Ruth Simmons

At the inauguration of President Valerie Smith, Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University and Smith College, congratulated President Smith. 

Members of the platform party, faculty, staff, students and guests, good afternoon. My name is Ruth Simmons, retired president of Brown University and a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University. It is an honor to be present on this felicitous occasion when the history of this great institution advances so gracefully with the installation of a president whose journey most aptly reflects the traditions of this college.

The journey upon which we launch this president is one that will have unforeseeable turns, detours, and obstacles. In addition and not insignificantly, the long shadow of racial and gender bias still lingers in society and will influence aspects of what she will experience on a day to day basis. In spite of her distinguished and unblemished career, some will expect her to prove every day and in every way her worthiness for this vaunted role. Swarthmore is to be lauded for its sensible and yet bold decision to embrace difference, a difference that by its rare inclusion at this level and in this sphere lifts, edifies, and heals. With an intellect formed in crucibles of excellence, Valerie Smith has stepped onto the presidential stage not only bearing the mantle of Swarthmore’s enviable tradition of leadership but also evincing personal and professional achievements that exemplify and amplify the best of what educational opportunity affords.

For good order and the record, permit me to summarize some of the reasons that she is a fitting leader for Swarthmore in these times. When I arrived at Princeton in 1983, I found there an assistant professor of English who seemed very much the antithesis of the professoriate at a leading Ivy League institution; she was modest in her demeanor, eschewing the tendency toward the aristocratic behavior that is all too common in higher education. The tenure ratio at Princeton being what it was, her rise through the ranks to a senior level held a kind of fairy tale allure for those of us observing her ascent. Being one of very few African American faculty at the time, she could have concluded that she was entitled to special treatment but she did not. Her commitment to inclusion was unerring, her voice on behalf of others was steady, and her commitment to excellence in all areas was undiminished by personal ambition. Indeed, in the 32 years that I have known her, her focus on ethical and constructive intelligence has been consistent. Her actions as President Smith will undoubtedly speak softly but persuasively to what it means to be a leader of caring and commitment.

This day opens a new era for this college, one of great opportunities. The opportunity to continue to align the College’s mission with the needs of today. The opportunity to raise the College’s academic sights even more. The opportunity to model the depth of inclusion so lacking in many areas of the world. The opportunity to shine a light on continuing social inequalities, the importance of increasing knowledge in the service of society, and the urgent need to ameliorate divisions among peoples.

Val, you have come to this place with a sober commitment to do well and to do good for this institution. That will not always be an easy task because the preeminence of Swarthmore will force you to endure an often harsh spotlight. I urge you to resist being drawn into the light emanating from the storms and travails of being the first African American to lead this college. Such an accident of history will mean little when, facing the end of your presidential term, you examine whether your presidency has met or exceeded the very high standards that you and others have placed upon your presidency. Continue along this path with the same deliberate gait that has always served you well; walk with pride, intellectual generosity, integrity, and a continued reverence for learning.

Val, I wish you the best and welcome you to the fellowship of current and past presidents. We stand ready to encourage and support you as you move forward.