Prairie View A&M University President Ruth J. Simmons will join Harvard University’s efforts to carry out a key recommendation of the report issued by the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery last year.
Simmons will become senior adviser to the president on engagement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and begin in that role June 1. A major figure in American higher education, Simmons served as president of both Smith College and Brown University before taking up the post at Prairie View, an HBCU in nearby Houston.
“In the field of higher education, there is no one, and I mean no one, who has accomplished more or is respected more greatly, than Ruth Simmons,” Bacow said Monday during a visit to Prairie View, where he stood hand-in-hand with Simmons to make the announcement.
Bacow credited the current movement in higher education to examine the role of slavery in the establishment and growth of many top U.S. colleges and universities to Simmons, who pushed Brown University, as its 18th president, to undertake such an effort beginning in 2001.
“We would not be here today, but for what Ruth did,” he said. “Ruth had the courage to come to an institution in a city that had long ties to the institution of slavery, and to interrogate its past, something that had not yet been done by any other educational institution in the country.
“She set an example for all of us,” he said.
Simmons praised Harvard’s willingness to grapple with uncomfortable truths.
“It’s one thing when some universities do it. It’s another entirely when Harvard does it. And the way that you’ve done it, truth and transformation, is a textbook case of what can be done when there’s a will and when there is the fiber to reckon with difficult subjects,” she said.
Simmons, who stepped down from Prairie View in February, received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1973 and has maintained close connections to the University. She received the Centennial Medal from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1997, and in 2002 the University awarded her an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. More recently, she delivered the principal address at Harvard’s celebration of the Class of 2021 and testified in federal court in support of Harvard College’s right to consider race as one factor among many in the admissions process, a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
After a boisterous welcome from Prairie View A&M’s acclaimed marching band, known as the Marching Storm, Simmons presented Bacow with the President’s Medal for his leadership in higher education and for “telling the truth about the legacy of slavery at Harvard,” she said.
Bacow launched the Presidential Initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery in 2019 to understand and address the enduring legacy of slavery in the University community, building on the momentum created by years of investigation by Harvard scholars and Civil War historian, President Emerita Drew Faust. A faculty committee released its report in April 2022, which included a series of historical findings and several recommendations for redress, among them being the development of enduring partnerships with HBCUs.
Vice Provost Sara Bleich, who is overseeing the implementation of the Legacy of Slavery initiative, told the Prairie View community that “we at Harvard are committed to reckoning with these difficult truths, as we undertake what must be the perpetual work of repair.”
As part of the efforts, a group of HBCU presidents is expected to gather at Harvard this fall to discuss ways to deepen and expand the opportunities from the Harvard-HBCU partnerships and collaborations and identify ways to help the schools reach their internal goals. Harvard will also look for ways to develop and share what it has learned about best practices with other schools that seek to confront disparities that originated in slavery, said Bleich.
Other recommendations in this area include faculty and student exchange programs, visiting library fellowships, academic research projects, scholarships for third-year HBCU undergraduates and financial support for HBCU faculty sabbaticals comparable to those available to Harvard students and faculty.
Established in 1876, Prairie View A&M University is the second-oldest public institution for higher education in Texas.
Many HBCUs were established beginning in the mid-1800s, after the Civil War, to provide undergraduate and graduate-level education to people of African descent, who were excluded from attending or teaching at predominantly white institutions. Today, there are just over 100 HBCUs recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
These schools count many celebrated faculty and student alumni, including W.E.B. Du Bois (Atlanta University), Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse College), Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University), and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard University).