Cover Story

The Value of Difference

A conversation with Ruth J. Simmons, the 2023 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities

HUMANITIES, Fall 2023, Volume 44, Number 4

Ruth J. Simmons was born the youngest of 12 children in a poor sharecropping family in East Texas. From these humble beginnings, she rose to become the first Black president of an Ivy League university and one of the most influential leaders in American higher education. In an interview with NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo) at Rice University in Houston, Simmons talks about her childhood, her time as a student at the HBCU Dillard University, her scholarly career, and the bold leadership she brought to Princeton, Smith, and Brown, before her final stint as the president of Prairie View A&M University, an HBCU in Texas.

SHELLY C. LOWE: Hello, Dr. Simmons. First, congratulations and thank you so much for accepting our invitation to be this year’s Jefferson Lecturer. I am extremely excited to help you share your wisdom.

You are a rock star in the academic world, someone who has led major institutions with great success and influenced other institutions by your example. But that’s not how life started out for you. Tell me about how you grew up and where you grew up.

RUTH J. SIMMONS: Oh, goodness. Well, thank you, first of all, for this truly significant honor. As a humanist, I couldn’t be more pleased.

As for growing up, I’m a Texan. I was born in East Texas, in a tiny town called Grapeland, a very typical rural area in the ’40s. It was rigidly segregated. There wasn’t much that African Americans could do except stay out of the way, behave appropriately, and demonstrate that we had no aspirations to be more than what we were.

My mother and father were from that area. They were sharecroppers. For the older children in my family, it was very hard labor. The system took no account of your age. As soon as you could work in the fields, you went.

Stubblefield clan
Photo caption

Fannie and Isaac Stubblefield (seated) with 11 of their 12 children. From left, second row: Ruth, Nora, Atherine, Ozella, and Azella; third row: Elbert, Ruben, Wilford, Arnold, Clarence, and Albert.    


—Courtesy Ruth Simmons

I was one of 12 children. Everybody got up and worked. They couldn’t leave me at home, so I went with them into the fields. I had to be borne on the cotton sacks, as people moved down the rows, plowing cotton and so forth.

My siblings never let me forget that I really didn’t get the worst of it. Still, I had a sense that something was awry in the world because of the way we lived and because of the difference between what I saw in town and the way we lived.

Our life was rudimentary, no electricity, no running water, no evening activities. We had no books, no learning materials, except a Bible. We did have a church. And that was a social outlet on Sundays.

I was socialized by going to church, and meeting all these people who were different. They were all Black, but they were different. And I began to notice the way people behaved at church.

Some of them were ostentatious. Some retiring. Some were curmudgeonly. Outside of my family, I didn’t see much during the week, but on Sunday I got to see this array of human behavior.

In case you’ve never been to a Baptist ceremony, it is quite a show. People react to the music, to the sermon. There could be dancing, clapping, or calling out. A very intense experience for a child.

My older siblings couldn’t go to school if there were crops to be picked. School was secondary to crops. Most of the older children didn’t finish school.

Ruth Stubblefield at age seven.
Photo caption

Ruth Jean Stubblefield, age seven. 

—Courtesy Ruth Simmons


I was blessed. When I was six years old, we moved away from the sharecropper’s farm, and I was able to go to school. I went as a first grader, and every year after that I was able to go to school. It made all the difference. I was able to learn on a consistent basis.

My first experience of school was in this small town at W. R. Banks School. I remember the day I first walked into my classroom. It was like entering a magical kingdom. The room was well lit and there were spaces for all the children.

At my desk, there were utensils, paper, pencils, books for me. Just for me. And there was a woman in that classroom, the teacher, Miss Ida Mae Henderson, who was, I always say, light itself.

She was friendly. She praised me. It seemed to me that she thought I was the most important person in the world. Now, keep in mind, I was the youngest of 12 children. I felt like I didn’t matter in my family.

Then I walked into a classroom where an adult said, “Good morning, baby, how are you? Don’t you look wonderful today?”

