By Keisha Bell
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” was a slogan made famous by the United Negro College Fund and was coined in 1971. Do you believe it?
Meet Ruth Stubblefield Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University. Born July 3, 1945, she is the youngest of 12. She is the descendant of slaves from Gabon through her father’s lineage and of indigenous people of the Caribbean who were enslaved by the Spaniards on her mother’s side.
In 1967, a time of great civil unrest, Simmons earned her bachelor’s degree from Dillard University. Not done, Simmons continued her education at Harvard University. There, she earned her a master and doctorate degrees in Romance literature in 1970 and 1973, respectively.
Simmons loves learning and believes in its power for others. After graduating from Harvard, her professional endeavors led her to early academic positions in Louisiana, California, New Jersey and Georgia. Overcoming many stereotypes and barriers, she climbed the academic ladder.
In 1995, Simmons left her vice provost position at Princeton University and made history by becoming the first African-American woman to lead a major college or university when she became president of Smith College. There, she started the first engineering program in a United States’ woman’s college.
Simmons continued to make history. In Nov. 2000, she was selected as the 18th president of Brown University. With this election, she became its first female president, as well as the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution.
In 2001, Time magazine named Simmons as “America’s Best College President.” In 2002, Newsweek named her as a “Ms. Woman of the Year.” Take a moment to think about it. Only a few generations before her were her direct ancestors who were enslaved. Yet, there she was, as she continues to be, working to free the minds of so many.
Proving that you are never too old to make an impact, at the age of 72, Simmons made history again. Having retired from Brown University in 2012, she returned to her home state of Texas and five years later agreed to become the interim president of Prairie View A&M University. By the end of that year, she was named the school’s eighth president and its first woman to serve in that role.
Simmons understands the value of the mind. Many are rewarded for following the leader, but someone has to lead. Think about it. A mind, it truly is a terrible thing to waste.
Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant. www.emergingfree.com