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Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black university in Houston, Texas, will be the main speaker at the Winter 2021 Commencement on Dec. 19. Simmons is also recommended for an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, if approved by the Board of Regents. 

Simmons became the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution when she took the role as the 18th president of Brown University in 2001. She is also an advocate for social justice and equal opportunity in education. Simmons graduated summa cum laude from Dillard University in 1967 and was a member of the Fulbright Scholars Program. Simmons also earned a Master of Arts degree in 1970 and a Ph.D. in 1973, both from Harvard University.

When Simmons left Brown in 2012, she publicly announced that she was retiring from leading colleges. Yet five years later, she took on the job of president of Prairie View A&M in an interim president role, which later became permanent. Simmons told the Texas Tribune in 2017 that students’ “determination, their commitment to try to better themselves” convinced her to keep the job past the interim period.

Simmons worked in numerous roles at the University of Southern California and Spelman College from 1979-1991. She was also vice provost at Princeton University Simmons from 1992-1995. Simmons served as the president of Smith College from 1995 to 2000 and launched the first engineering program at an American women’s college.

During her tenure at Brown, which lasted from 2001 to 2012, Simmons created a program to expand faculty and increase financial support and resources for students. She also worked on initiatives to increase education around the school’s historic relationship to slavery, an issue that is personal to Simmons, who is the great-granddaughter of slaves. Brown was the first school in the country to make public its role in perpetuating and profiting off slavery, with a comprehensive report published in 2006.

Simmons is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society and the Council on Foreign Relations and serves on the boards of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Holdsworth Center. She is also the recipient of the United Negro College Fund President’s Award, the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, the Foreign Policy Association Medal, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and Harvard University’s Centennial Medal.

E Hill De Loney, a leader in community-based research and advocate for public health in Black communities, Cleve Moler, founder of the mathematical software company MathWorks and Kathy Anne Perkins, theater scholar and lighting designer, were also recommended for honorary degrees and will be awarded at the commencement if granted approval from the Board.

The Board will vote to approve these degrees on Dec. 9.

Daily Staffer Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu