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Ruth Simmons: Women in Education
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Simmons, Ruth [interviewee] ; Greene, Andrea [interviewer]. Ruth Simmons: Women in Education. November 17, 1995. Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. University of Houston Digital Library. Web. April 19, 2014. http://digital.lib.uh.edu/collection/living/item/23.

Disclaimer: This is a general citation for reference purposes. Please consult the most recent edition of your style manual for the proper formatting of the type of source you are citing. If the date given in the citation does not match the date on the digital item, use the more accurate date below the digital item.

Simmons, Ruth [interviewee] ; Greene, Andrea [interviewer]. (November 17, 1995). Ruth Simmons: Women in Education. University of Houston Women’s Studies Living Archives Recordings. Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. Retrieved from http://digital.lib.uh.edu/collection/living/item/23

Disclaimer: This is a general citation for reference purposes. Please consult the most recent edition of your style manual for the proper formatting of the type of source you are citing. If the date given in the citation does not match the date on the digital item, use the more accurate date below the digital item.

Simmons, Ruth [interviewee] ; Greene, Andrea [interviewer], Ruth Simmons: Women in Education, November 17, 1995, University of Houston Women’s Studies Living Archives Recordings, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries, accessed April 19, 2014, http://digital.lib.uh.edu/collection/living/item/23.

Disclaimer: This is a general citation for reference purposes. Please consult the most recent edition of your style manual for the proper formatting of the type of source you are citing. If the date given in the citation does not match the date on the digital item, use the more accurate date below the digital item.

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Title Ruth Simmons: Women in Education
Creator (LCNAF)
  • Simmons, Ruth [interviewee]
  • Greene, Andrea [interviewer]
Date November 17, 1995
Description An interview with Ruth Simmons, a professor and the first African American woman to hold the title of president at a major college/university. She talks about various aspects of her life such as how she believes she earned her personal set of values, growing up in a strict family, and being introduced to stories and literature. She goes on to talk about the beginnings of her career in college, her challenges with being a female African American, and her opinions about the current societal issues versus the ones she grew up with.
Subject.Topical (LCSH)
  • Women--Texas
  • Women and education
  • African Americans
Subject.Name (LCNAF)
  • Simmons, Ruth, 1945-
  • Greene, Andrea
Subject.Geographic (TGN)
  • Houston, Texas
Genre (AAT)
  • interviews
Original Item Location http://library.uh.edu/record=b4555844~S11
Repository Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
Use and Reproduction Educational use only, no other permissions given. Copyright to this resource is held by the content creator, author, artist or other entity, and is provided here for educational purposes only. It may not be reproduced or distributed in any format without written permission of the copyright owner. For more information please see the UH Digital Library Fair Use policy on the “About” page of this website.
File name 2011_17_002.m4v
Access File Run Time 01:27:33
Transcript Living Archives Transcript Dr. Ruth Simmons interviewed by Andrea Greene Hilton Hotel, Houston, Texas November 17, 1995 {Cannot hear the introduction portion of the session} AG: You were born in Grapeland, TX in the 40's. Can you describe your sense of East Texas as a little girl during that time. RS: First of all my sense of Grapeland as a small child was that it was a pretty big impressive place, people will be surprised to hear that today because it was of course a very small place and my childhood there was wonderful growing up in a relatively calm time. Times were pretty hard for my family, but still as children we had a lot of freedom, freedom to go about neighborhoods in Grapeland, playing freely, forging for all kinds of wild berries and fruits and taking advantage of nature surrounding the area; it's quite a beautiful area, East Texas is and I think I'm very partial to the kind of terrain that you find there, wonderful pine trees, hills, very scenic actually not at all like some of the flatter areas of Texas, so I love it there and I get back every chance I can. I think my overall recollection of it is a happy time, full of good memories for me as a small child. I remember the first experiences I had with education there. In fact I was so thrilled last night because I had a chance to see my very first teacher who was here in Houston at dinner. My first teacher in Grapeland and she had such a defining influence on me at that I always remember her as somehow symbolic of wonderful teaching, the capacity to draw young people into learning. I associate all those good begining experiences with my time in Grapeland. AG: What sort of influences did you have, female influences did you have in that setting and do you think that women play different roles in rural and urban settings? RS: I haven’t had a chance to think about that actually, give me a moment. I guess I would say that for the most part in the rural south at the time especially for farmers, the roles were not all that different, I mean women worked along side men in the fields, of course they had household duties, but they did a lot of the same things. It was hard labor and though I didn’t experience that very much, my father and mother did and my older sisters and brothers did. In terms of strong images of women, I was privileged to have older sisters and of course my mother who was an extraordinary woman. After whom I like to think I modeled my life. She was fundamentally someone who took care of the home she had twelve children to rear. She was a very devoted wife, she was a paragon of virtue, I know everybody thinks of their mother that way but she really was a paragon of virtue. She was a self sacrificing person who loved her children. I know that one of her goals in life, one of the few that I can remember hearing her state was that she wanted to live long enough to rear her children, so that was a kind of model that I had growing up and from my older sisters, one of whom is in the audience here today, I learned to survive in a household full of men and they were very able to sustain themselves because when my older sisters came along the family was all boys so they were all, virtually all of the older kids were boys. AG: What’s the ratio of boys to girls? RS: Seven boys and five girls, but the last three in my family were girls so the two older sister, you know obviously had all of the boys to contend with until the last three of us came along and so they had to really, they had to be very tenacious as I say and there was in those days a very distinct difference between what was allowable for men, what was allowable for women. Texas, I think in general the rural areas of this country tended to be fairly conservative in terms of what girls could do and naturally the girls in my family were very limited in what they could do, boys had a lot of freedom naturally, but not the girls so it was very uh, I think we were pretty competitive with the boys, it was a very close family but we compeated,unquestionably. AG: That had to be a good training ground for anyone. RS: It did and I think we are pretty competitive even today, for example sometimes we find ourselves as girls in the family worrying about wether the boys are trying to tell us what to do, of which they are still trying to do by the way. AG: When you were seven years old you moved to Houston, how did the city appear to you at that time and how did life in Houston differ for you from Grapeland? RS: Well you know you can image if I thought Grapeland was a big city, when I got to Houston I was in