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Ruth Simmons on Up Home: One Girl’s Journey

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Ruth J. Simmons — former president of Brown University, Prairie View A&M University, and Smith College — discussed her book Up Home: One Girls Journey with James Campbell, professor of history at Stanford. Campbell was on the faculty at Brown when Simmons was president there, and she appointed him to chair a committee that produced a groundbreaking report on the university’s historical ties to the slave trade and slavery. Their conversation took place March 20, 2024, as part of the Academic Innovation for the Public Good book series. Here are the video and transcript of the event, excluding the introductory and closing remarks.


This transcript includes a word of racial hate speech. Although YouTube (where the video is hosted) widely prohibits use of this term, this case involves an educational event in which the African American speaker recounts the abusive language she encountered during her childhood. YouTube has a provision allowing for such usage as part of educational programs. Stanford Digital Education believes it would be inappropriate to censor this language in this instance.

JIM CAMPBELL: Ruth, it is such a pleasure to see you and such a privilege to be here. I feel like — I hope that people listening to us have had a chance to read the book. If you haven’t, I can hardly recommend it strongly enough. It’s just an utterly lyrical rendering.

And I have to say, Ruth, the thing that I guess surprised me most about it was that you wrote it. Because one of the things, when we were working together at Brown, one of the things that often struck me, watching you, was how focused you were on the future. I have a tendency to wring my hands endlessly about woulda, coulda, shoulda. And you just didn’t have that.

And I can in fact remember one conversation we had during the slavery and justice initiative. We were sort of trying to learn what kind of modalities are available for institutions that are trying to confront these grievous chapters of their pasts. And of course, one of them was institutional apologies. And a number of universities have made these. It would have been a kind of awkward thing for us to do at Brown to have a university apologize for its complicity in slavery and the slave trade when the person likely making the apology was someone who was herself descendant of enslaved people.

But anyway, I remember having a conversation with you once about this, and you said, I don’t care about apologies. I care about what you do going forward. And I remember talking to someone in your office afterwards and saying, I’ve never known a person who spent less time looking in the rearview mirror than you. And I was totally wrong.

So reading this book, which is this lyrical rendering of a childhood and of the world that made you, I guess my question is where in the world did that come from? How did those of us who knew you miss it?

RUTH SIMMONS: Well, first of all, Jim, it’s great to see you. Thank you so much for being the interlocutor on this project. They couldn’t have chosen better as far as I’m concerned. As to why, I guess one of the results of coming through the civil rights struggle and entering American society as one of the first to feel that one was welcome into the American project as an equal — although that’s still in the making, of course —

As I got older, I started to reflect on what I could say that would be instructive for young people who are constantly asking the question, what should we do now? And I think that I got the impression from my time at Smith and Brown and then Prairie View, that students were looking for a very easy answer. That things were going to be OK. That their future was assured in some way. And that by virtue of their studies, they would have a formula for advancing through life very successfully.

And I just didn’t see the world that way. I thought there are so many different things that we encounter along the way and so many ways that we can go awry. But I also understood from living so long that the beauty of living is that we have that opportunity so often in life to figure out what to do next, to make choices that we wouldn’t have anticipated before, and to learn something that we otherwise would not have been able to learn.

So what I wanted to show in my book were the ways in which I encountered things I never expected to encounter. How I dealt with those things and how surprisingly some of the worst things turned out to be some of the best things. So I wrote it, yes, for my teachers, but also mostly for my students.

JIM CAMPBELL: I’m wondering what you were reading as you were writing or what you were thinking of. It seems to me one of the distinctive features of African American literature — I mean, I’d be hard pressed to imagine another tradition in which so many of the canonical works are autobiographies.

I mean, the narratives of Equiano, and Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs, and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, and Black Boy autobiography. You know these books. And they all in some sense have a quite similar structure. I mean, you end your book by saying — I think it’s quite beautiful — “I’m not the person I was supposed to be.” And I’m just wondering, were you conscious of, in a sense, writing yourself into that tradition here? What were your influences as you were thinking about this book and writing this book?

RUTH SIMMONS: I was not at all thinking of that tradition. I was doing something that I thought would be extremely difficult. Knowing my history, you will understand this. And that is to say I rarely looked back. I wanted to be ever hopeful, and I focused on the future and always the question of what can we do now to make things better, to make life better, to improve on myself? So I was always looking ahead.