Everything I did seemed to be miraculous. She always reacted as if it was the best work she’d ever seen. I was sure there was something important going on in this classroom. If she reacts that way, I thought, well, then I must work up to my full potential.

From that moment on, I was taken with education. It was so different from the Murray farm. That was the sharecropper’s farm.

I came to Houston when I was seven years old and enrolled in school. I went all the way from second grade through high school here, in the Fifth Ward, a very segregated environment at the time.

It was better than Grapeland, but the rules for Black people were the same. Go only to approved places. Don’t expect to do too much. And don’t step out of your lane under any circumstances. In those days, failure to observe the rules could result in summary punishment by just about anybody who was white.

My parents did a good job of teaching us what was allowed and what was not. The one thing about my parents is that they helped us to live. All of us children lived to become adults. It was not to be taken for granted. In that era, it was easy to make mistakes that one couldn’t come back from.

In school I encountered extraordinary people, like Miss Ida Mae, teachers who thought I could do certain things and who put before me extra things that I could do. I’m amazed to think of the effort it must have taken. Because if you were teaching in the ’50s, and even into the ’60s, you surely couldn’t have thought that the world was going to change.

I don’t know how anyone made that leap of faith, yet they taught us as if they thought the world would open up one day. They prepared us for a world that didn’t exist but that they hoped would one day exist.

I studied hard and didn’t expect to go to college. Every woman I knew was a maid. So I expected to be a maid. Men were janitors or blue-collar workers. But these teachers insisted I should aim for something different. I had one teacher, Vernell Lillie, who told me I could go to college. I didn’t even know what that meant.

She had gone to Dillard University, and she contacted them and asked them to give me a scholarship. She made a way for me to go to college. Unbelievable.

I was terrified. I had never left home before. And I was supposed to get on a train and go to New Orleans? Somehow I did it.

Luckily, by the time I went, I had become a pretty impossible person. Very stubborn, very determined, very sassy, very opinionated.

At college I discovered I was required to go to chapel. This didn’t seem proper to me. After all, there were people of different faiths. So how did it make sense for the university to require every single person to go to a Protestant service? It didn’t make sense to me.

I decided to boycott chapel, right away. The college didn’t know what to do with me. Can you believe a seventeen-year-old who decides that all of your policies are inappropriate and therefore is not going to adhere to them? I had this determination to be my own person, to call out things I didn’t think were right, and to try to be as good a person as I could be.

The reason, I think, was that my mother had died when I was fifteen, and that loss threw me into a tailspin from which I couldn’t recover. I was desperately bereft. I think I was looking for things to do that she would have approved of. She was a very upright person who taught us to respect everyone and never to think we were better than anybody else. That was her mantra.

The ridiculous thing about my protest is there were no people at my college of a different faith. It was utterly pyrrhic. Whose rights was I defending? Nobody’s.

I fell in love with ideas. I wanted to be animated by a sense of purpose and a sense of what was good and just in the world. And because of the life I had as a child, I wanted never to be a part of a system like that.

I took my first-year courses but was pretty unhappy. School wasn’t the place I thought it should be. So I got on a Greyhound bus that summer and went to Mexico to live with a family and learn Spanish. I wanted to know something about the world outside of this narrow environment. It broadened my perspective. When I came back, I became a language major and studied Spanish and French.

LOWE: Then you went on to Harvard. And you decided to pursue an academic career. Tell me how that happened.

SIMMONS: Almost accidentally. So here I was in the late ’60s, an African American studying French and Spanish. I wasn’t supposed to do that. I was supposed to be practical and do things that would lead to some reasonable life. But I applied to graduate school and for fellowships, and I managed to receive a Danforth Fellowship, which paid for all of graduate school. Pretty extravagant.

I also won a Fulbright Fellowship, which sent me to France to study. I spent the year reading Proust. At that point, I was just engaging with authors and learning more about how the human condition varies so widely across the world.