shock. I think that everything was so much bigger and so much more varied, so much more daunting in a way. When I came to Houston, because I was only seven years old. Nevertheless, we settled in an area of fifth ward on Lee street and my life was very circumscribed because I had this very limited acreage that I had to manage as a child, so that made it a little more, uh, a little less difficult to adjust but I have to say that going into a large school, where there were so many more children that it was a little terrifying at first. I had a sense of recall of children mocking us because of the way we looked, the kind of clothes that we wore. We were probably country bumpkins and so that had a bit of an effect on me, I think, I recall that very vividly but I think I moved beyond that fairly quickly in my school years and started to concentrate on things that I liked to do, so it didn’t worry me for very long but the initial shock I think was still enough for me to recall today as a kind of painful experience. AG: As you matured and went into high school and approached young adulthood can you describe the period and what your concerns where during that time and do you think that those are the same kinds of concerns and issues that young people deal with today? RS: Well, having observed my own children, I think they’re roughly the same except the challenges are probably greater for children today, that is to say when I was an adolescent growing up, I mean I was doing the same things that kids today are doing. I was trying to sort out how my peers were going to view me. I was trying to do things to impress them because I wanted to be liked, I wanted to have friends, you know I wanted to be glamorous, I wanted to be all the things that a girl today at that age growing up wants to be. I was however, part of a family that was extremely strict and rigid so there wasn’t much I could do. We were so circumscribed in what we could do by my parents and I am sure that is one of the reasons that we did well because we had all those aspirations as adolescence do but we couldn’t do anything and so our day was sort of locked up. We didn’t have the freedom as kids do today to wonder off to a movie, for example or to get in a car and go some place. We were supervised all the time and if we weren’t supervised by our parents we were supervised by a sibling or by people in the community because the worst thing in the world in my community, in Fifth Ward when I was growing up is for somebody else to see you doing something inappropriate and then tell. I always think my parents were, I couldn’t understand it because they always seemed to be much angrier when you know a neighbor saw something or when my aunt saw something because I think part of it was the embarrassment they felt. So you had to walk the straight and narrow all the time because people were observing you constantly. AG: I guess it would be good for us to have a little more that today. RS: Well I tried to bring that forward into this era with my children and they weren't to happy about it. AG: Did you discuss politics and current events in your home growing up? RS: No AG: Did your parents talk to you about your future and what they expected of you? RS: They did something different in those days. It’s hard for me to convey what it was like and what the value of it was, but here is what they did. My parents talked about the past and about their contemporaries and they talked about all of that in a way for us to understand about life’s lessons and so we’d here about a Mr. So-n-So and how his arrogance had brought him low or we would here about Ms. So-n-So who thought she was better than anybody else and how that had been turned around by misfortune and we’d here about people who didn’t follow through on things and what had happened. So that ‘s the kind of discussion that took place around the table at my house, about things past and it was very much in the oral tradition. I come from a family with a very strong story telling tradition, my father was absolutely masterful at that. He tended to tell stories that were either scary or very funny. My mother told stories that were mystical, lyrical , uh really enchanting stories. Often they involved ghosts or they involved someone from the past who had been involved in some great tragedy or someone that had done something in life that was memorable and again I think that my mother’s stories tended to instruct us about life and I recall those thing. I don’t recall the stories as much as I recall the kinds of ideas and values that she was trying to inculcate and of course I didn’t know what was going on because what children would do in those days is, the elders would be seated around, usually my mother and her aunts and my mother and my aunt. She was very close to here sisters or my mother and my father’s aunts or sisters and they would sit around and we were allowed to be present but we could never speak and so we could sit at their feet and hear the stories and be instructed by their stories of life, that was really the kind of lesson, those were the kind of things that we learned in our family. AG: Do you think that they were making a conscience effort to impart values to you? RS: They must have been because I think they had learned it from their elders in exactly the same way and of course in the African-American tradition all of this comes down from our, this is our legacy from our ancestors and I think that, that’s the way they learned it because I have heard stories that were told to me by my mother that were stories that came from her mother for example and now my sisters are able to tell stories from my mother that still came from her mother and probably her mother took those stories from her mother, so I think there is a lot of that and certainly they understood, uh that’s probably the reason they allowed us to sit there and that we had to be quiet because we didn’t have television and we didn’t have VH1 or BET or MTV, this was the biggest entertainment for us in town, was to sit at the feet of these people who had lived life and who knew all about these wonderful experiences and so the characters they told about are like the characters of the children today watch on television. They were fully developed characters with frailties, they could describe them in great detail so we got the visual impact, we got the moral of the story, so it was a different kind of instruction but it was very powerful. AG: So in their conversations, they were very cognicent of the fact that children were sitting at their feet and you where very aware that you were listening to stories that had been told in your family, new stories and old stories. Did that give you at some point were you directly influenced by that in turning to literature or getting an interest in literature or becoming interested in literature? RS: I think it must have had something to do with that. I think it must have had something to do with the vent of people in my family toward the arts. I have a sister, the sister next to me, one of twins who for example writes beautifully. I think that inevitably if you tell tales and you construct it, everybody knows in great literature there are certain basic elements in literature. First of all, it must teach, secondly it’s always a story that is wonderfully told. Third it has characters in it that suffer great challenges and either overcome those challenges or are vanquished by them and so all of that is a part of literature. The same elements were apart of the storytelling that I was subjected to, so I think that inevitably that must have had a big impact on why I was drawn to literature as a student. AG: You had eleven brothers and sisters, what was your place in family? RS: Last, they picked on me relentlessly. AG: Did that mean that there was more expectations on you or were you the baby? RS: I was spoiled. AG: And yet you did very well in school. Did all your brothers and sisters do well in school? RS: First of all my family is divided into, roughly two generations let’s call it that. The older children grew up in Grapeland as a part of sharecropper