2017 NAA University Day Remarks by Prairie View A& M University Interim President Ruth J. Simmons on July 21, 2017.
Good morning and thank you all for being here. It is rather a surprise to me that I am here among you; just over a month ago, I would not have imagined I would be taking up the duties of Interim President of Prairie View. In truth, I come before you with just about two weeks of experience here. But it has been a wonderful and memorable two weeks for me.
I am not here this morning to impart to you any depth of knowledge about where the university stands today. To do so at this point would be entirely disingenuous. But I am here to tell you why I am here, what I care about and where I hope the University will go under my interim leadership.
Let me start with some important acknowledgements. The first must go to George Wright who led this university through 14 years of undeniable progress. As a leader and representative of the Panther nation, he was scholarly, deeply engaged, insightful and a respected mentor for faculty, staff and students. Stability is a necessary commodity for institutions striving to become stronger and there is no doubt that he has laid the groundwork and created a strong path for the future of Prairie View.
I want to acknowledge the faculty and staff who, I can well see, are proud of this university’s legacy and believe in its future potential. Any good faculty or staff member has a choice to make; that they choose Prairie over other paths is a testament to their commitment to our students.
I want to acknowledge our students. It doesn’t take long when one steps on this campus to understand why Prairie View has acquired the reputation that it has. The students who enter the portals of this historic place do so with a conviction of their worth, a sense of their destiny, and a commitment to their communities. It is simply a joy to be around them and to work on their behalf.
I want to acknowledge you the alumni for your faithful service to your alma mater. I know something about how universities either flourish or atrophy; I have studied these phenomena for years and experienced them first hand for many decades. We know a good deal about the centrality of alumni to the reputation of universities. How does one measure and appreciate the stature of a university – through the success of its alumni and the output of its faculty. Why alumni? Because alumni can either lift or sink the fortunes of a university. How can they lift the university?
First by elevating the ranking of the university through faithful giving. The percentage participation of alumni in annual giving is used in national rankings as a proxy for whether alumni support the university. If they do, that means they are engaged and that engagement, over time, is an assurance that alumni are loyal, interested and ever watchful, protecting the mission over a long period of time. Consistent and robust giving is carefully watched by rating agencies, donors, media, and organizations that rank universities.
Second, by holding the university accountable for meeting its mission at the appropriate level, by serving its students well, and by adding to and enhancing its standing. Challenging the university leadership to work harder in every season to lift its profile and improve its service to the community is a vital role for alumni of leading institutions.
Third, by demonstrating through their success the rigor and quality of the university’s offerings and programs. The public must know of alumni success to appreciate the university’s impressive outcomes, so graduates must make known to their colleagues and communities their affection for and affiliation with the university. The passion for the university that others see in alumni is a prima facie case for the importance of the university.
Fourth, by raising friends and attracting student interest. Your friends should be our friends and they will be if they see your participation in the right light. I was waiting in line at the airport on Tuesday when my phone rang. It was a former colleague with whom I had served on a board. His message was simple: “I am prepared to make a gift to Prairie View.” Your confidence in Prairie View not only elevates the university in the eyes of others but it can bring untold largesse to this enterprise. I am just learning to tell the rich history and compelling mission of the university but my agreeing to join the university makes my associates believe that Prairie View is worthy of their philanthropy. What will they do when I learn to tell the story of Prairie View in a more complete a powerful way? I am anxious to see.
The profile of what it takes to be a committed, engaged alumni body such as I describe above is well-recognized across the country. Where you see an institution that is sound, highly respected and constantly improving, you will see engaged alumni who are the fourth leg of the stool that supports academic greatness.
I will not talk about the other three legs of that stool today: the faculty, staff, and students but I will focus for a moment on how I regard my role as a member of the staff.
Some may be curious about the role of an interim so let me tackle that first. I am not here to keep a chair warm or to simply temporize as you search for a new president. I am all in. I am here to provide the benefit of my 17 years as the president of two of the most highly ranked universities in the country and, 10 years before that, at the number 1 ranked university in the country: Princeton University. I have therefore been immersed for over thirty years in the question of how universities become great and how they sustain that greatness over long periods. So I come to Prairie View unprepared to make compromises and unprepared to support efforts that I know run counter to the enhancement of university life.
