HBCU DIGEST: Ruth Simmons was HBCU primetime well before Deion Sanders

If Deion Sanders’ being named Jackson State University head football coach turned a corner for historically Black athletics, then Ruth Simmons delivered to the HBCU community an entirely new way to look at the speedway. This week, the Prairie View A&M University president announced plans to retire from the institution five years after assuming the role.

It wasn’t Simmons’ background as a history-making Ivy League president at Brown University that makes her unique or her PVAMU tenure remarkable. In her five years, she set new fundraising records, developed infrastructure for faculty compensation and programmatic development, and made strong inroads with a less-than-friendly Texas A&M University System.

She is brilliant and well-rooted enough to know that Prairie View did not need to be a carbon copy of Brown to be attractive and positioned to receive goodwill. The early days of Sanders’ tenure were a stinging public recovery from shock at the resource disparities between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions.

Worth and discovery of HBCU value were the hallmarks of Simmons’ time in Waller County. She didn’t talk about what we didn’t have and how unfair it was, but rather, how much more folks beyond the HBCU community could win by investing in it.

It isn’t clear when Simmons will step down, but it will leave a significant hole in HBCU culture when she does depart. One less Black woman in charge and one less mind with generational expertise on higher education are not good things, particularly in Texas where astute leadership can make the difference between a system allowing an HBCU to expand or harming it incrementally.

The plan was for Ruth Simmons was to make PVAMU, one of the nation’s largest and most productive HBCUs, a larger brand within Texas and the national higher ed conversation. She excelled at that task when just half of her effort could have gotten the job done and did it at a time in her life when fame and wealth were not presiding job perks, and the headaches of HBCU leadership weren’t assets of future ambitions.

Ruth Simmons got a lot done in a short time and made it look easy. If there’s a blueprint for how to run a Black college in the 21st century, it looks a lot like that.

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