system which meant that they were subjected to that. They had to stop out of school during certain seasons of farming and that meant, you know, I was just reading this again last night in something that was brought to me yesterday by the editors of the Grapeland Messenger, about a story of the sharecropping. For example, in farming in Grapeland at that time, so you might have to stop out of school for many months of the year. So their schooling tended to be pretty erratic, so when they were there they worked hard and they were very bright but they were often not in school that was the pernicious system of sharecropping. So, for the younger children who therefore spent much of their time, their school year in Houston. They were able because we left the farming system to really go through school. So that’s the way our family sort of divides up. AG: About a month or so ago I wrote an editorial after your appointment to Smith and talked about role models and in researching that editorial I saw that you had a teacher who took clothes out of her closet to give to you to go to school. What sort of support system did you have for going off to college? That’s a big deal for a lot of families, even today. I imagine with so many children, not having a lot of resources. RS: It was a pretty big event. I think that by the time I went, I was the last one to leave home, so in that sense all my brothers and sisters basically, most of them were away, married with families of their own so basically the younger children where at home. The three of us, myself and my twin sisters. My mother had died when I was sixteen, almost sixteen. So there was my father and then my three sisters left at home. So, my father was not well off and so we really didn’t have very many resources as a family and I knew that when I went to college that the only way I could go to college was if I both got a scholarship and if I found other means to really get the basic funds to be able to get started in college so I got a Worthing Scholarship when I graduated from Wheatley. That was supplemented by a scholarship from Dillard and then as I was preparing to go off to college I think my teacher certainly had a sense of my family's limitations. It wasn’t hard to see that you know, when I was in school because I was wearing the same clothes often, several times a week. So it was clear that my family didn’t have any money and everybody knew that so I think what my teachers tried to do because they were aware of our limited means, is to help me as I graduated from high school, because I think they thought that it was wonderful that I was able to go college in the first place, given my economic circumstances and they didn’t ever ask me in a way to embarrass me, well do you need anything, they wouldn’t do that. So they would do things like what this other teacher did, so she just asked me to come over. When I was in high school one of the things I did to make money was to sometimes clean houses and I think my teachers had me do this because they thought I might need money. So in a few instances they would ask me if I wanted to come over help and them clean and I would do that and I would make a little money. Well one day, this particular teacher, her name was Mrs. Farnsworth and she was a English teacher at Wheatley, she asked me to come over to her house and I thought well I'll go over and earn some money cleaning but that’s what it turned out to be was an effort on her part to really find some clothing for me and she was a women who was quite well off actually. She had a closet that looks like, looked to me at the time like Kathleen Battle’s closet. I mean she had a lot of clothes and so that is what she did. She went into here closet and she said , I’m going to find some things for you to help you get started with your clothing for college and that’s what she did. She went through her closet, she pulled things out that fit me and that were beautiful clothes and yes that’s the way I got a lot of clothes to go off to college. AG: Once you did go to college, what was going on, on college campuses at that time? Can you put us in the context of the times? RS: Well, I’d like to say something glorious like things were in turmoil and people where politically active and all of that but that wasn’t the case. When I went off to Dillard I was pretty arrogant at that age and a very serious person and I thought I didn’t have much tolerance for frivolous things and when I went off to college, it was a great shock to me to discover that a lot of kids my age partied and that is all they did and naturally I didn’t know this because I had such a strict upbringing. First, of all I had never been to a bar or anything like that, so when I got to Dillard, which is in New Orleans of all places, the party town to end all party towns. What happened was that all of these students who had come to college now were in this wonderful town and they could just go to Bourbon Street and go to bars and they could party constantly. So that’s what kids were doing for the most part including my own roommate, when I was a first year student. So it was a big shock for me, I didn’t adjust well to it because I didn’t know where I fit in that. I turned to my studies basically to survive that and I worked, I became involved in a number of things on campus that kept my interest. One of which was the theater department. So that kept me going for awhile but it was not a particularly good fit for me my first year at Dillard because I just was not a partier frankly, and a lot of students were. The political movement going on around the country at the time, particularly civil rights was not very strong on my campus, but I became involved in that because I wanted to activate student interest on these subjects. So I took over the editorship of the campus newspaper and I wrote the most fiery editorials in fact, I saw one of the newspapers that I edited recently and I read it and I couldn’t believe I wrote that stuff it was so outrageous, but it was fun and I think that probably that activism on campus and a campus that was not heavily involved was a defining aspect of my college years. I think it really allowed me to become involved politically and to see that as an enduring aspect of my life just because I was appalled by the apathy that I saw around me. AG: How does the situation that your children grew up in differ from your own and what did you bring from your childhood experiences to theirs? RS: Since I had moved from a much lower socio-economic class into the middle class, my children’s lives have been very different from mine and that’s not all good. They think its pretty good but I’m not sure that it is. When I grew up in a time when there were all kinds of adversity, there was segregation, there was racism, racism totally unabated totally unaddressed basically. I grew up during that time and I had to learn to manage within that context and with those extraordinary constraints and that was only Jim Crow and segregation. There was also the fact that we were so poor and I had to grow up within that constraint. I think, I don’t want to recommend that to everybody as a way to mature but I do think that those of us who grew up at that time learned an extraordinary lesson about how to survive. I think my children have the vaguest idea how to survive because they have never know adversity and that part of every Americans experience who moves up through the social ranks, is that you expose your children to all the things that you never had and you insulate them from the obstacles that really are useful to them in giving shape and definition to their lives, so I would say that I have tried to instill in my children a sense of responsibility for being in this world. A sense of caring about people and their fate and I’m not sure that’s very meaningful to them because it’s all academic to them. AG: I can imagine that a couple of the concerns you might have had were that, one, life was to easy for them and that they wouldn’t get the benefit of some of the experiences that you had that built character. The other thing is that you