Ruth J. Simmons, LHD; May 18, 2014
Ruth J. Simmons, the ninth president of Smith College, the 18th president of Brown University and the first African American woman to head an Ivy League institution, was the speaker at Smith’s 136th commencement, Sunday, May 18, 2014.
I am thrilled to be back at Smith, a college of inestimable importance in the world and in my life. To see so many here whom I respect and with whom I share some of the most indelible memories of my adult life is worth more to me this day than I could ever faithfully express. Thus, I must begin by thanking you, Madame President, for so warmly extending a hand to me upon your election to office.
Most of you are aware that the honor of addressing you on this important moment in your lives fell to me but one week ago. I felt it important to answer the request to stand in for the announced speaker, Madame Christine Lagarde. As we say in Texas, this is not my first time at the rodeo; I have had to fill in for prominent speakers on more than one occasion. Substitutions (or replacements) generally have more to do with availability than desirability as a speaker. I learned that when I was asked to stand in for Vice President Dick Cheney, who was unable to deliver his promised commencement address at George Washington University. Upon receiving the request, I hastened to say that I thought that would be a strikingly unusual substitution given Mr. Cheney’s past and mine, his political views and mine, but I didn’t need to say the obvious. The campus was soon abuzz with disappointment over the fact that seniors could no longer boast a commencement speaker of Vice President Cheney’s stature. But their disappointment had little effect on me, for I could not repress a sly smile at the very thought of substituting my thoughts and reflections for those of a man with whom I disagreed so vehemently on virtually every area of policy and process.
That is not the same motivation that is behind my smile today as I greet you. I am happy to be able to provide for you a few words to mark your academic success and to send you on your way, for I know more than all of you graduates what this day will mean for you in the fullness of time. I am now retired and therefore have more time to reflect on the things that have mattered most to me and also on the influences—good and bad—that shaped me as a leader.
On this day, I cannot help but think back to the day that I graduated from college. The brilliant blue sky of that day is etched on my consciousness still. The emotion of that moment was made more memorable for me because for weeks leading up to commencement, the college had said I would be unable to graduate.
What had I done to imperil my graduation? I attended a historically black college where weekly attendance at chapel was required. As a first-year student, I decided that it was unjust to require non-Christians to attend a Christian ceremony. And in that age of boycott, I decided for the sake of Jews and Muslims and students of other faith traditions, to boycott chapel. Now, as the daughter of a Baptist minister, religious sermons were no problem for me—but what about others?
This was embarrassing to a college of Christian affiliation, and the fact that I was a top student made it even more so. Further confounding the leadership of the college, there were no Jews, Muslims or any non-Christians on the campus, so they concluded that this quixotic quest was meant to embarrass the college. In my youthful ardor, the ideal of fairness meant more than a degree. More than approbation. More than the censure of my family. I did not succeed in overturning this requirement, but I took with me from this experience a lesson that strengthened my voice and my efforts to acquire a moral discernment that could be my companion through the civil rights era.
And just in case you’re worried that I didn't get an undergraduate degree: I did, in fact, graduate—after they learned that I had been awarded a Fulbright and a Danforth fellowship.
The act of becoming a person of moral discernment and deep personal conviction is essential in ameliorating injustices that rise up, in challenging institutions that oppress, and in addressing inequities that destroy human relations. The actions we take may be deemed unwise or offensive on the one hand or they may elicit a multitude of encomiums on the other. For my part, I was cast as a troublemaker in my early career and accepted the disapproval that accompanies the expression of unpopular views: unpopular views about disparate pay for women and minorities; unpopular views about sexual harassment; unpopular views about exclusionary practices in our universities. I was so thoroughly convinced that the record of my actions and statements on these and other social issues made me ineligible for a presidency that when Smith approached me about becoming president I hesitated, fearing that perhaps they had mistaken me for someone else. Just to be sure there was no misunderstanding, I asserted that I could only be one kind of president: one who must act from the experience of her own journey and in concert with her own identity and conscience.