When I came back from France, I got married and I wasn’t really sure what I would do. I started off as an interpreter for the State Department, but then my husband decided to go to law school at Boston University.

Simmons with children and Obama
Photo caption

Ruth Simmons, her son, Khari, and her daughter, Maya, pictured with President Barack Obama. 

—Courtesy Ruth Simmons

I thought I should go to Harvard because it’s in the same city. I enrolled in the PhD program in Romance Languages, which everybody, including some of the faculty at Harvard, thought was bizarre. What was I going to do with a PhD in French? Well, I didn’t know. I was learning. I was doing things that were important to me.

Then Mercer Cook, a faculty member at Howard University, came to Harvard as a visiting professor, and I took his course on African and Caribbean literature of French expression.

I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced. Here was this language I knew to be a great language, and here was Aimé Césaire and Senghor turning this language into one that belonged to them, never mind colonialism and how that transpired.

They had seized this language and made it into something different that was uniquely able to express who they were. And that, I thought, was too brilliant for words. It was, for me, an inspiration to sort out my relationship to deep segregation. So I did my thesis on Césaire, and I had a chance to go to Martinique and interview him about his work.

It was bouleversant, as they would say in French. When I finished my work at Harvard, it seemed sensible then to use what I had learned to try to broaden the context of my life by making opportunities for other young people.

I thought I could impart some of what I had learned to help others sort out the difficulties of the environments they grew up in. I joined the faculty at the University of New Orleans, teaching French.

LOWE: I had the opportunity to hear you talk about your time at Princeton.

SIMMONS: I had been associate dean of graduate studies at the University of Southern California, but I really wanted to be in an undergraduate program because I thought that’s where you could reach students at a critical point.

Women had been at Princeton for a short while. Their experience was still very unequal. There were relatively few African Americans.

It recalled for me the duty I had as an academic to help students understand the experience that they were going through. I thought that African American studies was an important aspect of that, as I also understood women’s studies to be for women at Princeton.

But I was not someone who was prepared to lead African American studies. My field is French. So, when Princeton asked me to direct the Afro-American Studies program, I said absolutely not. How dare you? How dare you ask me to direct that important program when you know that I have no preparation to do so?

I turned them down. They came back because there weren’t many Black people at Princeton, and they really were looking for a Black face. They said we really want you to do this. There’s nobody else. Would you reconsider? So I said, okay, I will do it under certain circumstances, and I gave them eight conditions.

And I said, if you say no to any one of them, I will not do it. I don’t know why they didn’t fire me, honestly, I was so outrageous. When I think about it, now that I’ve been a university president, if someone said that to me, I would be horrified. But they agreed to all of my conditions.

I recognized one of the biggest problems Princeton had at the time is they didn’t understand the value of diversity, in the sense that there were minds as great and talents as extraordinary in African American and other communities. They had not learned this.

I really wanted to impress upon them what the presence of people of extraordinary intelligence could do for Princeton. They understood this at the level of an Einstein and all the other people who had passed through Princeton, but they didn’t know that African Americans could also be that grand.

So I wrote a dream list of people who could teach them that lesson, people I would try to bring to Princeton. Number one was Toni Morrison. But I knew it was a step too far to suggest that right away.

So I invited her to give a lecture. It was the worst snow day in the history of Princeton at the time. That morning I thought it would be a disaster. I’d reserved the biggest venue on campus.

I tried to reach Toni Morrison to tell her we might cancel, but she was already en route. When she got there, I explained to her there wouldn’t be anybody at the lecture because of the weather and I was very sorry about it. But when we walked over to the venue and went in, it was standing room only and I thought, What on earth is going on here?

People obviously knew her by reputation. People had come from all over to hear her, and then she gave, as you might expect, a stunning reading of her work. After that lecture, the committee searching for a chair wanted her to apply for the position and so they invited her to apply. She refused.

She refused because she said, “If they don’t know who I am, why should I want to be at Princeton?” And so, being a pragmatist, I went to my office, typed up her resume and submitted it to the committee, and she became a candidate in the search.

