Prairie View A&M University has lured a prominent former Ivy League president to temporarily lead the historically black university — a move that will likely surprise many in the higher education world, and even surprised the new president at first.
The decision was finalized by a unanimous vote of the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents on Monday. Ruth Simmons, who became first black president of an Ivy League university when she took over Brown in 2001, will be interim president until a permanent replacement for current President George Wright can be found. Simmons presided over Brown for 11 years, and was once named by Time magazine as the best university president in the nation.
The Houstonian has been retired since 2012 and said she never expected to take a job like this. In an interview, she said she did it because the university has a mission that she believes in.
"Frankly, I was flabbergasted when I was approached about this — I didn't know what to think," Simmons said.
The current president, George Wright, announced last week that he was stepping down to return to the faculty.
During the same meeting, the A&M System board voted to name Kelly Quintanilla the sole finalist to lead Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi. Quintanilla has held the interim post since January. Prior to then, she was provost. A&M System leaders considered merging A&M-Corpus Christi with Texas A&M University - Kingsville last year, but backed down from those plans in the face of community opposition.
The Prairie View vote is the more surprising move. The rural university doesn't seem like an obvious fit for Simmons. U.S News and World Report considers Brown the 14th best university in America. Prairie View doesn't crack the top 300. Brown is a research powerhouse. Prairie View's faculty research is relatively modest.
Simmons said she has received numerous inquiries about returning to higher education since she retired, and she has regularly dismissed them outright. But when A&M System Chancellor John Sharp approached her about this job, she hesitated to reject him. Then, she allowed herself to be talked into the move, she said.
She said she got her undergraduate degree from a historically black college, and owes a lot to schools like Prairie View, which one of her 11 siblings and a few of her nieces attended. And she said she's intrigued by Prairie View's devotion to engineering and other science and technology disciplines. Black people are underrepresented in those fields, she said, and the university can do a lot to combat that.
"If I can go into Prairie View to take care of the place during the interim, it would seem to me that it would be untoward if I did not step up to that," she said.
A&M System leaders touted the hiring as a coup.
"Dr. Simmons has been an important figure on the national stage for decades," Sharp said in a statement. "She has the credentials to be the president of any university in America."
Simmons said she only agreed to the job if the system made clear that she was taking it temporarily — she won't be the permanent hire "because I am old and I'm retired." But she also said she has no plans to be a placeholder. She'll come into the job with ambition and a willingness to take on big projects, she said.
"I would never take a position just to twiddle my thumbs," she said. "If I am going to be lazy, I would rather that be on my own time."
She added, "I am not going to be interim-like."
Her plans for the school are still being formulated. Simmons attended Prairie View sporting events while growing up in Texas, but her knowledge of the modern version of the school is limited. Until recently, she mostly knew about recent "notorious occurrences" at the school — most notably the death of Sandra Bland, who was arrested near campus in 2015 after what seemed like a routine traffic stop. Bland, who was coming to Prairie View for a job, later hung herself in the Waller County Jail. Her death became a cause for activists nationwide frustrated with how black people are treated by police.
"That was of national interest," she said. "There are many people from around the country familiar with the tragic Sandra Bland story."
Now, Simmons said she hopes she can help others in Houston and beyond become familiar with the school for other reasons.
"It really should have a stronger national reputation," she said. "It should be able to place its graduates in the best positions around the country."
Simmons will start work July 1.
Disclosure: Prairie View A&M University and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.