What I didn’t want at all was to be influenced by other people’s stories. And so I studiously avoided that kind of influence because I thought it would taint the authenticity of my own voice if I did that. I was very much influenced by my friendship to Toni Morrison, who nagged me for years about writing something. But she didn’t say specifically to write it about myself. But she told me that I should sit down and do the hard work of creating a piece that would add some color to life.

And I thought, well, as old as I am, one thing my students don’t understand is when I talk about my childhood, they haven’t the vaguest idea of what I’m talking about, because what is that? I mean, after all, getting up at four o’clock in the morning and going into the fields to chop cotton and to pick cotton. And how would they come to understand what that life would have been like?

Well, it’s harder and harder as we go forward for people to understand what life was like during that time. And I thought that it was useful to at least say how it was possible for the policies that were created much later in this country — especially following the executive order of the President creating affirmative action — how it was possible by that act and by the civil rights movement to move an entire country to different possibilities for some of its citizens.

And that is such a powerful thing to me. I still am completely overwhelmed by the thought that my parents grew up at a time when they were nothing, and they never expected to be anything. And yet their children came along, and there was a process that took place that enabled their children to have a different life.

That is so powerful to me, and I want people to understand the power of what we do by caring, by being involved, by taking action. That was very important to me, to say what I believe is important for young people to think about, young and old people to think about, in terms of being involved.

JIM CAMPBELL: You know, I had the same feeling when I read this. There’s a moment in Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s book, where the narrator comes upon the detritus of a life of somebody who’s just been evicted from an apartment in Harlem in the 1930s. And one of the things he finds is the person’s manumission papers, this direct kind of connection to slavery. And he says, it can’t be so recent. It can’t be so recent.

And when I read your story of your childhood, I mean, I had that feeling that the proximity to this institution when you described your grandmother carrying burdens on her head, and not having shoes, and chopping cotton at 4:00 in the morning, and wearing dresses that are sewn painstakingly by your mother out of old cotton sacks. I mean, I think — I was quite astonished by that. And I guess, how do you process this? I mean, you’ve kind of had this, in some ways, Rip Van Winkle life, when you think about where you started and where you are. It must be, sometimes, bewildering.

RUTH SIMMONS: One of the things that perhaps would not have been known to people who knew me when I was president of Brown is that I had promised myself when I was very young that I would never be separated from my origins. And what that meant to me is in all of those years when I was leading institutions, I was still going into the communities that formed me. I was still talking to people who had had a very different kind of life. I was still frequenting institutions that are very, very different culturally from the ones that I was associating with.

And so I had this bifurcated life, not so much bifurcated because it was integrated. I worked hard to integrate it. So I would be having tea on the one hand in the living room of Brown University with the former king of Greece. And then I would be coming to Houston and going into the depths of the most impoverished area of Houston and interacting with people who are family members or otherwise close to me.

That life was very important to me. And it was a way of my saying that I could not be corrupted by privilege. That I could not be corrupted by advantage of any kind. That I had to be the same person that when I was in a shack in Grapeland, Texas. That was important to me.

So all along the way, I had been talking to people, and sharing stories with them, and hearing about life as they experienced it along the way. And so a lot of the memories that I recall in the book are actually memories that we have been talking about in our family for years. We have kept them alive because they’ve been very important to us to keep them alive.

And I wanted that to be clear in the book, that this person writing the book is not that person standing on the stage at Harvard and being lauded. It’s the person who came from the Murray Farm in Grapeland, Texas, and Fifth Ward in Houston, Texas.

JIM CAMPBELL: You know, there’s, in fact, a beautiful moment at the end of the first chapter where you’ve set the story of your family, and of your grandparents, and of your mother, and I hope we’ll talk about it. Quite extraordinary figure. And you talk about the piece of ground that your mother inherited from her grandmother, that you own that land now. And I wonder if you want to just talk about that story a little bit, how that came about, and do you go back there, and what does that mean to you?

RUTH SIMMONS: Well, it’s also part of the whole notion of remaining close to where I came from, because I cannot forget what my forebearers suffered to bring me to where I am today. And as a consequence of that, the fact that my grandmother and her husband jumped the broom and then went to the courthouse and got married formally, so that they could purchase property at a time when Blacks didn’t purchase property.

