Dr. Ruth Simmons, whose dreams of higher education began in the public schools of Houston's impoverished Fifth Ward, marked another milestone in a distinguished career last week when she was named president of Brown University.
She left Texas at age 17, eventually making her way north to Harvard University, the hub of the northeast's Ivy League universe. Yet the daughter of a sharecropper never severed her ties with the state or her commitment to helping impoverished and minority students attend the nation's most prestigious college campuses.
Dr. Simmons, who is 55 years old, will become the first black president of an Ivy League college when she takes the helm of the elite Providence, R.I., school in July.
The appointment, which was announced Thursday, is just the latest in a career marked by firsts.
Dr. Simmons became the first black person to head one of the nation's top-ranked "Seven Sisters" women's colleges when she took the presidency of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., five years ago. She also sits on the board of directors of Dallas-based chip-making giant Texas Instruments Inc., making her one of a tiny number of minority women who have burst the "concrete ceiling," according to Catalyst, a New York-based research organization.
She started her academic career as a scholarship student at Dillard University in New Orleans, graduating with highest honors in 1967. She earned her doctorate in Romance languages at Harvard University in 1973, when minorities first began entering U.S. colleges and universities in greater numbers.
She has worked at several top-ranked colleges, including New Jersey's Princeton University, where she was vice provost before taking the Smith post.
Brown officials and students said they have high hopes for Dr. Simmons, who is praised for her leadership and administrative skills and for her Texas-style charm in a region where the natives are known for their reserve. At Smith, she was so popular she was even greeted at commencements and large events with chants of her name as though she were a rock star. Last week, at Brown, students, professors and administrators received her with applause at an introduction event.
"Even before she said anything, she got a standing ovation," said Katherine Boas, a 20-year-old junior from Westport, Conn. "When she walked into the room, she was so warm and excited. It's almost as if she is the poster child for a Brown president."
Ms. Boas said she hopes Dr. Simmons, whose office and home were open to Smith students, will bring together a campus shaken by the abrupt departure of its previous president, E. Gordon Gee.
After only two years in the job, Mr. Gee left this year to become chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. When he left, he said only that he wasn't a good "fit" with the school. Others have said that Mr. Gee, who came from the 55,000-student Ohio State University, may have had difficulty adjusting to the more intimate 7,000-student Brown campus.
At Thursday's campus meeting, Dr. Simmons promised to increase faculty resources and the school's $1.5 billion endowment, one of the smallest in the Ivy League. At Smith, Dr. Simmons was praised for muscling up the school's endowment.
She also pledged to help Brown refocus its commitment to diversity at a time when a debate rages on campus about expanding the school's ethnic studies offerings. That debate has unfolded while race-based admission policies have come under intense legal and political fire nationwide.
Dr. Simmons is among administrators at top-ranked universities who are striving to attract promising students from minority and low-income backgrounds to elite schools that remain dominated by white, affluent students. She travels frequently around the country, for example, to visit high school classrooms and encourage the college aspirations of students from poor families like hers.
"The whole point is to try to ameliorate some of the divisions in society through education. ... It's not the right time to reduce ethnic studies," Dr. Simmons said in an interview. "I have very strong feelings on the subject."
Brown, the nation's seventh oldest university, has a reputation as one of the Ivy League's most socially conscious campuses. Its long-standing commitment to diversity dates to its early days. The school bills itself as the first college to enroll students of all religious persuasions dating to the 18th century. It was an era, however, when the port of Providence grew wealthy from the African slave trade.
Dr. Simmons is herself the great-grandchild of a slave.
Brown has also attracted attention for an undergraduate curriculum that sets fewer academic requirements than most schools, letting students "become the architects" of their education. It is one of the hardest colleges in the country to be admitted to because of its curriculum rules, high-profile alumni and liberal campus atmosphere.
Smith also has a storied past as one of the nation's oldest female colleges. Former first ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush were educated on the rural Massachusetts campus, as well as feminist pioneers Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.
At Smith, Dr. Simmons doubled the size of the endowment to about $900 million and poured money into academic programs that broke new ground at the school of about 2,500 students. They included a new engineering program that earned national headlines last year as the first of its kind at an all-women's college. The program will produce its first graduates in 2004, sending women into a field overwhelming dominated by men.
She has spent many years in the Northeast, but when asked if she still considers herself a Texan, Dr. Simmons replied: "Yes, indeed!"
She spends about a month each year in Texas, she said. To remind her of home, she has a container of peanuts in her kitchen that were harvested in the East Texas town of Grapeland, where she spent her first years as the youngest of 12 children. When she was in elementary school, the family moved to Houston. She said that each year officials in Grapeland ask her to serve as master of ceremonies at the peanut harvest festival. Someday she hopes to return to take up the honor.
"That's my goal in life," she joked. "But, now I'm in a jam because Brown expects me to stay here for a very long time. So I don't expect to return anytime soon."