As an interim, I will act with due speed, gathering information about how I can be most useful, and putting in place wherever possible a structure that can bring lasting improvements to the campus. My task is not to tear down but to build up. Happily, we have a team in place that is working hard on that very thing and already getting much accomplished. Further, President Wright has left this campus with a master plan that is fulsome in its aspirations for the campus. I want to use my limited time wisely, to impart what I can about how top universities have sustained their excellence over long periods, to promote throughout the country a narrative of a Prairie View that is strong, and to raise funds in a new and vital way so that the University will have the flexibility it needs to advance and make more visible its reach.
As the chief spokesperson for this university, I will be straightforward and transparent. That transparency may not always be comely but I believe that institutions that are not truthful ransom their future and squander their public trust. That truthfulness and transparency will cause me from time to time to call out practices that do long term harm to the university but it will also help me to highlight what I believe is truly great and rare about the university.
I told the Chancellor when he invited me to serve in this role that he would not likely be happy with me in this job. I am here for one purpose and one purpose only; to ensure that in this period the university remains strong and that I deliver to you an environment that will allow you to attract the next great leader for Prairie View. Here are some of the things I’ve already decided to focus on.
First, I will be exhorting those who purport to love Prairie View to cease the endless disparagement of the university. These negative and sometimes unfounded assertions of ineffectiveness, incompetence, mindless bureaucracy and low achievement have entered the public lore and serve to caricature a beloved, important and complex institution. We will establish ways for alumni and others to resolve issues without running to others to complain about incompetence. We will have open communication that allows us to resolve issues here without the intercession of legislators, regulators and regents. If we cannot do that, we are not a mature institution worthy of the legacy bequeathed us by our forebears who suffered intolerable slights and discrimination to bring us to this point.
Second, I will seek to elevate out conversations about the future of the university. The time is past for finger-pointing and denial of what we must do. If we have become immune to striving for excellent customer service, it is time to own up to it and take immediate steps to correct it. If we have become overly bureaucratic, it is time to streamline a system that takes every petitioner to be dishonest and every question or complaint to be a betrayal. We must be open, interactive, respectful of one another, and committed to sustaining this loving, honorable community.
Third, I will be building a president’s house to represent the importance of this residential community. It may not be completed in time for me to live in it but the next president will have a place to invite students and faculty, to entertain important guests and to make a statement about the kind of residential community Prairie View aspires to be.
Fourth, I will restructure our work as I see fit and as the campus agrees to maximize our ability to coordinate rather than confuse. I am often invited by leading universities to advise them on how to structure aspects of university life. Why would I withhold that knowledge from Prairie View? I come with no predispositions for one way or another but rather to see what is not working and make early efforts to implant a structure that will better support our priorities.
Fifth, I will raise money for this institution. The history of fundraising at Prairie View has impaired the ability of students to be adequately funded, the ability of faculty to be adequately supported, the ability of the University to have a strong endowment. These limitations must cease. I will not only work hard as the University’s chief fundraising strategist but I will offer my services beyond my time as interim president to make sure that the University can make singular progress in its fundraising effectiveness. I will look in every corner for ways to gain more financial support for our students, concentrating on financial aid.
Sixth, I will be prod and support to our wonderful students. Honestly, when I encounter them, I am often on the verge of tears as I think about what their lives can be because they have come to Prairie View. We must make good on our promises to them by offering them once in a life opportunities to learn, to grow, to thrive.
I am grateful for this opportunity to serve my brother’s alma mater and for the opportunity to assist with the exceptional work that goes on here every day. I look forward to working with all of you to tell the story of this great institution in a new and exciting way.
Ruth J. Simmons was the ninth president of Smith College, the 18th president of Brown University and the first African American woman to head an Ivy League institution. Simmons was named Interim President of Prairie View A&M University in June 2017. For a complete bio of Simmons, visit https://www.pvamu.edu/president/.