At first it was tough going. There were those who thought she didn’t measure up, because she came from SUNY Albany and because she didn’t have a PhD. I’m sure they had lots of reasons. They thought that she really was not Princeton material—unbelievable.

But she got through the process and they made her an offer, which she was not immediately inclined to accept. Here’s the pitch I made to her. I talked to her about the Princeton environment and how much of a difference she could make.

I also said, you are one of the great writers of your time. If you remain at SUNY Albany, you will still be one of the great writers of your time, but you’ll never get the recognition you deserve.

If you come to Princeton, I can assure you that you will get your laurels because that institution will give you the respect you deserve, and others will take notice of that. And that’s what happened. She accepted the job at Princeton, then she won the Pulitzer Prize. And, after that, the Nobel Prize.

I don’t think that would have happened if she hadn’t come to Princeton. This is what we need to understand. Withholding from outstanding individuals the approbation they have earned has a tremendous impact on their communities.

It has a tremendous impact on their lives. It’s totally unjustified for universities to do that, because who is most capable of judging the worth of people’s work? Universities. And yet so often we seem reluctant to do that.

We want proxies to do that for us, so we don’t dig into people’s work and try to understand what they are capable of doing. We want them to have been acknowledged as worthy by other distinguished schools and important people.

And why are we doing that as universities? Toni Morrison came to Princeton. There is a building named for her at Princeton today. She transformed the way that people saw the university.

LOWE: I would say you transformed the way people saw the university in the work you did. From Princeton, you moved on to become a college president. And recognition started to come to you as well.

For the first time, many people saw a college president who was a woman of color, and it was a very big deal. You were president at Smith, then at Brown, where you were the first African American president of an Ivy League university.

Tell me what it was like to be the first African American president at those two institutions. What did it mean to you?

SIMMONS: Well, first of all, I never saw myself in that light. I always thought I was going to be a worker bee, serving people, bringing recognition to things that were important. Not the person who led.

So, when they first approached me about the idea, again, I said no, in part because I didn’t think they knew who I was. I thought of universities as wanting cutout personalities that were comfortably similar to everything they had known. And I was not that.

I also knew that I didn’t have the pedigree. Here I am, someone who grew up under the circumstances that I grew up under. That’s not Smith, the Smith of Barbara Bush. The Smith of Nancy Reagan. The Smith of so many famous women who were very polished and upper class.

I said I don’t think you know who I am. That’s part one. Part two is, I’m not only not that person, but I refuse to become the person that you want me to be.

That was more important to me than anything, because I do not think we should try to turn everybody into the same individual when we have the magnificent diversity that we have. We have to learn how to appreciate difference if we’re going to survive as a nation.

And they didn’t know who I was. But because it was so rare at the time for an African American to be in the position I was in at Princeton, I think they couldn’t see past that. To give an indication of how surprising it was, when I was appointed at Smith, it was incredibly big news.

The New York Times did an article where they talked about my background. It was the first time many of my colleagues had any idea of what my background was.

That newspaper article brought me letters from all around the country, from people who said, if you can do what you’ve done, I believe I can, too. I didn’t understand until that moment the importance of my example.

When Brown came six years later, I said the same thing. My idea of the president of an Ivy League university was somebody who was kind of pristine, very chichi, very sophisticated, very much like all the other presidents of Ivy League institutions. I was not that person.

Also, I was outspoken, and they didn’t need that. So, again, I said I don’t think you know who I am. But they managed to convince me that they did.

I joined Brown. It was at a very tricky time. Racial animus was roiling the campus because of an ad in the newspaper that said Blacks should be grateful to have been enslaved and so forth.

President Simmons
Photo caption

Dr. Ruth J. Simmons photographed at Rice University, where she is a distinguished presidential fellow. 

—Photo by Rocky Kneten for NEH

LOWE: At Brown, you did something really amazing. You got Brown to look at its historical involvement with slavery. It was a huge deal, particularly in the Ivy League. I was at Yale and then Harvard at the time. Everybody was talking about it. And everybody wanted to follow suit.