grew up so surrounded by family and I don’t know, did your children get the same, and I know you have a lot of brothers and sisters. RS: Well we did not live in Houston, so it was a little bit different but I did make a conscience effort to bring them to Houston often for that reason and I think they have developed a strong relationship to my family here in Houston, nevertheless, growing up away it’s still very different. They don’t have the extended family, the sense of extended family that I did when I was growing up. So that’s a real loss. I think in general that’s a loss in this country and around the world because so many people are displaced from their native environments and don’t have the advantage of what I had, which was wherever I stepped when I was growing up there was somebody there who knew me and who could keep me in line. I think I was very strict in rearing my children because I was trying to impose an order that I had because of this extended family and I imposed it by essentially trying to be pretty strict. I’ll never forget once my son declared to me that I was the strictest parent on the face of the earth and thinking that I would be very upset by that characterization but I was very proud of that, I felt ok, I must be doing something right. AG: You took it as a complement. RS: Yes, I did take that as a complement. AG: You mentioned growing up in Houston with racism, segregation, Jim Crow. Houston’s obviously made a lot of progress since that time. Do you see that we have made as much progress as we should have and where do you think that Houston is as far as being a racist city or segregated city and what sort of opportunities do you think there are for blacks here and for black women to obtain political power and other positions of power in the city? RS: Well of course for me when I returned to Houston I can’t believe the changes that have occurred because, when you leave your home town when your young its always frozen in that era for you and so I remember the times when I couldn’t come to the University of Houston or when I couldn’t eat at restaurants, when I couldn’t go to theaters and so on, and that’s the time I remember in Houston. So it’s always a little bit odd for me to be here and to see African Americans and Hispanics involved in government. Serving as judges, serving on the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle, that’s all very different for me and its always a bit of a shock, as I imagined Houston or the Houston of my youth. Moreover, I think that there has been a drastic change, clearly in Houston but I think that change has come rapidly, I think its not come necessarily with the kind of order that one needs or expects and I think there’s still a lot of confusion about how one ought to manage, like cross culturally in this city, because I hear a lot of that kind of debate. I hear about incidents still that involve law enforcement, so there is some enduring things, although African Americans and others have been recognized for their ability and have been able to get into positions of influence. There’s still some enduring issues related to race and I think that I am so impressed with the degree to which people in Houston are dealing with those, it’s so far ahead of what’s taking place in the North East, for example, where things, what ever we say are still highly regimented along ethnic lines. I live in a community where there are many different ethnic groups and the degree of segregation of those groups is extraordinary to behold. What everyone sees in terms of the work environment, we know that socially segregation still reins. I would suspect that it’s probably true to some extent in Houston as well, because people still live in segregated neighborhoods and they define their lives in a segregated way and I’m fascinated by this because as I go about the country and I go into work environments, I see a multi-culture environment but as soon as the social scene emerges then you see where the segregation is, so we are still living very segregated lives. We’ve made a compromise in this country to try to manage for purposes, for the work environment but after that we all go back to our same lives and to the bigotry that we are comfortable with and the segregation that we are comfortable with and I think that has enduring consequences for children because they see that side of it and we continue to ask, well how can it be that today on college campuses students are segregating themselves, when in fact this country has been desegregated for so long, it’s not so the country isn’t desegregated, its desegregated for purposes of employment but socially where kids are formed in the home it’s still highly segregated and their taking those views with them. So, I think it’s not until we begin to deal with those problems at that level that we really begin to see some changes in the way we interact. My guess is, that’s the kind of problem that exists here in Houston as well. AG: I’m an optimist and I personally feel like we’ve made a beginning with each generation, I hope it will be better. I’m curious though, if there’s a difference. I went to the University of Texas, large public institution and the campus was segregated. The lunch, dining facilities were segregated, we segregated ourselves to some degree. Do you have the same situation on all girl campuses or are the girls more willing to socialize interracially? RS: Actually, I think that people have said on the Smith campus, in past years that there have been problems, but for me coming from places like Princeton, I find it to be much better in a single sex environment and much better for the following reasons. Most of the women who come to Smith for example, come highly committed to diversity. They’ve built it into their life goals, so they tend to be working hard at it, every single one of them. I would doubt very seriously if there is any woman who comes to Smith aspiring to be a bigot, I don’t think so. There are many however, who select college campus around the country where they believe they can sort of push through those ideas comfortably, but even with the high aspirations that our students have in terms of race relations and understanding, its still tough and one of the things that distressed me most about the way that we talk about race and race relations in this country, is that we have such a disgustingly simplistic notion of how it ought to be. It shouldn’t be easy for us, we ought to have to work at it, we ought to have to take courses on how to get along with different people. We ought to have to put the same energy and effort into constructing a good race relation as we put into anything else. So you have people who are perfectly willing to devote a course to learning to use a computer but they are not willing to devote that time to understanding different people, so my concerns as an educator is that we try to deal with that issue and help people understand that yes, when they come, even when they come with good intentions its not going to be easy to get along with other people. We have to work at it. The second thing I’d say is that on a campus like Smith we live in very intimate environments and so there’s considerably more pressure for students of different races and different ethnic backgrounds to get along because our housing system is smaller. We have many houses in smaller environments, that’s one of the things that defines life at our college. So it’s a little bit harder to escape working out those differences at Smith because you are in a smaller environment. AG: I think that maybe some of those girls get an exposure for the first time to each other. RS: Absolutely, I’ve laughed about this because one of the things that I keep trying to remember is that when Smith students come into my house it’s the first time for most of them that they are ever entering the home of an African American person. First time and the students are very curious about my house. They want to get in it, they want to see what’s in there. I often wonder, what is it they expect to find but they want to and they do things like sometimes, they