Prairie View A&M University President Ruth Simmons discussed her groundbreaking experiences in higher education and promoting racial equity during a Berkeley Forum event Thursday.
In the wake of racially targeted attacks and the Black Lives Matter movement that shook the world to its core, Simmons decided to come out of retirement and continue her work in empowering students through higher education. She reflected on her experience growing up in the Jim Crow era and having to be taught the dangers of being a Black woman in the United States.
“Now we find we’re doing the same thing for children today. So, to me, it is urgent that we help young people deal with the issue of racism and commit to a lifelong effort to address the problem of racial bias and racial hatred in the country,” Simmons said during the event. “It was now my turn to try to do that for our students.”
Simmons’ experience growing up in a segregated United States was what fundamentally drove her to pursue a lifelong career in higher education. As a young girl, she had the opportunity to attend school and found that learning served as an escape from reality. Simmons’ teachers supported her throughout her schooling, enabling her to eventually attend Dillard University.
Because of the immense support she received from teachers throughout her time as a student, Simmons emphasized the importance of teachers as they serve an imperative role in shaping young minds and safeguarding children subject to poverty and disaster.
As president of Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black college or university, or HBCU, and the first Black president of an Ivy League institution — from when she worked at Brown University — Simmons noted the stark divide between each institution’s financial support and access to resources.
Prairie View A&M University was founded promptly after the reconstruction period intended for people of color, who she said were regarded as “not intelligent enough.” As a result, the school received inadequate support from the get-go.
“In my view, it is time for HBCUs to receive the attention that they need,” Simmons said during the event. “It is time for them to receive the support that they had not had for many many decades, and it is time for major universities to stop treating HBCUs like second-class citizens.”
Throughout her leadership at various universities, Simmons strived to demonstrate a great deal of advocacy, support and respect for her students, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic when many feel helpless.
These genuine efforts, Simmons noted, are what universities should aim to focus on more. Instead, some schools adopt cultures fused with elitism and tokenism, which stifle the potential of their students of color, she added.
“I think many universities are involved in counting. They want a nice postcard picture,” Simmons said during the event. “They want this rainbow picture to demonstrate that they are open and accepting of difference, but the question is: What’s behind that picture?”