What did it mean to make that happen? And did you have difficulties in bringing the initiative forward?

SIMMONS: Twenty years later, people make a big deal of it. But, to me, it was not a big deal. People wanted to know the full truth about that history. And if universities are committed to the facts, how could we lie about ourselves and be worthy of the trust that people give us?

I always believed that universities are best at dealing with difficult issues because we have all the apparatus for doing it the right way. And what do I mean? Well, we look for differences of opinion. We have a variety of interlocutors. We value that. We accept skepticism. We know how to do research. We are given to be transparent. And, at the end of the day, what we come out with, we believe, has to withstand the scrutiny of history.

I was fortunate to have an outstanding Southern historian on the faculty and the head of Africana studies. And having the two of them chair a committee of faculty and students and staff seemed to be a good way to go about it.

Everybody thought I was crazy, because here was an African American and didn’t I know that African Americans didn’t have a right to be risk takers? Because I was risking everything.

Finally, there was a concern that now that an Ivy League university had finally decided to appoint a Black president I was going to ruin it for everybody coming after me. My Black friends said, You have lost your mind. This is a horrible mistake. You shouldn’t touch slavery.

Well, I thought it was appropriate to ask the question and get the answer. We had a treasure trove of artifacts and records from a famous slave-trading family in our archives, on the campus, readily available.

The committee, in its wisdom, decided they would start with exhibits of this material so people could actually see what was there. Once you started to see the slave-ship logs and all of that, you could understand that this was a legitimate academic project. It wasn’t an emotional thing that an idiotic Black woman president had instituted. Then, coincidentally, the New-York Historical Society did an exhibition on slavery in Manhattan.

It started to look like something that was more normal than it had seemed at first. Today, it’s by far the most cited thing about my work, which I find extraordinary because it didn’t seem to be that to me.

It was very important to me that I didn’t contaminate the process. I left the committee to do their work and insisted that they not come to me for instruction. And I insisted that I not see it until the very end. I didn’t want to pre-bicker anything and I did not want to review their recommendations.

The one thing I did say to them is, I want this to be a report that anybody can read. They didn’t listen. They did a long report, but they did an executive summary, so I was pleased about that.

LOWE: You retired after 12 years at Brown, but you came out of retirement to become the president of Prairie View. I am very curious about this. Native students are encouraged to become educated and then encouraged to bring it home. We’re supposed to give back. And I see your going to Prairie View, an HBCU like Dillard University, as doing just that.

SIMMONS: I was serious about retiring. I thought, I’ve been so lucky. What more could I want?

I certainly didn’t expect the phone call I got from the chancellor of Texas A&M asking to meet with me. Well, it wasn’t unusual for the head of a university system to contact me. So I said, okay, I’m happy to meet with you.

He said we need you to serve as interim president of Prairie View. I thought it was a cockamamie idea. I didn’t say that right away, but I thought to myself, Why would I want to be president again?

I had already become involved in community things. I started working with an after-school program here in Houston. I wanted to do something in the community I grew up in.

I said to him that I would give it some thought. But I wasn’t seriously considering it. Then I made the mistake of contacting my brother, who was a Prairie View alum.

He said, Well, you must do it. I said, You have to be kidding. I’ve been president before. I don’t want to do it again. He said, You must do it because you’ve not done anything for Black people. I said, Don’t you understand that I worked at Spelman?

He said, That’s different, that’s a girls’ school. This is the real deal. This is my brother talking. So I went to visit. They gave me a tour of the campus, incognito. I saw the students and, of course, I thought, well, that’s me, years ago. And I concluded, well, it’s so little to ask, and I’ve been given so much.

What would I be saying if I said no to helping Prairie View? So I said yes, thinking it would be a very short interim. But it turned into a longer period of time—almost six years!

LOWE: You were there when George Floyd was killed and for the pandemic as well. How did you lead a school for Black students during this very difficult time in our history?

