Dr. Ruth Simmons
Dr. Ruth Simmons

Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University, nationally-recognized leader in higher education and president emerita of Smith College and Brown University, will serve as a senior advisor to the president of Harvard University on engagement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

President Larry Bacow announced the appointment today alongside Simmons, during a visit to PVAMU in Prairie View, Texas.

“Almost 20 years ago, Ruth Simmons had the courage to interrogate the history of Brown University as its president. Her leadership in that moment created new a path toward understanding and reckoning, and she has been walking that path ever since, urging all of us in higher education to follow her so that we might do more good in the world,” Bacow said. “I am thrilled that she has agreed to join us at Harvard to enrich our collaborative efforts with her extraordinary experience and unwavering resolve. We are indebted to her yet again.”

In the role, which will begin on June 1, Simmons will advise on efforts to support the recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. Her work will focus on engaging in meaningful and enduring partnerships with the nation’s HBCUs, as laid out in Recommendation 3 of the report.

“I applaud President Bacow’s vision and Harvard’s hopes for a more inclusive future for higher education,” Simmons said. “From his courageous defense of the importance of diversity on our campuses to his support for the work of the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery initiative, he has led with great wisdom and integrity. I am proud to work alongside Harvard to shape a new vision for higher education, one which acknowledges the need for institutions with different histories and missions to share expertise and productively collaborate in the interests of a more equitable society. Harvard’s recognition that HBCUs have much to contribute is a welcome and timely message.”

Simmons brings a unique perspective to Harvard’s implementation efforts, having led Brown University’s reckoning with its history of slavery and injustice during her 11-year tenure at the helm of the institution. Simmons formed the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to help the community think seriously, deeply, and rigorously about their past, a model that has served as a blueprint for institutions like Harvard who have since also begun to address their own injustices.

Simmons’ work at Harvard will proceed alongside implementation work already underway across Harvard and with external partners under the leadership of Vice Provost Sara Bleich. Collectively, efforts have begun to address the seven recommendations of the Presidential Committee, all of which were accepted by Bacow in April 2022 along with a commitment by the University of $100 million, mostly endowed, to fund implementation.

“We are fortunate to have President Simmons joining Harvard to help guide our engagement with HBCUs,” Bleich said. “There is no leader in higher education who Harvard can learn more from as we pursue collaborations that can and will have a meaningful impact in expanding educational and research opportunities across existing and future partnerships.”

Harvard has shared updates on work that is moving forward in all seven Presidential Committee’s recommendation areas, including: the creation of the Legacy of Slavery Remembrance Program led by noted scholar Richard Cellini, to identify descendants of those who were enslaved by Harvard leaders; the launch of the Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Memorial Project Committee led by Harvard faculty Tracy K. Smith and Dan Byers; the appointment of Bleich to the new Vice Provost role to lead implementation of the report’s recommendations; and several initiatives established within Harvard’s Schools.

As part of the work to strengthen and broaden relationships with HBCUs, Simmons will convene a gathering of HBCU partners in Cambridge in the fall. Plans for the convening will be announced in the coming months. Additionally, Simmons will advise on the development and growth of partnerships outlined in the Presidential Committee report, including faculty and student exchanges between Harvard and HBCU partners. Along with a focus on the direct outcomes and opportunities through these partnerships, the work will seek to establish and model best practices to other institutions that wish to address systemic and enduring educational inequities rooted in slavery and its legacies.

Simmons also has deep roots at Harvard. In 1997, she received the Centennial Medal from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and in 2002, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University. She delivered the principal address at Harvard’s celebration of the Class of 2021 and has testified on Harvard’s behalf in a lawsuit challenging Harvard College’s right to consider race as one among many factors in its admissions process.

In addition to this part-time role at Harvard, on April 1, Simmons is joining Rice University as a President’s Distinguished Fellow. Working closely with President Reginald DesRoches and a variety of programs across campus, in addition to collaborating with faculty and staff to build out student focused initiatives for developing future leaders at the university. Simmons will also provide input on the development of Rice’s Center for African and African American Studies.