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Ruth Simmons at Simon Institute talk: 'We have to get better at race relations'

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Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University said institutions of higher education have a responsibility to show how different races, faiths and opinions can come together and work together.

Ruth Simmons Prairie View A&M University

In this screenshot from Zoom, Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University visits with John Shaw of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale Monday.

During a virtual visit with John Shaw of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Simmons, a former administrator at Princeton and the first African-American president of an Ivy League University when she led Smith College, said improving relations is a top priority.

“We have to work at this every day,” Simmons said. “We have to try and keep getting better at race relations in this country.”

Simmons, who has served as president of the historically Black Prairie View A&M University since 2017, expressed concerns about the direction of public discourse today.

“What I fear most for the country now is how we seem to be moving away from the model of working alongside with people whom we disagree with and that’s a very dangerous path.”

The discussion was part of the Simon Institute’s on-going “Understanding Our New World,” a livestream discussion series with business, academic, governmental and civic leaders.

Simmons said she is proud of steps her university has taken since the death of George Floyd, including the establishment of a center for racial justice. The center’s focus is to find ways to work with law enforcement and civic organizations. The Texas legislature’s Black Caucus charged the organization with establishing a team of scholars who could advise lawmakers in an effort, as she said, “to move forward.”

“I think there is a hunger that people have for real solutions when it comes to addressing the racial issues in this country,” she added. “I am hoping that universities can be intermediaries in terms of showing organizations, governments and others how to work with differences of opinion, differences of background, differences of race, ethnicity and religion. Somehow, we’ve got to do that.”

She described her institution’s “activist-in-residence” position – a staff member charged with “teaching students more about their power as change agents in society,” according to the university’s website.

“One of the things that we don’t do very well on college campuses is giving our students an understanding of how they can have an impact on society, but doing it in a way so that they understand the peaceful, well-organized ways people who have come before them have undertaken to change society,” she said.

Simmons added that universities must be willing to take on difficult topics.

“We have been fond of telling the stories that we want to tell rather than the stories that we must tell,” she said. “Truth is a part and parcel of what we do in universities and what we must do.”

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