actually ring the door bell very casually and I go to the door and they are there and they’ve just stopped to say hi and I ask well do you want to come in and they say yes they want to come in, so they do that all the time. They're peaking around trying to see, I think they believe there’s some kind of exotic thing going on in that house and its wonderful to have them come and look around because what they see is a normal house that looks the same pretty much as when the former president lived there, except for one important thing and that is all of the images of my people are there and there are pictures of African Americans in the house and there’s art work that derives from my heritage and I think they find that very, probably very shocking when they see that, but I think that’s good for them to be aware that everybodys life is not defined in the same way and that even though I can be president of Smith, where it’s students are predominantly white, which has a very much a white tradition, even though I can be president of Smith and love them as students and lead them, I can also be myself, which is something different from them. So I think that’s the kind of lesson that I try to teach students at Smith and I think it’s a very important one actually, it maybe as important as anything else that I do as president of Smith. AG: What are the big indicators of how much in the forefront race relations are in this country? Is all the emphasis that’s been placed on affirmative action and all the debate that’s swarming around the question of affirmative action, black conservatives have argued as one of the reasons that affirmative action ought to be done away with is that it makes it difficult for blacks to be recognized for their meritorious achievement. What do you think about that as an argument RS: I think that's rubbish. AG: and do women have special concerns in the affirmative action debate? RS: First of all, I’m one of those people who remembers life before affirmative action. It intrigues me that people blame affirmative action for stereotyping, for negative images of African Americans and women and others. I’m appalled that people even try to get away with that argument because there’s still people alive in this country who know what it was like pre-affirmative action and it was ten times worst. So that’s the rubbish, that’s what the rubbish comment is about. Affirmative action in the next century will no doubt be called something different, but there will still be a need for it because we are not yet prepared in this country to recognize people for what they offer. I have been working in the area of employing people for many years and I see discrimination all the time. It is alive and well and one of the things that affirmative action does for us is, it really tries to keep us honest. I have a friend who was a very distinguished professor at Yale University who told me the following, he said you know, it’s really horrible this affirmative action because before affirmative action when I was at Yale it was wonderful because when we had a position open up all we had to do was call our friend at Harvard or Princeton and ask them who was the best young man coming out and they would send us somebody and that was the end of it, and now we actually have to advertise and go through that process, and I think that’s what affirmative action has done for this country. To such an extent that those who benefited most form the affirmative action procedures have probably been white males because all those guys who came along without those contacts, without wealth and so on, have had the benefit of having jobs actually advertised and not jobs passed along through favoritism from one generation to the next and I must say, I dare say they owe affirmative action a vote of thanks for their success and I deeply resent their ignoring the impact that affirmative action, the positive impact that affirmative action has had on this country. With regard to women, let me just say this, I hope that everybody is familiar with the glass ceiling report. I hope that everybody is aware that women are still making only 70% of what men make and in this world in which women earn substantially less than men, who’s going to pay attention to that without affirmative action, in who’s interest is it to compare salary data, to see if women are being paid fair, who cares about that, at the same time that people want to get rid of affirmation action. I think people are looking for ways of moving people out of the work force, looking for ways of saving money. It’s a perpicious thing you know, it’s a wonderful time for people to find a way to get rid of these systems that protect the work force from a gredious favoritism and I’m fearful that if affirmative action goes away, there won’t be anything left that will guarantee equal opportunity. So, my view on all of this is for women to be protected, in terms of pay. In terms of access to employment, we need some system, some regulatory system that ensures that people will continue to pay attention to equity. AG: I think that ties in to my next question which is about the state of feminism. Do college women see themselves as feminist or is the definition for them something different that what it started out being? RS: Well, this is a great question, we have on our campus for example, AG: and is it different for women on coed campuses? RS: Well, I think it's different all over the place, but I think on our campus, for some women, feminism is a bad word and so I hear among students that they are the pearl wearing groups, which means that they don���t won’t to hear about this aggressive feminism and then there are the people who assert that they are feminist by wearing no make up what so ever and no jewelry and no conventional jewelry and so on. So there are various camps I think all over the country because women now are trying to sort out how to advance in today’s world. How to be satisfied with one’s state and with one’s identity in the context of what one inevitably has to do if you are a woman in order to survive and get ahead. I think it’s very hard for young women to sort that out. I like what Molly Ivan says about feminism and it’s very simple. She says, if you believe in equal pay for equal work, you are a feminist, period, and I tend to believe that, that’s true. Any women who cares about whether or not her talents are going to be fairly received and assessed is in fact believes in the tenants of feminism, whether she wears pearls or not and so that’s one point that I make. For the young women on my campus I make the second point, and that is, I really don’t like to see educated women so ignorant of the inevitable need for the evolution of any social or political movement. It ought not suprise us that feminism had to, in it’s early days have a certain form that broke through barriers. That oughtn’t to suprise us. We ought to acknowledge the role that it had and we ought to applaud the people who are at the forefront in making sure that people like you could be at the top of your field and without them you couldn’t be. At the same time, traditional feminist should not resist the idea of feminism evolving to a new age. So what I like to think now is that what we’re seeing is the necessary dialog that takes place when any movement comes of age and changes in order to benefit succeeding generations and so who knows where it will come out. AG: There’s been talk from time to time that one way to deal with a lot of problems that young black boys have is to set up public schools for black boys. We have various programs to help build the self esteem of young black boys, such as in Houston, The Black Male Initative. In all this focus on boys are we ignoring the girls and do girls have special problems that we need to address? RS: Well, I’m very concerned about the tendency to ignore the needs of girls and I know the reasons for that, I know all the reasons for it. In this country, especially in the African American community, men have been disporportionally affected in some ways by the bias and the racism in some of our