Ruth Simmons, one of the most respected voices in higher education and a trailblazer for African Americans and women, has decided to step down as President of Prairie View A&M University after nearly five years.
The 76-year-old leader, who was lured out of retirement in 2017 to help turn around the Historically Black College and University northwest of Houston, said a number of factors weighed on her as she made the decision, though she did not specify one specific reason. She promised to remain on in some capacity, giving “a 100% commitment” to help the university as it continues its comeback.
“While I will step down from the presidency, my work for Prairie View A&M will not cease,” said Simmons. “Many supporters from around the country have initiated programs and offered support to the university, and I must assure them not only of my unwavering gratitude but also of my continued dedication to fulfilling the promises made to them when they elected to partner with and support the university.”
The university has not yet set a timetable for her replacement, although Simmons said she would stay on as long as Texas A&M University system Chancellor John Sharp wants her to stay on. Simmons said he would be releasing more information soon on the process for finding a successor. As for her decision to relinquish the post, Simmons pointed to the sheer amount of tribulations that her institution and so many others have faced over the past two years, issues that have driven so much change at the top of colleges and universities.
“When I took on this challenge, I did not know that the country would experience social and political upheaval unlike any I had seen in my previous leadership roles,” she said. “I did not know that a historic flood would affect the community so grievously. I did not anticipate a pandemic that would upend the way we work and experience the educational environment. I did not imagine that I would feel so grateful to be able to lead PV through this series of challenges and that PV would emerge stronger after such a perilous period, gaining in resources and reputation.”
That includes what she said have been improvements in three key strategic areas: its boost in the number of faculty; continued scholarships and aid for students; and the building of its financial position and endowment, which got a $50 million boost during the pandemic from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Still, she believes the university has unfinished business that the next president – with Simmons’ help – can overcome. “While we have not made anywhere near the progress I had hoped for, there have nevertheless been quite substantial gains in all of these categories,” she said. “Prairie View A&M is nowhere near what it could ultimately achieve as an institution of the first class. Our students deserve more, and we must provide it for them. As we undergo our strategic planning, it is evident to me that a new leader must assume responsibility for advancing the university to a new level of excellence in student outcomes, faculty achievement and research output.”
Over the past three decades, aside from a five-year retirement starting in 2012, Simmons has held three president roles. She was the first-ever African American leader at Smith College and at Brown University, where she also became the first to hold the position at an Ivy League school. She took a historic journey to the top of higher ed, rising from a humble beginning as the daughter of sharecroppers in Texas to attend Dillard University and then getting both a master’s and doctorate from Harvard University. She rose up the ranks at several other institutions – serving in capacities from faculty member to provost – at the University of New Orleans, California State University-Northridge, the University of Southern California, Princeton University and Spelman College before landing at Brown.
Simmons was brought on in an interim role to lead Prairie View after George Carlton Wright stepped down. She has been a driving force behind numerous initiatives, including fundraising campaign boosts, new academic programming and reorganization efforts. “In five years, she has transformed the university and set it on a path to success, and I am thankful for her time as president,” Sharp said. “I know the faculty and the students, in particular, will miss her day-to-day inspirational leadership. I have no intention of allowing Ruth to leave the service of Prairie View, and we will work hard to keep her here at a higher capacity. I am so very thankful for her service and friendship.”
Simmons, in turn, expressed her gratitude to those who helped make her five years strong.
“I am grateful to our students for their resilience and ambition; grateful to the faculty and staff for their resourcefulness and dedication; grateful to our alumni and many supporters who came forward to help us address the challenges we faced; and grateful to Chancellor Sharp, the Board of Regents and the A&M System for their unstinting efforts on behalf of Prairie View A&M,” she said.