Ruth Simmons, who served as 8th president of Prairie View A&M University, 18th president of Brown University and 9th president of Smith College, gave commencement address at Harvard’s celebration of the Class of 2021 on Thursday, May 27.
Good day and congratulations to the Harvard University Class of 2021.
It is a singular honor to be invited to address you on this important milestone occasion. To all completing their studies today, I offer my best wishes as you undertake the next exciting phase of your lives. That you have succeeded so well during such a time as this is commendable and augurs well for the years to come when the world will rely greatly on your knowledge, your discernment, and your empathy for those less fortunate than you.
When first approached about delivering this Commencement address, I was, frankly, taken aback. I did not immediately feel up to the task. Recalling occasions when I sat in Tercentenary Theatre looking across the expanse of graduates to the steps of Widener Library, I could not picture myself confidently delivering remarks from a dais where so many more eminent figures had stood and, indeed, made history. Growing up on a constant Jim Crow diet that offered assertions of my inferiority, I’m always that same little Black girl trying to believe in and demonstrate her worthiness. Further, I thought about the challenge of what I might impart in such a pivotal national moment when social gains seem more like losses, when clarity gives way so easily to confusion, and when much heralded progress recedes like a trompe l’oeil that was never real.
I extend greetings from the faculty, administration and students of our 145 year old institution, Prairie View A&M University. And, though I have not been anointed to do so, I also bring greetings from the collection of Historically Black and Minority Serving institutions that have the weight and privilege of advancing access, equity and opportunity for so many communities across the world. Our university, like many others HBCUs, was founded at the end of Reconstruction when Blacks were thought to be unable to perform the highest level academic study. I speak to you, in fact, from the Prairie View campus whose 1500 acres were once the site of the Alta Vista Plantation. That plantation, before being sold to the State of Texas, was the site where 400 human beings were held in slavery. Thus, our very steps as they daily tread upon vestiges of the suffering of our ancestors, call to us constantly to do our duty as full citizens. Painful as such memories are, they are a powerful force that calls us to action when challenges arise.
During the 145 years following our 1876 founding, it would take many years for most universities in our nation to grant access to Blacks. So, universities like Prairie View, designed with limited resources, served the state and nation by admitting students to whom full access to the fruits of liberty was intentionally blocked. We are therefore proud of our legacy of endurance and even prouder of the fact that we converted an assertion of the inferiority of African Americans into a triumph of human capacity. Like other HBCUs, we made a place to empower rather than disparage, to open minds rather than imprison them, to create pathways to promise rather than to stifle opportunity.
Such is the task of every true university. Those of you graduating today can well attest to that. When you first arrived at Harvard as undergraduate or post-graduate students, you most likely could not have imagined the many ways that your ability would be tested, your insights sharpened and expanded, and your prospects in life improved by studying at the University. I certainly didn’t expect such results when I arrived at Harvard and yet I know now that it is likely primarily because I studied at Harvard that I have had the deeply rich and satisfying career that I’ve enjoyed for so many years.
A product of a segregated upbringing in Houston and undergraduate study at an HBCU, I am ashamed to say that in my youth, I secretly bought into the prevailing racial assumptions of the day: that someone like me would be ill-prepared to benefit from and contribute to study at a university of Harvard’s stature. I expected to be flatfooted if not oafish in the company of well-heeled and urbane students who had the advantage of the best education and a wealth of experiences. While not outwardly immobilized by fear of failing the biggest test of my life, I was inwardly terrified that I would fail to measure up. Uncertainty and malaise governed my early days at the university.
Harvard was, you see, a place steeped in other peoples’ traditions—traditions that I could not easily access. My reaction was very much akin to the French expression denoting window shopping: “lécher les vitrines.” Those of us who are outsiders are often as mere observers looking through windows, salivating and wondering how we might ever be able to attain a sense of inclusion, acceptance and respect. Just as when, as a child, I was banned from white establishments, I identified as the outsider looking enviously at others who not only had full access to Harvard’s history and traditions but who also could so easily see themselves reflected in them. Few things that I could see at Harvard at the time represented me. Perhaps it is the memory of that feeling that moved me to remain in university life to make that experience easier for others who felt excluded.
The need to make universities more aware of how first generation and underserved communities reacted to the stultified tradition in many universities shaped my conviction about the importance of individuals feeling fully embraced and respected as learners, erasing vestiges of disparagement that inevitably accrue in an unequal society. Having been profiled and racially isolated and having carried within me for so many years the weight of that sentence, I understood that to change our country, we had to insist that everyone’s humanity, everyone’s traditions and history, everyone’s identity contributes to our learning about the world we must live in together. I came to believe what Harvard expressed in its admission philosophy: that such human differences, intentionally engaged in the educational context, are as much a resource to our intellectual growth as the magnificent tomes that we build libraries to protect and the state of the art equipment proudly arrayed in our laboratories. The encounter with difference rocks!
I believe that each of us has a solemn duty to learn about and embrace that difference. That undertaking takes not a month or a year but a lifetime of concerted action to ensure that we are equipped to play a role in caring for and improving the world we inhabit together. This responsibility should encourage us to commit to our individual as well as professional role in advancing access, equality and mutual respect.
Thus, I believe that the task of a great university is not merely to test the mettle and stamina of brilliant minds but to guide them toward enlightenment, enabling thereby the most fruitful and holistic use of their students’ intelligence and humanity. That enlightenment suggests the need for improving upon students’ self-knowledge but it also means helping them judge others fairly, using the full measure of their empathy and intelligence to do so. In an environment rich in differences of background, experience and perspectives, learning is turbo charged and intensified by the juxtaposition of these differences. Those open minded enough to benefit fully from the power of this learning opportunity are bound for leadership in this time of confusion and division. The Harvard model intentionally and successfully provides to students a head start in understanding how to mediate difference in an ever more complex reality in which some exploit those differences for corrupt purposes.
