Ruth J. Simmons, Ph.D., a Fulbright alum, professor, author, and president emerita of Prairie View A&M University, Brown University, and Smith College, delivered the 2023 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on September 26, 2023 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. The National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the U.S. government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.
Dr. Simmons reflected on the honor of delivering the Jefferson Lecture, noting that since her own childhood in a sharecropping family, she has “been on a path of learning and self-discovery that has empowered my work in every decade of my life. Persuaded that the humanities can mean everything to young people struggling to understand what their lives can be, I have encouraged students from Smith to Brown to Prairie View A & M to embrace the humanities as a lifeline to happiness and success.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities Chair, Shelley C. Lowe, invited Dr. Simmons because of her leadership and innovation in higher education, praising how she “has advanced our understanding of the enduring legacy of enslavement across our most preeminent institutions and lifted up the undertold and underappreciated stories of our country’s history...Dr. Simmons embodies the greatness that can be accomplished when everyone has a seat at the table.”
In her Jefferson Lecture, “Facing History to Find a Better Future,” Dr. Simmons focused on the power of a humanities education to transform marginalization into connection. She reflected on the ways that the humanities propelled her to simultaneously embrace “soul-affirming” African-American history, literature, and art, and also to explore foreign cultures, such as her study and research in French literature. She explained that these explorations of the self and others are complementary processes. Having gained “familiarity with the space that I occupied made me curious about more distant realms. Eventually, this led to learning about others very different from me. By embracing openness to difference, I discovered the key to confronting the racism that wounded and bound me.” As a university president, she has presided over the expansion of African-American history and cultural studies programs that remain important for building a “peaceful, civil society built on difference.”
Dr. Simmons remarked that she has always “welcomed experiences that made me more acquainted with the broader world” After her Fulbright experience in France, she has been an engaged Fulbright alum who accepted an invitation by the Program to deliver the keynote address at the U.S. Department of State’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Fulbright Program at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
That year, she also gave keynote speech during the Fulbright HBCU Symposium, a component of the Fulbright HBCU Institutional Leaders Initiative, noting that when she received the “Fulbright fellowship, I was ready for complete immersion in another culture. Studying for a year in France allowed me not only to learn meaningfully about France, its history, people, and cultures, but also to extract from that experience a way to understand myself and my own country.”