institutions and so naturally in order to counter that people are interested in developing programs to really bring remedy to some of the ills that affect our black male youth. At the same time though, the reality is, that even while we are paying attention to boys and their development, we have girls who have particular needs, they’re continuing to need programs that keep them out of this spiral of pregnacy and rearing children in poverty basically. There the statistics continue to be frighting, that is that one can expect as a women not just a minority woman but as a women in general, that increasingly over the next few years, more and more women will have to be responsible for the economic survival of children and that is why so many children continue to come into poverty. Thirteen million children will be born into poverty in 2001. So if we ignore the development of girls, our lock will be that when that time comes, by 2020 we’ll be so much worse off than we are today, because in a real since the issue is with women, they are the one’s rearing children. That’s what the statistics tell us and it’s kind of nice to think that if we fix the problem for boys that’s going to solve the problem for girls, it will not. What will fix the problem for girls is working with girls and solving the problems for girls. I talked last night in a speech that I gave about the need for paying attention to girls because they will have an inordinant amount of responsibility for the furture of our children. I continue to believe that that is the case. It is not a new reality, though people of this country like to think of it like a new reality, but there have been many periods in history where women have been left to rear children alone and have had to be responsible for the survival of communities, so this is not really as new as some people would have us believe. Never the less, as I say all the data points to a worsening condition for girls in the future, unless we attend to that. AG: You have the boys acting out again and getting all the attention. In large terms what kind of things do you want to accomplish at Smith for the school and for the general educational climate in the United States? RS: Well, you know Smith is such a wonderful place. It is been cared for over the years in a spectacular fashion. It is a place with a very strong endowment. It’s a place with an excellent board of trustees and an outstanding alumni body. About 50 thousand alumni who continue to support the college and they are loyal to the college. So it’s not the kind of place because it is so strong as an institution, where you have to do a lot that’s very dramatic because it’s so strong already, it consistently ranks within the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country. So I’m not a savior for Smith, there’s nothing wrong with Smith and there’s nothing in that sense that I need to do. I think my challenges are somewhat different and that is, I believe that Smith wants to think hard about how it can move into the next century in a much more relevent position. These are the issues women are going to be facing and so my hope is to bring some leadership to that, some unique leadership to that. I think that people feel that minority women, women of color are going to be playing a much greater role in the next century in sorting through those issues I tend to think that, that’s absolutely true. So my own particular background and interest may make a good deal of difference to Smith in the next decade or so. My hope is that we can take Smith to a new plateau, every President wants to do that, I’m no different. So I will be thinking of certain things that I will want to focuson during my presidency and I not prepared to say what they are at this time but I’m having disscussions with faculty, students and staff and alumni trying to sort through all the opportunities that are there for us. Smith is such a wonderful place, I think it out to be playing a strong role nationally in a lot of issues, including the education of our young, the need for women to be treated properly for the intellectual range that they offer. I’m very concerned and people at Smith are very concerened about how girls are detoured from majoring in certain fields like math and science, for example. Girls that drop out of those core subjects in the high school years because they are discouraged systemmatically from opportunities in that area, so our task is to really bring some attention nationally to what girls are experiencing even in K-12 before they even come to Smith. So one of the things I hope to do is to really deal with those subjects on a national level. AG: Your inaguration has caught the American imagination. Why do you think that is and how do you respond to that? RS: Well, I think that people have been interested in it certainly because of the place that Smith is. A lot of us thought we would never live to see the day when the Ivy League or Seven Sister Colleges would have a minority president, so it comes as a shock I think to people that, that has happened. America, though it has these egalitarian ideals, has alway been a place where the elite has a very special role, a special place, special stature and Smith has had for many years the reputation of being one of those northeastern elite schools and here there is someone from the Fifth Ward in Houston who ends up heading this institution. It’s just to strong adjuxt a position almost for people to understand, so people continue to ask me how it happened, how is it possible. They are looking for some complicated story of how it’s possible for somebody like me to become president of Smith. It’s really not very complicated at all. It is simply that I went to school, I got a Ph.D., I worked in the field, I made a name for myself and when they where looking for a president, my name came up and they thought I would make a good president and so they appointed me. That’s the simple story, but people get so caught up in that because they think there must be something else because how could it be that this would happen and I think I have gotten caught up in that myself sometimes, because sometimes I do wake up and think is this really possible, but it is possible, it happened. Smith is a place that has always been independent, it’s always stood apart from the profession. It’s always called it as it saw it in a sense. So it’s not and unusual move for the real Smith that people don’t know so much about. AG: Well from my vantage point, the response has been completely positive and I congratulate you and I know that a lot of other people feel the same way, feel very proud. Thank you very much. RS: Thank you. Q&A AG: What year did you move to Houston? What year did you graduate from Dillard? Do you see any extra challenges as president to a mostly white college? What is the defining factor for the new feminism and what do we need to do for girls? RS: 1952. I graduated from Dillard in 1967. I AG: Any extra challenges as president of a mostly white college? RS: I would say no, actually, because a lot of people imagine colleges as different...whose question is this? A lot of people imagine that colleges are so different from on to the other, but the business of education is the same wherever you are, it doesn't matter where you are. And I've had the advantage of working at lots of different kinds of colleges. State colleges, private colleges, black colleges, white colleges, single sex colleges, coed colleges, so one of the things I know is that it's all the same, wherever you are, because the issues are, how to do the best job of bringing education to students, so I don't believe there is anything particularly different about my leadership of Smith that would be about my leadership at Princeton, say for example. It's more interesting is some regards because it's a single sex institution and it's a unique opportunity to focus on women's issues. I'm very happy to be able to do that, frankly, because I think there is such a great need for it today. In terms of the last question, the special challenges, in the education of women today, I myself