Today, irrational hatred of targeted groups is seemingly on the rise, stoked by opportunists seeking advantage for themselves and their profits. What stands between such malefactors and the destruction of our common purpose are people like you who, having experienced learning through difference, courageously stand up for the rights of those who are targeted. Your Harvard education, if you were paying close attention here, should have encouraged you to commit willingly to playing such a role. If you follow through on this commitment, in addition to anything else you accomplish in life, you will be saving lives, stanching the flow of hatred and the dissolution of our national bond. You will be serving the mighty cause of justice. If we are to thrive on this orb that we share, our schools and universities must contribute deliberately to increasing our understanding of the ways to interact meaningfully with others.
Harvard is, in some ways, the most powerful university bully pulpit in the nation. It did not achieve that status merely through its age and wealth; it attained that status principally through the efforts of its faculty and graduates’ scholarly and professional output. Through its gates have come generations of scholars with immense intelligence and passionate purpose to whom fate bequeathed the laurels of success. But it is important that universities model in their own values and actions the high purpose that they hope to see in the actions of their scholars.
In that vein, Harvard has a special responsibility as both a prod and steward of the national conscience. It could sit on the hill and congratulate itself on its prowess but it could also use its immense stature to address the widening gaps in how different groups experience freedom and justice. I spoke earlier about the heroic work of HBCUs and minority serving institutions that keep our country open and advancing the cause of equality and access. Yet, many of them have been starved for much of their history by the legacy of underfunding and isolation from the mainstream of higher education.
I call on universities like Harvard to acknowledge the limitations imposed on these institutions over the past decades. While universities like Harvard had the wind at their back, flourishing from endowments, strong enrollments, constant curricular expansion, massive infrastructure improvements, and significant endowment growth, HBCUs often had gale force winds impeding their development. Our nation is finally coming to terms with the consequences of the underfunding of HBCUs but we are far from where we need to be if we are to be assured continued progress in the fight for equal educational benefits.
I ask the university that did so much for me to add to its luster by embracing the opportunity to stand alongside these historic and other minority serving institutions to build stronger partnerships, advocate for greater funding, and elevate the fight for parity and justice to the level it deserves. Let us not complain in a hundred years that those historically excluded from access and opportunity continue to ask how much longer it will take to gain the respect, inclusion and support that their service to the nation deserves.
Many minority serving institutions accept students from impoverished underserved communities where educational preparation often lacks the pre-requisites needed for certain careers. Children in those communities may experience the same or a worse fate than I and my peers did during the pre-Civil Rights era. Consigned to underfunded schools and alienating curricula, they must wonder as I did what will befall them in life. ublic schools saved me and they have the burden still of saving millions of children across this land. In so very many cases, these institutions are the only hope for many children and their families. Support for public education in this moment is as important as it was in the early days of the country when Horace Mann first called for universal education. For Mann, it was a matter of what our young country would need; it still is today as Mann’s emphasis on civic virtue continues to ring true.
Further, in such a moment, universities and all of you must play a leadership role in reversing the designation of the teaching profession as less intellectually worthy, less glamorous, and less important than the high-flying careers of financiers and technologists. Attention to and investment in K-12 teacher preparation and curricular content remains one of the most important ways for universities and the average citizen to contribute to the civic good.
None of us is exempt from responsibility for the future we give our children. Harvard has its role and so do all of you. I have come to ask you who graduate today what you are prepared to do to acknowledge and address the historic biases and inequities that so many continue to experience. Will your actions point us in a more uplifting direction? For, just as we recount the moral bankruptcy of those who cruelly enslaved others, we also tell the story of those who were equally guilty because they refused to challenge the practice of slavery. In the future, the history of these times will reveal both what we do and what we fail to do to address the unjust treatment of marginalized groups. Among all that you will have learned at Harvard, I hope that the consciousness of your responsibility in the struggle for equality remains with you. While the legacy of enslavement, racism, discrimination and exclusion still influences so much of contemporary attitudes, we must never conclude that it is too late to overcome such a legacy. For it is never too late to do justice.
Today, I call on all of you to declare that you will not give sanction to discriminatory actions that hold some groups back to the advantage of others. I call on you to be a force for inclusion by not choosing enclaves of wealth, privilege and tribalism such that you abandon the lessons you learned from your Harvard experience of diversity. I call on you to do your part to ensure that generations to come will no longer be standing on the outside fighting for fairness, respect and inclusion.
Today, after decades in the academy, my path has taken me back to a place where students are waging the same battles that were so hard fought when I was a teenager: safe passage in the face of bigotry, the right to vote, and equal access to educational and professional opportunities. Sandra Bland, a Prairie View alumna, was stopped for a minor traffic offense at the entrance to our campus. Jailed for this offense, she was found deceased in her cell three days later. Must every generation add more tragic evidence of the racial hatred that has troubled the world? Our work is not done as long as there are young people growing up with the thought that they matter less than others. As long as they have fewer and narrower educational opportunities. As long as they must fear for their safety every moment of every day of their lives. As long as their full participation in society is circumscribed by policies that willfully chip away at or block their rights.
Just as I ask Harvard to use its voice on behalf of minority institutions that have been unfairly treated across time, I ask you to add your voice to the cause of justice wherever you go. Help the children of need wherever they are: in underfunded public schools, in neighborhoods bereft of resources, in search of a way to belong. If they do not hear your voices advocating for them and their worth, what must they conclude about their place in the world?
If you take up the cause of these children, you are taking up the greatest cause—that of justice. Today, you earn your laurels as a scholar. Taking up the cause of justice, you will earn your laurels as a human being.
Congratulations, once again, and God speed.