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Transformative Higher Ed Leader Named 2023 Convocation Speaker

Ruth Simmons, a leading voice for equality and inclusion in higher education, will address HGSE graduates on May 24
Ruth Simmons
Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Harvard Graduate School of Education is pleased to announce that Ruth Simmons, a transformational voice in higher education, particularly on issues of leadership, access, and diversity, will address this year’s graduating class and their families at Convocation ceremonies on May 24, 2023.

“Dr. Ruth Simmons has been an incredible force in higher education, exemplifying the transformative power of education and courageously pushing boundaries in the name of equality and inclusion,” says Dean Bridget Long. “We could not have asked for a more relevant speaker at this year’s Convocation, especially during such a pressing time in education. Her impactful career in higher education is unparalleled, and I have no doubt that Dr. Simmons’ passion and unwavering commitment will resonate deeply for our graduating students and their families.”

Currently president emerita of Brown University and Smith College, and a President’s Distinguished Fellow at Rice University, Simmons also served as president of Prairie View A&M University, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU). In February 2023, Simmons was appointed by Harvard President Lawrence Bacow as senior adviser to the president on engagement of HBCUs, advising on efforts to support the recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. 

“Almost 20 years ago, Ruth Simmons had the courage to interrogate the history of Brown University as its president,” said Bacow in the announcement of Simmons’ appointment. “Her leadership in that moment created new a path toward understanding and reckoning, and she has been walking that path ever since, urging all of us in higher education to follow her so that we might do more good in the world.”

Simmons was named president of Brown in 2001, making her the first Black president of an Ivy League institution. In that role, she launched and led an initiative to interrogate the university’s relationship to slavery. The resulting landmark 2006 report (and its 2021 update) led to the creation of Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice — recently renamed the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice — as well as to numerous similar investigations by universities across the United States as they reckon with the truth of their own histories. 

“Those who have chosen to commit their lives and hearts to education hold the wellbeing and progress of their communities in their hands,” says Simmons, who earned her master’s and doctorate from Harvard. “My own path was shaped by exceptional educators who helped me envision a life of achievement that most thought at the time an improbable quest. It is an honor to be invited to address those who inspire us to embrace the ideal of a future that is better than the present. Such visionaries are urgently needed today.”

Simmons 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. She has received many honors over the course of her career, including the 2002 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, the 2002 Drum Major for Justice education award from Southern Christian Leadership Conference/WOMEN, and the ROBIE Humanitarian Award, given by the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

In 1997, she received the Centennial Medal from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, and in 2002 she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the university. She delivered the principal address at Harvard’s celebration of the Class of 2021 and has testified on Harvard’s behalf in a lawsuit challenging Harvard College’s right to consider race as one among many factors in its admissions process.


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