And that singular act of saying, we are going to have a life that we construct ourselves, that we are able to build that life because we have the capacity to do it as a family, that’s a powerful thing to me. And I hold on to that land because I want the young people in my family and my children in particular to understand that their life was purchased at an extraordinarily high cost by people who were dedicated to the enterprise of being people of worth.

And because they were, they gave them something even when they didn’t even have a chance to know them. And my children say all the time that they really regret never being able to meet my mother. And it’s so satisfying to me when they say that because that means that they know who she is, and they know what they will have missed by not being able to interact with some of these elders who made life possible for them.

JIM CAMPBELL: That’s also I think one of the through lines through the whole book. I mean, you grew up in a Black world. And I don’t think you stint in your portrayal at all of the deprivation, and the cruelty, and the violence with which people lived. And yet your path was paved for you with extraordinary acts of generosity, by extraordinarily talented, gifted people. And I’m mindful that a lot of people haven’t read the book yet. So I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about that. Talk about some of your teachers.

RUTH SIMMONS: I couldn’t say enough really about my teachers or about teachers in general. And that is, for children who are standing outside the mainstream, without resources, without access, sometimes it’s the teacher in the public school who introduces them to the possibility of what they can become. Because often, in the case of poverty, parents don’t know that and can’t possibly introduce students to it.

And so that was the case for me. When I walked into my classroom as a girl and heard about learning and what it could do, that was the first time I encountered that. And when I heard from my teachers that, my goodness, I might be able to go to college, that was the first time I had heard that. Because, naturally, in my family, that was not deemed a possibility.

And so these wonderful teachers, in the midst of segregation, could have been dispirited. They could have been really unable to provide any sense of hope to these children in a segregated school, and yet they did. And so they are busy saying things will change. Educate yourself. Be prepared to have a wonderful life because that possibility might exist for you.

And as I often say, teachers gave me a vision of what was possible because I could not have ever done that for myself. So I’m very grateful to the teachers who do that every day for children. And that goes on. And that’s why I think that this profession of teaching and education in general is just the most important in society, frankly.

JIM CAMPBELL: One of the themes that runs through a lot of the African Americans autobiographies, which you’re telling me you were trying not to be influenced by, is the moment of having to — I mean, you grew up in a world without white people. And then having to enter a world that you have to begin to decode, and navigate, and sometimes navigate in the face of great danger.

And you tell an absolutely gorgeous story in the book about a little girl named Laura. She’s a sharecropper’s daughter on the same farm where your family is sharecropping. And the two of you do, a little white girl, do the same thing that children do, right? You invent games, and you chase after the farm animals, and you run rampant through both houses.

And you say something at the end of that passage that I just wanted to read. You basically thank her, quote, “for helping me to avoid falling prey to the bigotry I later saw among both Blacks and whites.” I wonder if you want to reflect on that. I mean, how you begin to enter and make sense of a white world given the world that you had grown up in.

RUTH SIMMONS: First of all, from the youngest age, because of my parents and my mother in particular, I knew that the world I lived in was a lie. I knew that. Even when I was six years old, I knew that. And I knew that because my mother taught me that I was worth something and that my worth was created by my actions and my ability to care for others.

She also taught me that caring for others, irrespective of their circumstances, was one of the most important things that I could do. And so when I was growing up, that’s what I believed. And I looked around me, and even walking down the street and being called “nigger” and all of that sort of thing, it was never anything that struck me at my core, because I knew it was a lie.

Now in the midst of that, can one be angry? Absolutely. Can one be disappointed? Of course. But the idea of turning that anger and disappointment into hatred or vindictiveness because one feels entitled to be angry, or entitled to be hateful, and racist, and vindictive, I never thought that.

In fact, I would say I spent an inordinate amount of my life trying deliberately to avoid that trap. And I did that in large part by studying other cultures, by studying languages, by traveling to different parts of the world. And that was an exercise that I deemed very important for me to be the kind of person that I wanted to be. And that is a person who was open to others irrespective of their identity, irrespective of their origins, and so forth. That was probably the single most important thing to me.

JIM CAMPBELL: Wonderful. There’s a moment — W. E. B. Du Bois talks at one point in one of his autobiographies about what he calls, and then began the “Age of Miracles.” And in his case, it’s Fisk, and then Harvard, and then the University of Berlin.


