human beings and what accounts for the way we behave toward each other? What are the cultural histories that promote the kinds of behavior that I was exposed to as a child? And so I wanted, as a consequence of my own kind of personal search for understanding, to be a part of an effort that tries to persuade people of a different model. And I’ve had a wonderful career. I’ve been able to work in positions to try to bring about a different approach. So imagine my surprise to find today at the end of my career that we’re back in the soup and almost as bad as ever. It’s immensely disappointing to me. So I asked myself, “What can we do this time?” Because clearly the efforts in the past, while they yielded some results, did not dig deep enough roots to continue the forward advancement, because we keep falling back. I am very interested in the question of what can we do to secure these improvements in such a way that every generation will not have to fight for them all over again. 

GAZETTE: Since the election of Barack Obama, some have said these types of admissions programs are no longer needed because we are in a “post-racial society.” Is that your experience? Do you think we have pushed past the need to think about diversity?

“I am so fearful for the country, so very fearful for the young people who have to grow up in a world where these schisms multiply because our leaders are insufficiently capacious in their caring and concern and their knowledge.”

SIMMONS: I don’t even understand what people are talking about when they say we’re in a “post-racial society.” What do they actually mean? They mean that token efforts prove that race is no longer a factor. That is the most ridiculous thing that I have ever heard. There is no convincing data to back that up at all. So what is the reality that we have today? We have the growth of hate groups. We have increased violence against different groups. We have African American disparities, economic and health-related, and other disparities that are extraordinary, that point to the fact that widespread discrimination remains. I don’t understand the whole “post-racial” comment, frankly. I would say that applies to the fact that a few people can get through. But what does that prove? That proves that one person managed to get through the thick of discrimination because of their extraordinary attributes perhaps, because the timing was right, because of some other some other factors that cannot be quantified. But the fact that that happens periodically does not mean that there is no need to address the systemic racism in the country.

GAZETTE: In your testimony, you pushed back on this notion of using a “ceiling” or “floor” when it comes to colleges and universities trying to create a diverse student body. Why?

SIMMONS: Well, quite a quite apart from it being patently illegal to do that, I know that in this technological age that is heavily leaning toward quantitative measures and proofs that it is very hard to deal with the fact that human beings cannot be reduced to algorithms. That’s painful to us. Nevertheless, give me 10 people, and I will show you 100 ways in which they are different from each other. My work in admissions at Radcliffe had a very significant impact on me in the way that I looked at human capacity. Because we can look at things that we see on paper and we can make judgments about individuals, but we can never be certain of what the outcome is going to be. I’ve never seen anyone who can actually predict what a human being is, in the end, capable of doing. You can tell from their experience, you can tell from their intelligence what they could do under good circumstances, but the human will produces outcomes that you sometimes can’t predict.

What I’m saying is: How many of a certain group do you need to have on a campus for that campus to function in the way that you want for a learning environment? I don’t know anybody who is capable of determining that. In admissions, we look at every individual. We look at what they’ve done in the past. We look at how much they have cared about learning. We look at what their interests are. We look at the fact that they’re from South Dakota, and that we may not have many people from South Dakota, and so on. So when you’re looking at a selective admission process, you’re looking at every individual and trying to determine whether or not they bring something to the learning environment. That’s what you’re actually doing. You’re not counting out how many people you have, and how much you know is too much, or how many are too few. I don’t know anybody who does that. And I don’t know anybody who, if they could do it, would have a good result from it.

GAZETTE: What would happen if Harvard and other institutions were forced to give up their current process of admissions and, for example, only focus on grades and test scores when assessing applicants?
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SIMMONS: Well, I think it would be a much impoverished environment to be sure. I think any educator will tell you that the most rewarding and surprising aspects of their work have to do with individuals who have produced radically different results from what they might have expected. I give the example of a student I had who had top scores, absolutely beautiful in every respect in terms of their academic profile, who came to college and stayed in his room playing video games the entire time. So, you can try to do this quantitatively, and some universities find a way to do that. But why is Harvard different? And should a place like Harvard exist? Well, in this country we don’t have a national system of higher education, as many countries do. And in those countries, you can take exams and they admit students in exactly that way. But here’s what I hear every place that I travel where people ask me about the higher education system in the United States. The one thing they say is that they would long to have the kind of creative environment that we have on our campuses, but they have not found a way to do that sticking strictly to those quantitative measures that they have.

The beauty of higher education in this country is that it’s very differentiated. We have women’s colleges. We have male colleges, very few, but we have some. We have African American institutions. We have religious institutions. And then we have great research universities like Harvard. And so what makes Harvard distinctive? What makes it distinctive are the individuals who come to Harvard, who interact with others from across the world, and who come out changed for it and ready for leadership. That’s what makes Harvard distinctive. Now, do you want to destroy that possibility in the best higher education system in the world? Why would you do that?

So I think preserving the flexibility of institutions to create these classes, with very different students coming together, learning from each other, intensifying the environment for learning, both in and outside the classroom, preparing for leadership, is critical. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could say that you can prepare for leadership in this country and be assured that all the people you lead are going to be just like you? But the fact is that there is no leader, whether of a corporation, a university, or the whole country who is going to be leading such a populace. There is no leader who is going to have a task like that. And so how do we prepare for the kind of country that we need to have with responsible leadership that is trusted by the people, where everybody feels an identification with that leadership? If we’re not trying to create that, by God, I fear for what the future might be like in this country.

Interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.