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Former Brown University President Ruth Simmons challenges complacency on diversity

When Ruth Simmons went away to college from a poor section of Houston, she didn't have enough money to buy clothes. Now, after serving as the president of Brown University and of Smith College, Simmons, PhD, has not only the money, but also the flexibility to select which speaking invitations she accepts.

And at first, Simmons admitted Friday at the third talk in the Dean's Lecture Series, she was tempted to decline the request to speak on diversity. After a lifetime of refusing to be defined as the "black" woman or the "poor" girl, she didn't want to be known as a diversity expert.

But: "My initial cynicism gave way to the concern I have for the state of diversity in higher education and society at large," she said. Just look at the recent events in Baltimore, she said; clearly something is amiss.

Nationwide, there is strong support for the abstract concept of diversity, Simmons said. "But when disassembling diversity into its component parts, support fractures depending on what was at issue." When pressed about issues such as fair pay, employment opportunities and integration, communities disintegrate into divergent factions.

And in the past, people stuck together in like-minded communities, wary of what she called the "jangle and discord of clashing opinions." With advances in technology, and the increasing diversity of the U.S., isolation and insulation are no longer possible, she said.

Modeling ways to live together, while airing and respecting difference views, is a responsibility that students and faculty at elite universities need to take on, Simmons said. And universities must be prepared to institutionalize debates and create processes for disagreement. Inherent in the protection of diversity is the protection of free speech, she said.

Top universities should also not shy away from high expectations related to diversity. And their efforts to enhance and support diversity in all forms — race, income, sexual orientation, gender — should go beyond "laissez-faire statements on inclusion." She lauded Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, for his efforts.

Minor agreed that "diversity is close to my heart." He said he is motivated by the "fundamental belief that diversity makes us better as individuals and as society, but also because diversity is critical for the work we're trying to achieve here at Stanford Medicine. In order to lead the biomedical revolution, we must have a diverse community."

Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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