SIMMONS: I’ve always been grateful that my field of study was language and literature, because in moments of great distress I try to express the difficulties of the moment and the way toward healing.

Many college presidents have speechwriters. I have not had one because I want my voice to be heard by my students directly, meaningfully, at critical moments. And so, when that happened, I thought, what do you say to young people who are seeing this? And I thought, immediately, I must write something to them.

That’s what I did. I wrote a letter to my students and the community about what I was feeling. I said the temptation we all feel at moments like this is to despair and think about how dreadful and unjust things are.

But, actually, it’s a moment to think about what we should do. And here’s what I’ve come up with, I said. Having a program in African American studies seemed very important and was one thing we should do. I needed to show my students how they could feel positive about who they were. And I created a Center for Race and Justice.

That letter I wrote to my campus made its way all over the country. It was amazing. People started sending money to help me do the things I said we needed to do.

We’re in the throes of a very bad period right now where people of color are hearing terrible things that they should never have to hear. And I worry about how young people will react in the long run. We’ve been through all of that before, and we know where it leads. And I truly believe that literature and the arts really are two things that can be fortifying at moments like this.

LOWE: I think that I see in young people a lot of hurt, a lot of anger, a lot of questioning. And I see a lot of people not being sure how to come together, not being sure how to talk to one another, particularly when they have different opinions.

SIMMONS: Well, they certainly can’t do that unless we do it ourselves. Part of the difficulty for young people is that such behavior is insufficiently modeled by people in leadership positions.

That’s why it’s doubly tragic to see elected officials and others today spewing hateful things that are creating havoc in our communities. If they spew hateful things, why shouldn’t young people do the same?

One thing I often say to leaders is that you should assume that every aspect of who you are is subject to being seen by young people. So saying hateful things in one venue and then standing on a platform and trying to say nice things, that won’t work. It won’t work in a world in which we have 360-degree vision of everybody. What you believe, what you say, and how you comport yourself, in every circumstance, is visible.

That makes it a lot harder to be a leader, sure. A lot of people are not that consistent. They have one persona for what they think of as their visible role and an altogether different one for their private role. It doesn’t work.

I’m not clever enough to be one thing in one place and a different thing someplace else. Also, you need to have an integrated self so that you can be peaceful and at home with who you are.

What we do matters. What we do in every sphere matters. What we say matters. How we say it matters. How we care for other people or don’t care for them matters greatly.

LOWE: I listened to the commencement speech you delivered at Harvard, and I heard you call out Harvard. That resonated with me because you spoke about the need for Harvard to do something for HBCUs, for Tribal Colleges and Universities, and for other Minority-Serving institutions. Do you think we will see a little less stratification in higher education, a little more coming-together of institutions, to move young people forward?

SIMMONS: Well, that is how I see my work. I understand that a lot of people cannot see the need for this because they haven’t been to the places we’ve been.

They can’t see the fact that they are regimented, unproductively, in certain ways when it comes to knowledge production and educating students. They can’t see it because they don’t endeavor to see it.

At so many universities, they don’t understand the reality of higher education. They aspired in their career to a narrow swath of higher education. And that’s okay, but if you fail to apprehend that there is talent across all sectors of higher education, then how can you improve your university?

What do we say at universities? We say we are on a quest for talent, for intelligence. We say we transform lives. But how meaningful is that if you’re only going to select people whom you think are perfect already?

I remember when I was president at Brown. I was walking down the street and a student called to me from the other side of the street, and said, President Simmons, may I speak to you? I said, yes, of course.

He said, I came to Brown to do engineering, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to do it because my high school didn’t offer calculus.

In the math department, a prize-winning professor took it upon himself to tutor the student so he could become an engineer—and he was a fantastic student. Those are the moments you remember most in your career as an educator, when you found someone whom you have been able to help.

One thing I did in my inaugural address as president of Brown is I urged that more community college students be admitted to Brown. And I have urged my Ivy League colleagues—college presidents—that we do a great service to the nation if we have greater pathways to community college students to come into these institutions. I still believe that.