In spite of my initial misgivings, I faced the assumption of my duties with all the courage and equanimity my experience afforded, drawing upon a reservoir of mettle that decades of discrimination had earned me. Smith had given me something that I desperately needed: an affirmation that, even in the context of my official duties, my own voice would be heard. This meant a good deal because of what I experienced early in life.
My coming of age was marred by the wide acceptance of the violent suppression of speech. Any criticism or complaint that was deemed unsuitable could result in summary violence against one’s family and against one’s person. No forums of open expression existed for me or mine 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.
Our founders began with a lofty ideal, holding certain truths to be self-evident. Little is self-evident in the public space today. Disagreement abounds on every slight and significant matter. Protecting free speech brilliantly insulates us from being silenced from our unpopular views.
I hope your voices are strong and resonant. I hope that Smith has given you—as it gave me—a platform to sharpen your ability to confront the injustices that you see, far and near. I hope your voices will become even stronger in the years ahead, as we continue to fight human trafficking; social, economic and health disparities; unjust incarceration; acts of human genocide and exploitation; and still massive civil rights violations.
One’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views. My first year after leaving Smith, I had to insist that Brown permit a speaker whose every assertion was dangerous and deeply offensive to me on a personal level. Indeed, he maintained that Blacks were better off having been enslaved. Attending his talk and hearing his perspective was personally challenging but not in the least challenging to my convictions about the absolute necessity of permitting others to hear him say these heinous things. I could have avoided the talk as his ideas were known to me, but to have done so would have been to choose personal comfort over a freedom whose value is so great to my own freedoms that hearing his unwelcome message could hardly be assessed as too great a cost.
Universities have a special obligation to protect free speech, open discourse and the value of protest. The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise. No collision avoidance technology is needed here. The noise from this discord may cause others to criticize the legitimacy of the academic enterprise, but how can knowledge advance without the questions that overturn misconceptions, push further into previously impenetrable areas of inquiry and assure us stunning breakthroughs in human knowledge? If there is anything that colleges must encourage and protect it is the persistent questioning of the status quo. Our health as a nation, our health as women, our health as an industry requires it.
It was the freedom to challenge the status quo that led me to university life when I could see no other place for myself in the country I loved. This space is so dear to me for having been a home to debate over the centuries, debates about the injustice of slavery, discrimination against women and minorities, and so many other wrongs.
Imagine then today what it must feel like to stand before you again, with all that I have come to understand about generosity and openness, freedom and limitations. Imagine how pleased I am to thank this college for not only teaching me about myself but earnestly and ethically reaching high and far to make an appointment that many would have protested. This is the kind of leadership and courage that this college represents and has represented since its earliest days. It is a college that created an environment in which women could learn to love, compete, disagree with and cooperate with each other, drawing strength from the diversity of perspectives that contribute to living out life in truthful acceptance of who one is.
For all of you who will inevitably become leaders, gird yourselves for moments of criticism, doubt and challenge. 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. Many of the same observations can be made about a college.
Most colleges rise and continue under the weight of imitation. Smith has earned the right to lead by opening up new paradigms of learning and living. From small seminars, to Praxis and engineering, to financial literacy and economic leadership by women, programs here speak to Smith’s leadership role in higher education. Like individuals, institutions lead by breaking molds that confine students to the usual and customary. Who said a women’s college couldn’t offer engineering? Never restrict yourselves to the deeply rutted furrows made by others, and never allow the criticism or skepticism of others to deter you from a constructive course.
So what am I saying?
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.
This college has afforded you a space and time for intellectual exploration. Protect that right for Smith students in the future, when Smith comes under fire by those who would have the college be a place of quiet repose. Fight for the jangling discord of learning at its best.
I am an admirer of Christine Lagarde. I hope you will invite her to be a part of this discord in the future and that she will accept your invitation.
Whatever you do when you leave this place, do it in the full spirit of who you are and what you care about. Be open-minded, fight for those who haven’t the means to protect themselves, work to preserve the spirit of this college as a place for the free exchange of ideas—however much those ideas elicit discomfort, challenge and debate. Be kind and forgiving to those you love and who love you, and, most of all, take good care of your voice.