Prairie View A&M President Ruth Simmons, who announced earlier this month she is stepping down, said she will remain at the historically Black university as a professor.
While it is fairly common for university presidents to transition to a faculty role upon their departure, Simmons will also help work with the university’s fundraising and research partnerships. She will also create a new higher education leadership program to improve diversity among top academic leaders.
“I believe this is the perfect solution, enabling her to devote time to her special interests and, at the same time, continue to play a leadership role in preparing the next generation of leaders,” Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said in a statement.
Simmons, who became president of Prairie View in 2017, told The Texas Tribune she approached Sharp last year about her plans to step down and the resulting transition.
“The basic work of running the university, there are a lot of small things that you get drawn into,” Simmons told the Tribune. “Frankly, at this juncture, I wanted to move away from that.”
During her tenure, the university increased donations to the school by 40%, according to the March 12 letter announcing her decision to step down when a successor is named. She also increased student scholarships. In 2020, billionaire MacKenzie Scott donated $50 million to Prairie View.
Simmons said she had always pledged to remain involved with the university, but said Sharp insisted on creating a formal arrangement. While there was some discussion as to whether Simmons would remain at the system or university level, Simmons said she wanted to ensure Prairie View remained her prime focus.
“I think that my students and others will be very disappointed if they think that I’m getting drawn off in other things,” Simmons said.
Ultimately, they landed on the idea of a leadership academy that would allow her to mentor students and future university leaders at the university, which is located about 50 miles from downtown Houston.
“I’m paying back for all the help I got as a young person,” she said. “The people who stopped and went out of their way to help me and to give me advice. Honestly, I could never have done what I’ve done if they hadn’t taken the time to do that.”
Simmons said she wants the program to provide personalized attention to women and people of color to help them overcome obstacles that may prevent them from being considered for a leadership role.
“Because we are so politically correct, if someone is not dressing correctly, we tend not to go there,” Simmons said. “If somebody is not paying enough attention to the way they speak, we tend not to go there.”
“The greatest success I’ve had has been in getting people to adapt to the fact that they are not seen in the way that they perceive themselves to be seen, and helping them understand how to allow people to see their significant assets as opposed to superficial factors that may be turning people away,” she said.
As a professor, Simmons will not be attached to a single department, allowing her to lecture or collaborate across the university. As for the courses she might teach, Simmons suggested leadership courses in the business school.
Simmons previously served as president of Smith College in Massachusetts and Brown University, where she was the first Black woman to preside over an Ivy League school.
Simmons said she still sees room to build out and improve academic degree programs and bring more quality faculty to campus. While she credits Sharp for trusting her leadership and supporting her in the role, she said the board’s interest in the historically Black university is more recent.
“Sometimes the people who oversee the system are not as well grounded in what we do, but I believe that they have started to get better at that,” Simmons said, pointing to a number of regents who have visited the campus recently. “This system wants to be the best in the country. In my view, their ambition only helps Prairie View because they want to be the best in the country. Then they have to want to be the best HBCU in the country. And so I think everybody should understand that and try to benefit from that.”
A 14-member search committee of students, professors, administrators and community members will conduct a national search for her replacement, providing three suggestions to the Chancellor who will then make a recommendation to the Texas A&M Board of Regents. Simmons said the university plans to have a new president installed by summer 2023. The group will have its first meeting in April.