And I believe that one day it has to happen because our universities have become so stultified, so elitist, so narrow that they risk losing the trust of the public. And that would be a great tragedy.

LOWE: The way you talk about higher education is how I think many of us see the humanities. We always say the humanities can change you. How do we strengthen the humanities to ensure that happens?

SIMMONS: First and foremost, the public has to be able to encounter the humanities. That firsthand encounter changes people, edifies them in a way that nothing else can.

They may not be in a library poring over books but when they go to a play and that play strikes them at the very center of their being, then you have a person who’s awakened to what can happen when they encounter great writing.

One thing I advocate for all the time is for my colleagues to write in a way that people can understand. We don’t want the humanities to be accessible to just a select group of people.

We deal with difficult concepts, and we need to think about people who cannot access them as readily. I’m always advocating for a language that can reach the public in the way that it reached me, and I was so far from understanding what the humanities represented.

That encounter is the thing you want. The humanities part can be anything. It can be a great speech or a play. It doesn’t have to be part of the canon. In high school my teachers had me do debate.

In my church, when I was growing up, we had to recite. I can remember reciting James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation.” Along the way we learned about the beauty of language and the studied approach writers take when trying to shape their thoughts and how extraordinary that was. As we recited, we saw the reaction of people hearing those words and appreciating what James Weldon Johnson was writing.

I remember my first course in philosophy. I was totally absorbed by philosophy. I never knew it could be so rewarding, helping me to think more deeply. Helping me with sequential thought and shoring up my reasoning.

When I was president of Smith, I had a small grant that I received and I thought, what could have the greatest impact on the students? I gave the money to the Poetry Center. The Poetry Center brought great poets to campus. And, all of a sudden, it was the most important thing on campus. Standing room only for poetry.

At Prairie View, I decided that because oratory is so important in the African American tradition I wanted to bring orators to campus. So I brought some of the great orators of our time to campus to put in front of students.

I created the Toni Morrison Writing Program, and what we have been doing is reaching out to high schools and having a writing contest and giving a huge prize to the winners so that they come to understand the value of writing. They’re used to people getting prizes in the sciences, but now they’re getting these extraordinary awards for writing an essay.

But to open up the magic of the humanities we need to go outside of the dense, obscure language we use with each other. Honestly, what else can take you all the way from your childhood to old age, making you feel that you have the richest life because it’s influenced by all these things that you’re able to see and appreciate? What else does that better than the humanities? Nothing that I can think of.

LOWE: Is there any last advice, insight you want to give to young people, or to professionals in the humanities?

SIMMONS: In this moment, I worry most about the state of the world, about the divisions among us, and about the people who would heighten those divisions.

We need to bring people into an understanding of the value of difference. That, to me, seems to be the most urgent issue, and it’s what I talk about most. Going to Mexico as a young person, who never studied with anybody who wasn’t Black, did wonders for my understanding of the world and my appreciation for other people. That’s what we’ve got to work on more than anything else.

It doesn’t matter what your field is. I spoke to a group of engineering students a couple of days ago and I said the same thing to them.

We all have a duty to play a role in this battle for our humanity, our common humanity. We must take it seriously and do the outreach necessary to demonstrate that there is a world in which we can get along, in which we can productively disagree, in which we can shape together a common future.

We have to do that. Otherwise, what is to become of us? I was an expert witness in the Harvard case that was before the Supreme Court.

And when I was under cross-examination, the one thing that I thought of suddenly when the opposing counsel was hammering away at how terrible it was that Harvard was focused on diversity, I thought about the horrible shooting in the synagogue in Pittsburgh at that moment.

In fact, I started crying on the stand. I just don’t understand what we are to do if we go into our separate enclaves again. What is our future to be?

So my answer to him was, What is to become of us if we do not bring people together? That’s the work that I value the most.

LOWE: Thank you so much for your time and everything that you have done.

SIMMONS: Thank you.