Higher education leader Ruth J. Simmons will deliver the school’s 2023 Convocation address on May 24, the Harvard Graduate School of Education announced in a press release last month.
Simmons, the president of Prairie View A&M University and president emerita of Brown University and Smith College, became the first Black president of an Ivy League university when she was appointed to lead Brown in 2001.
“My own path was shaped by exceptional educators who helped me envision a life of achievement that most thought at the time an improbable quest,” Simmons said in the press release. “It is an honor to be invited to address those who inspire us to embrace the ideal of a future that is better than the present. Such visionaries are urgently needed today.”
Beginning June 1, Simmons will serve as senior adviser to the president of Harvard University on partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, taking on the role for the last month of University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s tenure and continuing into President-elect Claudine Gay’s term.
Her appointment is intended to support one of the primary recommendations made by the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery in its landmark report on the University’s historic ties to slavery — which called on Harvard to strengthen its relationships with HBCUs.
“I have no doubt that Dr. Simmons’ passion and unwavering commitment will resonate deeply for our graduating students and their families,” HGSE Dean Bridget Terry Long said in the press release.
In 2003, Simmons launched an investigation into the legacy of slavery at Brown, making the university one of the first higher education institutions in the country to publish findings on its connections to slavery. On March 30, the Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice was renamed in honor of Simmons.
In October 2018, Simmons testified in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case on the use of race-based affirmative action in admissions.
“It’s very hard for me to overstate my conviction about the benefits that flow from all of these areas to a diverse undergraduate student body. I know something about a lack of diversity in one’s education,” Simmons said in her testimony.
Simmons delivered the University’s 2021 Commencement address, telling students to “be a force for inclusion” and counter discrimination as they go out into the world.
“I’m ashamed to say that in my youth I secretly bought into the prevailing racial assumptions of the day — that someone like me would be ill-prepared to benefit and contribute to study at a university of Harvard’s stature,” Simmons told Harvard’s Class of 2021.
“None of us, none, is exempt from responsibility from the future we give our children. Harvard has its role and so do all of you,” Simmons said in her address. “I’ve come to ask you who graduate today what you are prepared to do to acknowledge and address the historic biases and inequities that so many continue to experience.”
“Today, you earn your laurels as a scholar, but taking up the cause of justice, you will earn your laurels as a human being,” she added.