JIM CAMPBELL: You had an almost identical kind of experience, first of all, being transported from Dillard. From Grapeland to the Houston’s Fifth Ward and then suddenly into Dillard, an HBCU in New Orleans, which at the time I think was a revelation to you. But then in very short order, a summer in Mexico, because you’re learning Spanish, and an exchange year at Wellesley in Boston.

And then that summer, you’re on exchange in France as a student. In fact, you tell a great story about being invited to go on a cycling trip through Provence but having to learn how to ride a bike, which I thought was fantastic. Good place to learn. But you talk about this a lot, this sense of having a world open to you.

But it comes at a cost, in the way you represent this too, because you’re grappling with the fact that the world you’re entering, the experiences that you are having are totally alien to the people who you love, and who made you. And there’s a process of also, in some fashion, becoming alienated from them, or a danger of that. And I wonder if you want to talk about that.

RUTH SIMMONS: Well, it was a constant concern. Again, you know, I’m the youngest of 12 children. And this family of mine is the single most important thing to me. And yet I’m having experiences that I can’t discuss with them because they would not understand what I’m doing.

The idea that they are toiling, in some cases, maybe working as maids, in other cases as factory laborers. And I’m going to tell them that I am bicycling through southern France with a group of students. One feels, at some level, embarrassed to say that to people who are suffering the opposite experience.

And so for much of my time as a student, I did not speak about my experiences because I was embarrassed to tell my family what I was actually doing. I’m going to talk to them about reading Sartre when they can barely read the newspaper? So this is the experience of a first-generation student in general, I would say, and the experience that many people have who come into a financially successful life when everybody they knew before was living in poverty.

So it is one of the things that you learn to negotiate and to try to find some measure of comfort, that you are not leaving people behind by doing the things that you’re doing. And it was not until really my experience being inaugurated at Smith that my family actually got to see and understand what I did, because every one of them came to my installation at Smith as they came to my installation at Brown as well.

And it was only after that point that they began to understand why I was doing the things that I was doing, why I was learning languages, why I was working in universities and not just coming back to Texas and finding just any job that I could. So that has been a struggle. It’s not over, by the way. But it has been a struggle trying to figure out ways not to become alienated from the people that I love most. And I work at it every day. Every day still.

JIM CAMPBELL: Let’s talk a little bit about universities. I mean, in some ways, as Matthew [Vice Provost Matthew Rascoff] said in the introduction, this book is a testament to the transformative power of education and of universities in particular. And yet, this is probably — we’re living in a moment right now where probably being a president of a university would be the least desirable job a human could have. These are difficult times for universities.

You said something to me 20 years ago that stuck with me. You said the signal failure of university leadership in the United States has been our failure to communicate to a broader public, what we do, and why we do it, and why it’s important. And because of our failure to do that, we’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by other people.

And it seems to me, 20 years later, that the presence of those words really returned to me. So I guess I just invite you to think a little bit about a moment of just profound crisis in universities, when the credibility of universities is being assailed more than ever before. And how do you think about this time, and how do we think our way through it?

RUTH SIMMONS: Well, I certainly think about this time as a time in which we can understand better the work that we have to do. We exist, yes, to create knowledge, of course, to advance discovery. Yes, that’s true. But mostly, we exist in order to help people learn how to live useful lives, useful and satisfying lives, and in turn, contribute something to society.

And so, if the public doesn’t understand that we exist really to serve the public good, then we’ve done something wrong. And so we should ask ourselves, above all, what can we do to make clearer to the public, that that is what our mission is at the most profound level.

Now I’m very much focused on action most of the time. And so that means to me there are things that we should be doing today that we dared not do before. And one of the projects that I have, for example, is to convince elite institutions to brush away that elite nomenclature and talk more about the foundation of education and how valuable that is.

I talk a lot about not separating ourselves from every aspect of education, and that means today, community colleges are important, and we should not advance any notion that people are inferior if they went to community colleges and only superior if they went to the most elite institutions. That has been one of the most poisonous elements of higher education culture that I can recall.

And so I think we are seeing a moment when institutions can perhaps join hands and partnerships to serve the public better. And I think this has been long coming, and I must say I’m delighted to see it. Apart from that, I think we have priced ourselves out of the possibility of recruiting many students, and we’ve got to do something obviously about the cost structure of university life, to make it more affordable for people to go to college without onerous loans that they have great difficulty paying back.

So those are just a couple of the things that I’m thinking about, and I’m hoping that as the conversations continue among universities, among faculties, among university leadership, that there will be new ideas advanced about how we can speak to the public. Not just to ourselves but speak to the public more about what it is we do to serve the public good.

JIM CAMPBELL: And we’re going to open up shortly to questions. So those of you who are listening, if you have things you’d like to post on the Q&A, please do. They pop up on our screen, and I’ll try to curate them and pass them along. But let’s in the meantime keep on this theme a little bit.

Another conversation we had, I remember now, probably well nigh 20 years ago. And it came back to me reading this book, which you said we have no excuse to not validate every single point. You said, people in the circumstances of their lives will enter higher education at different points. Some like you will enter through an HBCU. You’ve mentioned the community college system, which in California where we are is so critical and also now so beleaguered.

And we have to be able to say to people, if you succeed here, there’s a place for you going forward, which of course, is what happened to you moving from Dillard to Harvard. It strikes me, however, though, that one of the challenges we have is most education is publicly funded. And the question is not so much no one can afford the tuition at Stanford because Stanford and Brown are now need-blind.

But public support for education and the amount of money that’s being invested. So you see this in the UC system, where tuitions escalate because tax revenues fall. And here I worry that we’re in a kind of vicious circle, because as we become perceived to be more inaccessible, and more detached, and more involved in our own forms of academic madness, we lose the public support, which means that there is less and less incentive for voters to support us.

So I guess, maybe that’s not a question but a statement, but how do you see us getting out of this? How do you see us communicating to a wider public why these are institutions that should be funded?

RUTH SIMMONS: Well, I think the most powerful stories in the education realm are rarely the stories that we tell. We like to vaunt all kinds of successes that we have within education. And that may go to some achievements of particular individuals who are on faculties. It may go to sports teams. It may go to what I used to call curlicues, OK?

And so we become obsessed in education with things that we think reflect our superiority. And those things can be simply lavish dorms. It can be climbing walls. It can be a plaza that somebody donates. And so we put the focus on those things, when in fact, we ought to be putting the focus on the ways in which lives are being transformed.

And so I often advise universities that don’t tell these other stories so much. Tell the story of what young people have accomplished because they have been touched by education, because they’ve been touched by your institution. That’s what you want to do. The public gets that, and they love those stories.

And I think the more we talk about the impact that we’re having on our students, and on cures, and on various innovations, the more the public is inclined to support us. So I do think that there is a problem with the public not wanting to spend a lot of money on education right now. It’s quite dispiriting to see. But on the other hand, as I often say, if they are reading the things that we are telling them about, I can understand why they would not want to support us.

So let’s turn our attention to the underlying power of what we’re doing, which is that giving anyone the opportunity to learn is such an extraordinary thing, especially in a democratic society. If you want to make sure that you can uphold the trajectory of a healthy society, you have to have informed people who can support that.

And so that’s what we’re doing, is trying to provide the best kind of insights to learners of what is possible. And if we do that well, we’re going to have a healthy society. If we don’t do it well, we obviously won’t.

JIM CAMPBELL: I’m picking up one of the questions that showed up in the Q&A here, but it picks up on something you mentioned earlier. You referenced affirmative action. And I think, implicitly, you mentioned yourself as a beneficiary of affirmative action. And of course, affirmative action, we are now as of the last year or two, we’re told is something that we are not allowed to practice in higher education or other sectors of American life. And not wanting to put you on the political spot, but would you like to talk about that?

RUTH SIMMONS: I don’t think it’s political actually. Look, what a powerful story, I said earlier, that at a particular point in time in this country, we woke up to the realization that we were headed for a disaster. And that unless we gave greater access to all people, that we would not be the country that we wanted to be, certainly not the economic power that we wanted to be.

And so we created a policy that would broaden access. And by doing that simple thing, it changed the whole direction of the country. At the same time, it would be foolish to say that that simple act was always implemented in the correct way. I have never believed that. And I’ve given speeches for at least 25 years, sounding the alarm that we’re not in a candy store, and we can’t take this principle and do whatever the heck we want with it and expect that it’s going to endure, OK?

And so I think what we’re seeing now is the kind of reckoning for some actions that have tainted the view of affirmative action. It has not tainted my view of the root of affirmative action, which was the principle that everybody is entitled to fair access in this country. And that remains in my view the underlying thought of all policy. It must be, otherwise we won’t survive as a country.

The question for us is, OK, now that we have learned that all of the curlicues that we put in place to enact and drive affirmative action are no longer possible, what are we to do now? And that’s the question. And that question has an answer. We’ve got to get busy and figure out ways of continuing to try to bring people from the margin into society. Continue to find ways of making the country more equitable and so forth.

I don’t think the Supreme Court ruling rules that out. I think the way that we have been doing it has been faulted. But I think that it is still possible for us to come up with reasoned actions that will be fair and will have the result of making it possible for more people to be included in this enterprise.

JIM CAMPBELL: Thank you. Another couple of questions are coming up in the same vein. Assaults not simply on access but also on what has now become shorthanded as DEI. And a number of states that have now in fact enacted and so forth. And so this —

I guess I wonder, when we were at Brown, you took on what at the time was probably the most divisive topic imaginable when you asked a university to investigate and disclose its historic relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. So I guess I’d just invite you to reflect on this kind of political moment when we’re seeing what are literally memory laws about how we can tell the story of our past, what we’re allowed to remember, and what we’re allowed to recount in our classrooms.

RUTH SIMMONS: Yeah. I think everyone should feel heartened by the fact that however much these policies intend to suppress information and suppress particular narratives that may be unfavorable or distasteful to certain groups, they will never be successful in the long run in doing that. We know that from history.

Think of all of the things that were suppressed in the past that have now come to light and that we’re now grappling with. And there is nothing more obvious in that guise than what we tried to do after the Civil War with regard to how we talk about slavery. Our impulse will always be, in my view, to find the truth. And especially if education does its job and higher education in particular does its job, we’re always going to fiercely pursue the truth.

And when you do that, your work cannot be impeached. It simply cannot be. No matter what the political moment is, ultimately — and I had this conviction when we were doing that work on slavery. And I don’t know if you remember, Jim, but when people said, well, you’re mad to do this. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense and so forth, why are you doing it?

And I held to one essential value through it all, and I just repeated that endlessly. And that is we want to disclose the truth. We want to find the truth. We want to disclose the truth, whatever it may be, because universities are about truth. And how can you trust someone and certainly an institution that is willing to lie to you?

And I believe that profoundly, that as long as we continue to uphold the value of truth-telling, that it is going to last. It’s going to last far longer than the political whims of the moment.

JIM CAMPBELL: It reminds me of a story that you told at that time, without getting into all the details of it, there was a story in the New York Times, you’ll recall, that was how the university announced that we were launching this inquiry. And you told a story to the reporter there. You talked about sitting in your office at Brown in University Hall beneath a portrait of James Manning, the first president of Brown. A massive portrait.

And James Manning, who had come to take over as president of the New College of Rhode Island with his slave in tow. And you said, you know, I sit here, and I look at that portrait, and I think this man could never have imagined that I would be here.

And what fascinated me about this, apropos of this whole question about divisive topics, is the reporter construed that and represented in the paper as essentially bitter, angry Black woman who was going to make the nation confront the dark sins of its past. When I heard that story, I just heard the most hopeful story in the world, that if institutions like universities and if our country have but the courage to live according to the values they profess, they have the capacity to surprise us.


JIM CAMPBELL: I mean, it was an incredibly hopeful story, but it just, poof. It was read as being divisive.

RUTH SIMMONS: No. And that’s the way that I actually meant it, was certainly, he couldn’t have imagined it. But look at the evolution of the country. All of those who fought hard to ensure that Blacks would never be included as peers in the story of this country would never have imagined that that day would come, and yet it has, because that’s what education does.

It is a potent force, education is, because we can lie as much as we want to. We can suppress as much as we want to. But in the end, the truth lives, and it lives longer and is healthier than anything we put in its way. And that is so reassuring to me to know that.

And I was happy that in the end, people came to understand the power of that, thanks to the work that you did with the slavery commission at Brown. It has been very fulfilling for me to see that people have finally come to understand the importance of telling that story.

JIM CAMPBELL: On this question about, and I’m picking up again at one of the things that’s coming through the Q&A line. In a way, the conversation we’ve had right now about threats to inclusion and threats to speech, we’ve been focusing chiefly on those that are coming, if you will, from the political right.