believe we have had so many political aims as women, necessarily in the last couple of decades, beccause we have had to overcome extraordinary discrimination. An extraordinary lack of opportunity, and so we've had to focus on strategies for getting the door open. I think that now that we have been able to achieve so much, the focus for us in the future has got to be much more refined and we've got to define problem, discrete problems to address and develop an agenda that is much more sophisticated than we've had in the past. One of the areas for women to address is whether or not we can gravel with ethnic and raised relations in a different and better way, and we've not proved that yet. But it's one of the most important things we can do for our children and for the future. One of the things we need to do is deal with the issue of fields of expertise and study. We continue as women to experience the same social and gender stereotyping, and that is something that we are partly irresponsible for as women. I see my friends all the time, directing girls to do all kinds of things so that they can be at an advantage, for example, in terms of marriage. I see people all the time being directed into very traditional roles that have at their heart, sustaining the type of stereotyping we now have. So I think that's one of things, within women's groups, we have to address much more directly. I think we have a tendency to set up our own biases within the women's political movements, and so I am aware of many alumni at Smith, for example, who feel very strongly about the fact that they decided to stay at home and rear children, is somehow frowned upon by their sisters who went into the world with careers and ascended into positions of prominence in different fields. I think that's one of the things women have not dealt with well. Also, how to rear children, what is the value of rearing children? I think there is too much disregard of the importance of that role in contemporary feminist theory. One of the things I'm intrigued with doing myself is I'm trying to write a book. Part of what I'm trying to write about is my mother. My mother was a humble woman. She did a days work. I can remember she used to take me to work with her on , sometimes when I was not in school and she would show me how to clean house. I learned most of what I learned from my mother who was a humble women and who stayed at home a reared children. I don't care who is in enpowered, or well educated, or how far you've come, I've not yet seen anybody who compares to her. But it's these kinds of values that we have to bring into the discussion and I hope that one of the things I'll be able to in writing about my mother is articulate some of that. AG: What were the ages of your children and ?? RS: My son is 22, and he's a senior at Moorehouse, he's graduating this year. And one of the most difficult things for me as a parent is when I learned that his graduation day is the same day as Smith's commencement, and the board of trustees came to me and said of course you understand we can't have a Smith commencement without the president, so I will miss his graduation. That is the most painful thing I've had to endure as a parent is dealing with that. My daughter is 18 and has just graduated from highschool this past June and has decided to stop out for a year. She is thinking that she might want to be a vet so she is working in a vet's office in new orleans trying to get a sense of whether she likes it or not. Her hope is to go to college in the fall and she'd like to go to Spellman. It's interesting that both my children chose single sex institutions. AG: I don't know why I could ask a mother about her children and it would be a quick answer! Do you think you will reconsider the coeducation issue at Smith? RS: There are some people who are very interested in debating that issue and I always have to say as a leader of an academic institution that debate is healthy and I'm always interested in listening to that and seeing whether there are good reasons for us being coed. But I have to say, that in order to pursuade me that that is a good idea, they would have to do some pretty fancy footwork, and I haven't seen it yet. I'm opposed to that as an idea for the following reasons - First of all, I think that, I believe in the diversity of higher education in this country. I like for students to have different options and this is an option women need. Secondly, I don't believe that I would want Smith to be an immitation of other coed colleges. What's the benefit of that? It has done so well in the work that it does. There are things that it does uniquely because it's a women's institution, the ?? Smith collection and the archives. Very distinctive archives on women in America. That kind of thing we do because we are a women's institution, we have a special role to play there. So I would not be in favor of going coed if I had to decide today. I wouldn't advise the board of trustees that we should go in that direction. AG: What kind of advice can you offer to African American college women who are interested in leadership? RS: First of all, I think the most important thing for me was working hard academically. Studying in a variety of courses, never a narrow course of study, never. If you want to be a leader, you should study as broadly as you can. And finally, the capacity to receive criticism is probably the biggest single thing that you can do when you are coming through, because until you learn to receive criticism, and go beyond it, and take advantage of that, you won't ever be able to advance through the ranks. AG: How difficult has it been to balance your professional life and your family life? RS: Impossible. I think that it's been... AG: There is a second part to this... how have you managed the isolation which sometimes occurs when a black women education is a primarily white institution. RS: That's a separate question. In terms of balancing the professional and, I think that the way I try to do it as I was coming along is I made very conscious choices throughout my career. I mean, I could have been a college president probably when I was 39, and I decided conciously not to try to advance to rapidly in my career because I had children and because I wanted to be home on weekends. I wanted to be home evening, and so on. That's the way I balanced my time, I deferred success in a sense until my children were older and it's interesting me to me, the very year that my daughter graduated from highschool, I became a college president, because she needed to graduate in order for me to then move on and be able to do this job because this job is a very demanding job where I have be away a good deal of the time and where my attention is completely absorbed by the college. So that's just the reality and what I recommend for all women who are trying to make those decisions, is they thing hard about how to plan their years of child rearing if they have children and their personal lives so that they don't get their priorities confused and I don't think I ever got my priorities confused. MY obligation first obligation was to my children and to see them grown and that's what I wanted to do and it never interfered with my growth, actually. AG: I'll talk to you about that later... RS: And the second part of that is that I guess I'm to new on my campus to really know how to deal with that. I'll tell you about a wonderful ceremony that occurred in my home during my inaugeration. A number of my friends were concerned about my isolation as an African American women on a perdominately white campus and so somewhere in the midafternoon after the installation ceremony, I went back to my house and went into my living room and there were about 120 women gathered from around the country, wonderful women, Kay Moss, Geneta Cole, ? Avery, lots of women. What they did was to conduct and AFrican ceremony wishing me well and they collected a basketfull of messages for me, an african basket, and they gave that to me. And because there were so many messages of course I couldn't read them. But about two weeks after the