Prairie View A&M University President Ruth J. Simmons, who previously served as president of both Brown University and Smith College, will deliver the keynote address at Princeton University’s 2021 Baccalaureate ceremony. Simmons was selected by the Committee on Honorary Degrees, which includes University trustees, faculty members and students, and approved by the Board of Trustees.
“Ruth Simmons is a visionary leader who has throughout her career demonstrated the commitments to education, civic engagement, and social responsibility that we hope our graduates will exemplify in their lives,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “She is also a wise and thoughtful counselor. I have benefited on many occasions from her insightful guidance, and I am confident that our students will do so as well.”
Baccalaureate will be held virtually this year, on the morning of Saturday, May 15. More information about other graduation events for the Class of 2021 is available on the Commencement website.
Simmons is a transformative leader in higher education. She was the first woman president of Brown and the first Black president of an Ivy League institution. Under Simmons’ leadership at Brown from 2001-12, the university made significant strides in improving its standing as one of the world’s finest research universities. As president of Smith, she launched a number of important academic initiatives, including an engineering program, the first at an American women’s college.
Emma Parish, president of the senior class, said: “I am overjoyed that Dr. Ruth Simmons will serve as the Baccalaureate speaker for the Great Class of 2021. As the president of a class government led entirely by women, I am also inspired by her leadership as the first woman president of Brown University. She is dedicated to creating change and making progress at institutions of higher learning. I look forward to hearing her wisdom and inspiration as we graduate from Princeton and begin the next chapter in our lives.”
Simmons also has served in various faculty and administrative roles at Princeton, Spelman College and the University of Southern California. While at Princeton, Simmons was associate dean of the faculty, the first director of studies at Butler College and acting director of the Program in African American Studies (now the Department of African American Studies). She is also is a former University trustee.
During the 2019 “Thrive” conference for Princeton’s Black alumni, Simmons spoke on a “Perspectives in Higher Education” panel with Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber, Class of 1983; Tuskegee University President Lily D. McNair, Class of 1979; and Cecilia Rouse, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and former dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
A native of Grapeland, Texas, Simmons earned her undergraduate degree from Dillard University and her Ph.D. in Romance languages and literatures from Harvard University. A French professor before entering university administration, she held an appointment as a professor of comparative literature and Africana studies at Brown.
Simmons is the recipient of many honors, including a Fulbright Fellowship to France, the 2001 President’s Award from the United Negro College Fund, the 2002 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, and the Foreign Policy Association Medal. She is a member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations. She serves on nonprofit boards including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In 2012, the president of France named her a “chevalier” of the French Legion of Honor.