There’s a lot of people on the political right and I daresay in the political center who think that the more, at least equally pressing challenges, are the ones that are coming, in terms of silencing discussion, are coming from the left or are coming from so-called progressives or often students who are insisting that certain subjects at universities oughtn’t be discussed because they’re painful.

And I remember still the most extraordinary speech I’ve ever heard from a university leader. The very first speech you gave at Brown at convocation, your very first year after you’d been inaugurated. And it was, as you’ll remember, right after the huge controversy. You mentioned David Horowitz earlier, in which David Horowitz had taken an ad out in the Brown Daily Herald that many students construed as racist. They had tried to prevent the circulation of the papers. A huge conflagration followed.

And you said to the students — students at Brown, for those of you who don’t know it, there’s a set of gates that are only open twice. They open on convocation inward when the students process in. And then they open again, they’re locked otherwise, four years later, when the same class processes out.

And you said to those students, I’m almost quoting. You said, look, if you think you’ve been brought to this campus to be shielded from ideas that make you uncomfortable, get up and leave now. We haven’t closed the gates yet, right? It’s still time. So I wonder how you feel about that because on the one hand, it’s very easy to take that to say, well, we all want to defend free speech, but some of the issues are now so painful and so excruciating. So how do you negotiate this space today 20 years later?

RUTH SIMMONS: I’ve never changed. I mean, I often say to people, if you do not want to listen to people who have different views, then don’t come to me and pretend that you want to be educated, because you can’t be. You cannot be educated if you’re not able to listen to contrary views and permit other people to speak.

And certainly, you can’t be well-educated if you do not have the capacity to hear other people’s thoughts. And I’ve always been struck by an incident that happened to me when I was at Wellesley as an undergraduate. And that is, in the heat of the anti-apartheid movement in this country, I was in a class. It was a classical philosophy class. And there was a lot of discussion that proceeded about how horrible apartheid was and how terrible those who advanced it were, South Africans.

And so everybody was in total agreement, except there’s one person raised their hand, and it turned out she was a white South African. And she proceeded to defend apartheid. I have never forgotten — and what I say to people is, I have never been able to remember anybody else in that class. But I remember that girl because she taught me that this runaway notion where you have everybody agreeing with you is very enticing for the moment, but you don’t have to think very hard when that’s the case. It’s only when you have countervailing arguments that you get to improve on the way — your depth of understanding of any question. And so I’ve been very grateful to that incident.

And I remember saying to students, as they thought about whether or not they wanted to come to Brown, I would say to prospective students, if you’re not interested in opening your mind, and hearing from others, and getting to know others who are different, please do not come to Brown. And that’s exactly the way that I feel. Don’t bother if you are not open to learning, truly open to learning.

If you’re not, it’s an empty exercise where you come to have your identity, your values reaffirmed, and only that. So I get very emotional about this because it seems to me that the country would have been a lot better off if there had been more people earlier on in this country putting forth concerns about the direction the country was moving in.

Instead, we kept on a path that went on too long, that harmed too many people, and that sullied the history of this country, because people would not put in their path opposing views. There were some, to be sure, but not nearly enough to overcome and overtake the notion that this country was being built only for certain privileged people.

JIM CAMPBELL: We’re about to turn into pumpkins I think, and I’m not quite sure how this happens. But Zoom may simply stop. If that does, thank you, and thank you to all who’ve attended. But there’s one last question in the thread that I love to — my favorite Monty Python bit is when contestants are given 15 seconds to summarize Proust.

You mentioned how after you finished college, you went to France and had a year to study Proust and how powerful that was to you, to think about your own experience. So you have 15 seconds to summarize Proust and what it meant to you.

RUTH SIMMONS: The power of language to evoke an entire universe of feelings. I mean, classically, the experience he had with the cup of tea. And Proust was such a powerful writer, of course, and his prose was quite dense. But on the other hand, it really was uplifting because he could depict so powerfully the impact that these things had on him through the command of language.

So it was really galvanizing for me because in my leadership and in my career, I’ve focused a lot on what I say and how I say it. I focused on the power of language in support of leadership. And that still is what I think of as being one of the most important things that leaders can do.

JIM CAMPBELL: It’s also language about memory and remembering seemingly trivial, beautiful things. His madeleine cookies are your mother’s biscuits.


JIM CAMPBELL: In the book.


JIM CAMPBELL: God bless you for that, and God bless her for that.