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From Poverty To the Helm Of Smith College

First black woman to head a major college aims to maintain diversity, build community

THIS July, Ruth Simmons will trade the impressive stone architecture of Princeton University in New Jersey for the cozier surroundings of Smith College, a prestigious women's school in Northampton, Mass. But her goals as an educator won't shift at all.

Ms. Simmons, whose 20-year career in higher education has included positions of responsibility in small and large institutions, both public and private, says she at first had doubts about being considered for the Smith presidency. For one thing, she enjoys her current work as Princeton's vice provost, which immerses her in that school's academic and budgetary planning.

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For another, she wondered whether Smith would give her the kind of ''platform'' she seeks as an educator. Beyond supporting strong teaching and sound budgets, Simmons has a burning desire to ''share her story.'' But as she listened to members of the search committee from Smith tell her of that school's goals -- including an emphasis on public service and international learning -- things began to click.

The committee was guided in its search by a list of qualities it wanted in a college president, explains Joyce Moran, an attorney and Smith alumna from Chicago who chaired the group. High among those qualities was intellectual leadership, with an appreciation for teaching as well as scholarship. Out of some 350 potential candidates, ''Ruth Simmons was the one who clearly came closest'' to fitting the committee's profile, Ms. Moran says.

What confirmed the rightness of taking the top job at Smith, Simmons says, were the letters she received from inner-city kids and teachers who read news accounts of her becoming the first African-American woman chosen to head a major college or university in the United States. One ''barely legible'' note came from a girl in Massachusetts. ''Her parents had said she could achieve,'' recalls Simmons, ''but she didn't believe it until she saw the article about me.''

The drive for education

The story that inspired that girl began in the late 1940s in the east Texas town of Grapeland, where Simmons was one of 12 children in a family subsisting on sharecropping. When she was seven, the family moved to Houston's ''notoriously impoverished'' fifth ward. She endured the city's schools and a segregationist culture that dampened the aspirations of black children and entered Dillard University in New Orleans.

Simmons spent her junior year at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., on an exchange program. She won a Fulbright grant to do post-graduate work in France and later earned a PhD from Harvard University in romance languages.

Simmons says she had wonderfully supportive teachers along the way, but the basic drive to excel came from within. ''I understood, fundamentally, that although I didn't have shoes or toys or clothes my mind, and what I poured into it, equalized all that.''

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Smith's long commitment to the education of women has a particular attraction for Simmons. ''We're still in a world where women are told in many ways that they cannot achieve,'' she says. ''I can help to debunk that.''

She'd also like to debunk the idea that students from different ethnic or racial backgrounds require separate courses or facilities. She was instrumental in strengthening Princeton's Afro-American Studies program, but she did so with a determination to hold that field to the same rigorous academic standards as any other.

The key question about the study of a culture, she says, is: ''What does it teach us about ourselves?'' She criticizes the tendency to convert ethnic studies programs into ''a forum for political expression.'' If you avoid that pitfall, she adds, ''you'll find everybody in these programs, not just African-Americans.''

Another quality prized by the Smith search committee was the ability to build community. Simmons had an intense dose of community building when asked to lead a study of campus race relations at Princeton following racial tensions there in recent years. What that taught her, she says, was the value of open and civil discussion, as well as the importance of preparing incoming students for the diversity of people they'll find in college communities.

Smith has also had some racial incidents in the past. The foundation of unity on any campus, Simmons says, is ''what we always believe -- that we are a community because we value knowledge. That's our shared value. That's what we're after.''

Learning is the central purpose, she continues. ''You start getting out of whack right away when you start talking about the clubs or the fraternities or sororities you want to join.''

The financial-aid quandary

Right up there with intellectual leadership and community-building among college presidents' concerns are financial problems -- particularly the need to keep college doors open to students from middle- and low-income families. Simmons's grasp of financial-aid issues was one thing that impressed search committee members, says Erin Benedict, a senior at Smith who served on the panel.

''If we're committed to making sure students with great need can come to Smith, we'll have to be out there raising money,'' Simmons says. ''At the same time, if Congress eliminates the loan programs that make colleges accessible, then there'll be even greater difficulty.

''What I hope,'' she says, ''is that admissions can continue to be a place where you can meet certain institutional goals, like a diverse student body, but still get the best possible students.''

Simmons would like to see less emphasis on standardized test scores as a criterion for admission, and more on individuals' performances within their high school environment. ''I couldn't have gotten into Smith right out of high school,'' she muses. ''I think the system we have would have ignored someone like me and put me on the trash heap.''

Programs to aid disadvantaged students should focus on economic need alone and avoid any race qualifications, she adds. Otherwise, questions of fairness and merit quickly arise. ''I don't think affirmative-action programs would be under attack if they included poor whites,'' she observes.

Simmons says keeping the doors open for middle-income kids who may not qualify for a lot of financial aid poses the biggest dilemma for places like Smith, where the tuition is $26,000 a year.

''That's by far the greatest challenge to liberal arts colleges in the next several years. It'll be a main problem while I'm at Smith,'' she says.

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