Noting that “the collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise,” Ruth J. Simmons, pioneering former president of Smith College and Brown University, challenged the Smith College Class of 2014 to “gird yourselves for moments of criticism, doubt and challenge.” She advised the graduates to “take good care of your voice” and to “take the time to discover who you are in the fullness of your intellect, identity and abilities because you will need to stand your ground effectively to be credible leaders.”
Observing that she was “thrilled to be back at Smith,” Simmons acknowledged early in her speech that she was called upon to step in for International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, who withdrew as commencement speaker in the wake of objections from some students and faculty. Simmons, the first African American president of Smith and the first African American woman to head an Ivy League institution, talked about her own journey as an activist undergraduate at a historically black college and how her experience as a self-described troublemaker in her early career shaped her views about the importance of freedom of speech.
“My coming of age was marred by the wide acceptance of the violent suppression of speech,” she said. “No forums of open expression existed for me in the Jim Crow south of my early youth. Once you have tasted the bitterness and brutality of being silenced in this way, it is easy to recognize the danger of undermining free speech.”
Exhorting students to “fight for the jangling discord of learning at its best,” Simmons expressed her hopes that Lagarde would have an opportunity to speak at Smith.
“I am an admirer of Christine Lagarde,” she said. “I hope you will invite her to be part of this discourse in the future and that she will accept this invitation.”
Simmons closed her address with three requests to the graduates.
“Be proud of the tradition of protest in our nation’s colleges and universities. That tradition has changed our country and the world for the better.
“Don’t complain when the statement of your views leads others to disagree. Implicit in the affirmation of your right to voice your views is your obligation to protect the rights of others to their views.
“Don’t shut the door to new knowledge and greater discernment by closing your eyes and ears and hearts and minds to what others have to offer.”
Smith President Kathleen McCartney expressed gratitude to Simmons for a moving speech that spoke to values important to the college and to higher education: open discourse, the right to protest and the importance of being exposed to diverse views.
Born in Grapeland, Texas, Simmons earned her bachelor’s degree from Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1967. She went on to earn her master’s and doctorate in Romance literature from Harvard University in 1970 and 1973, respectively. She served as the ninth president of Smith and the 18th president of Brown. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Philosophical Society and the Council on Foreign Relations. Active in a wide range of educational, charitable and civic endeavors, she holds honorary degrees from numerous colleges and universities.
Honorary degrees were awarded at the commencement ceremony to Simmons; activist and organizer Ela Bhatt; illustrator and author Eric Carle; former US Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt; and scientist and philosopher Evelyn Fox Keller. Bachelors’ degrees were awarded to 672 undergraduate students; 55 graduate students received advanced degrees.