Prairie View A&M University has lured a prominent former Ivy League president to temporarily lead the historically Black university – a move that will likely surprise many in the higher education world, and even surprised the new president at first.
The decision was finalized by a unanimous vote of the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents. Ruth Simmons, who became first Black president of an Ivy League university when she took over Brown in 2001, will be interim president until a permanent replacement for current President George Wright can be found.
Simmons presided over Brown for 11 years, and was once named by Time magazine as the best university president in the nation.
The Houstonian has been retired since 2012 and said she never expected to take a job like this. In an interview, she said she did it because the university has a mission that she believes in.
“Frankly, I was flabbergasted when I was approached about this – I didn’t know what to think,” Simmons said.
The current president, George Wright, announced that he was stepping down to return to the faculty.
Simmons said she has received numerous inquiries about returning to higher education since she retired, and she has regularly dismissed them outright. But when A&M System Chancellor John Sharp approached her about this job, she hesitated to reject him. Then, she allowed herself to be talked into the move, she said.
She said she received her undergraduate degree from a historically Black college (Dillard), and owes a lot to schools like Prairie View, which one of her 11 siblings and a few of her nieces attended. And she said she’s intrigued by Prairie View’s devotion to engineering and other science and technology disciplines. Black people are underrepresented in those fields, she said, and the university can do a lot to combat that.
“If I can go into Prairie View to take care of the place during the interim, it would seem to me that it would be untoward if I did not step up to that,” she said.
A&M System leaders touted the hiring as a coup.
“Dr. Simmons has been an important figure on the national stage for decades,” Sharp said in a statement. “She has the credentials to be the president of any university in America.”
Simmons said she only agreed to the job if the system made clear that she was taking it temporarily, “because I am old and I’m retired.” She also said she has no plans to be a placeholder. Simmons will start work July 1.