Ruth Simmons, a sharecropper’s daughter who went on to earn a doctorate in romance languages, was named president of Brown University on Thursday, becoming the first black to lead an Ivy League school.
Simmons, the 55-year-old president of Smith College, succeeds Gordon Gee, who resigned from Brown in February to become chancellor of Vanderbilt University.
Simmons grew up poor in Texas, the youngest of 12 children. She was educated in segregated schools, earned a scholarship to Dillard University in New Orleans and graduated with highest honors in 1967, then got her doctorate from Harvard.
At a news conference Thursday, she wept as she imagined what her parents would have thought of her appointment, and recalled the first time she told her mother, a maid, she wanted to go to college.
“She said, ‘Possibly if you can get a scholarship, you can go,’ ” Simmons said. “Her mouth said, ‘If you can get a scholarship,’ but her eyes said she didn’t think it would ever happen, so it’s been very important for me to imagine my mother would have been very happy.”
In 1995, Simmons became the first black woman to lead Smith, an elite 2,500-student women’s college in Massachusetts. During her tenure, the school’s endowment nearly doubled to $900 million. She also established an engineering program, the first at a women’s school.
Brown, which has 7,000 students, has an endowment of $1.5 billion, among the smallest of the Ivy League schools. Simmons said increasing financial aid is a top priority.
“A student with ability, irrespective of economic means, just has to be able to come to Brown. That’s a moral imperative,” she said.
Brown Chancellor Stephen Robert said Simmons was chosen because of her accomplishments in recruiting minority faculty members and increasing undergraduate scholarships, and her general support for faculty and research.