ceremony, I had two hours. I took the basket down and I read through these messages and they were filled with comments from women who are very important women in this country, telling me what I should do, in a moment of need when I had need of a friend. And they said they would be available to me at anytime that I needed to call them if I needed to talk if they needed to come to Smith or whatever. I thought that was such a wonderful thing for them to do because I think they understood the possibility of that isolation and wanted me to know that if I felt it, there was a way for me to feel connected to my community. AG: Any comments on why there are so few blacks pursuing PHD's and why do you think more black women pursue a graduate education than black men? I do believe US Census Bureau statistics on educational attainment indicate that this is a trend. RS: Yes, I think the reason is, first of all, it's a long, long, haul and people have the wrong ideas about higher education and we haven't done a good job informing people about it. First of all, mostly African American's and certainly I think that's true of African American men, are not aware of how gratifying and how lucrative the profession is. They imagine it's teaching at a very low wage for all of your life, when in fact, college professors do pretty really well. They live well, they have a satisfying profession. I think we've not gotten the word out about how good the profession actually is. I think women who are in the profession are coming along with PHD's often end up in areas where they really are not on an advancement track, so I think that is very poor advising that goes into the process by which students go to graduate school and I wouldn't, I've been very concerned about that for years and I've given many speeches on it. I'm thinking that maybe I should write something about it because I think a lot of people get into the wrong stream. It's the same kind of streaming that I was talking about earlier that takes place with women, where women are pushed into certain fields. I think that happens with African Americans in higher education when they do Phd's. When you look at the Phd's in higher education, you'll see they are in a handful of fields, so they are in education, primarily, and so on. So Phd's lead to education in certain fields, to certain areas, but not to others. So, I think that some greater amount of clarity, either through professional organizations, or otherwise, needs to take place in order for this sort of dichotomy between what the men are doing and what the women are doing in higher education, gets better. AG: Where do hispanic women fit into the future of the country in terms of education, employment, too many children, etc... RS: Well, I think the problems are very similar to what African Americans are experiencing now and luckily we're beginning to see more and more latinas come into higher education and I would expect that in the future we'll see a lot of leadership from both Asian and Latinas because they are beginning to move into graduate study. I think latina women are very interesting from this perspective and this is what I understand from many of my friends with whom I've discussed this problem. I think culturally speaking, within Latino families, there are certain things that women, certain barriers within the Latino culture, for Latinos. That's what they're grappling with and there is that same kind of streaming going on within the Latino community. I think the most important thing is for Latinas to develop strategies perhaps for educating the hispanic communities across this country and the range of opportunities that ought to be available to women from that community. AG: Having been involved with PTA's for 14 years with my children, I see a great need for diversity to be integrated into the arts within the curriculum, yet I don't see this happenin very quickly. The seeds of diversity need to be planted early in life through cultural interaction in the arts. What is your opinion? RS: I couldn't agree more with that. As somebody who started off, I think that's how I got my own cross cultural guide post. When I started in Houston at an early age going to places like Hester House and becoming involved in theatre and other arts, I think that where I began to understand how to reach over to other cultures and that's what I think lead me in the end when I went to college to choose a field of study, that was deliberately so different from my own. That's why I ended up choosing french language and literature, that was my field in college because I Was looking for something that was culturally different from my own experience. I think art is the way you get students engaged in that at a very early age. IT's much more successful than almost any media for achieving that, so I agree. AG: This is my last question here, what do graduates of single sex east coast colleges need to be doing in this single sex time of financial restraint. RS: Well, I don't think its just eastern single sex institutions. My own feeling is that the single sex institutions are going to be challenged constitutionally in the coming years. I think we are going to see alot of battles in this area. There will be men who are tempting deliberately to dismantle the notion of single sex institutions for women. Precisely because they do seem to offer women advantages in terms of advancement, so I think that what we need to be doing is manning the ramparts. Legally banding together the other institutions in the country, single sex institutions to fight the legal challenge because I think that's what's coming. And I do think that we will persevere in the end and single sex institutions will survive, but I think there will be people who will be attacking them. AG: Can you talk a little about the (Citadel??) RS: If I have to! I guess my view is that there are different kinds of single sex institutions. As I said earlier, I believe in single sex institutions. I believe in them for men as well, actually. My son goes to one. I guess I don't believe, however, that in an environment where a school leads into particular areas of a priviledge in certain professions, that it's not fair for those institutions to bar the other gender. For example, if Smith were to offer any course of study that was rare in this country, then I think it could be very successfully challenged in only admitting women because its clearly not fair for certain numerous classes, disciplines, to be excluding men when they can't get that study anywhere else. So think that I feel that with places like the Citadel, that they have an entree into certain professional areas that are, where women are excluded and the proof of that is when you look at the profession and you see where women are relative to men and that's proof of it. They don't have, women still don't have the same opportunities to the same degree as men, in order to advance within the military. So I think that's what that case is really all about, and similar cases are about that. I wonder if it wouldn't be terrific, for example, if women had a single sex environment, a similar kind of opportunity. And so if the military were willing to set up similar opportunities for women so that there would be some equality, true equality and access, then I think it would be a mute issue. But right now, it is very much a problem. AG: The fact that it is a tax supported institution, does that play a role? RS: It plays a big role, but as far as I'm concerned, its not the most important role, although it's clearly, a lot of people like see private vs. public as the dividing line and I think that's convenient for us but when you're arguing the ethical issues, it's not convenient anymore. So I think you have to tackle the problem on the question of equal opportunity, ethical questions, not on the issue of whose supporting it because as soon as you start to do that then the private gov't provides federal funding for many institutions. It's very hard, it's too easy an answer and I try to avoid that. RS: Thank you AG: Thank you
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