Berkeley Talks transcript: Ruth Simmons on access and equity in higher education

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode 196: "Ruth Simmons on access and equity in higher education."

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.

[Music fades out]

Lisa García Bedolla: If folks could take their seats, we're going to go ahead and get started. We're going to get started, Margaret. Thank you. Welcome. My name is Lisa García Bedolla. I have the honor of being the interim director of the Center for Studies of Higher Education this year, and I also serve as vice provost for Graduate Studies and dean of the Graduate Division here at Berkeley. 

And I have the privilege of welcoming you to our 2024 Clark Kerr Lecture. I'm going to start with a few housekeeping items. The first is just to remind you to please turn off your cellphones. I'm not going to ask you not to take them out because I know that's not possible, but just turn them off, please. And then folks will be walking down the aisles with cards. There'll be a question and answer session at the end of the lecture, and so if you could please take cards.

If you want to just hand some to every aisle, Helena, that would be great. Fill them out, and then folks will be gathering them at the end so that we can make this easier. And just a reminder that today's lecture is being livestreamed, so any noise in this room will be captured for all eternity. So, just keep that in mind as you think about what you're doing in this space. 

So, welcome. I'm going to start by introducing our wonderful chancellor, Carol Christ, who is the 11th chancellor of the University of California. She will be introducing our guest speaker. Chancellor Christ is a celebrated scholar of Victorian literature and is also well-known as an advocate for quality accessible public higher education, a proponent of the value of a broad education in the liberal arts and sciences, and a champion of women's issues and diversity on college campuses. Chancellor Christ spent more than three decades as a professor and administrator at UC Berkeley.

I will note she actually signed my diploma, thank you. Before she became the president of Smith College, which is one of the country's most distinguished liberal arts colleges where she served from 2002 to 2013, and as it happens, her immediate predecessor in that role was none other than Dr. Simmons. She returned to Berkeley in January 2015 to direct the Center for Studies in Higher Education, who is sponsoring today's talk, so we've come full circle, Chancellor Christ, today. 

And in April 2016, she was appointed interim executive vice chancellor and provost for the campus, and was named our chancellor in March 2017. She will be stepping down as chancellor on June 30 of this year, and we are lucky that we have our new chancellor in the room as well, Rich Lyons. And I would like to take this opportunity to say what an honor it has been to serve as a member of your cabinet and to be your partner in leadership during this time, and I'd like to thank you for all you've done for Berkeley. And with that, please welcome Chancellor Christ.

Carol Christ: Thank you, Lisa. It's my great pleasure to welcome you to the ninth presentation of the Clark Kerr Lecture. I would especially like to welcome UC President Drake who is with us today for this wonderful occasion. It was in 2001 that the University of California and the Carnegie Corporation established the Clark Kerr Lectures on the role of higher education in society. 

Organized by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley, the lecture series provides an important campus venue for leading scholars and practitioners to reflect upon and share their thoughts about major policy issues facing higher education. It's only fitting that this lecture honors Clark Kerr, one of the great leaders and scholars in American higher education. His vision of the university as a public trust where all thoughtful ideas can be examined demands our continued support. I've also been reflecting on Clark Kerr's insistence that the university exists not as an isolated ivory tower, but inside a general social fabric of a given era.

This is a quote from him, "The lines dividing what is internal from what is external become quite blurred," he said, "an important reminder for the university dedicated to advancing the greater good, but also a sobering truth when we're called to confront the impact of our disordered and polarized world on the unique culture of our campuses." It's like this moment now. 

These times and these challenges make it all the more important to recognize, celebrate, and honor those leaders who have stood out in the tricky terrain of American higher education, and so we're deeply honored today to welcome Ruth Simmons, an esteemed colleague, visionary leader, and fierce advocate for equitable education for all. I really encourage you to read Ruth Simmons' autobiography, Up Home: One Girl's Journey. She was the 12th child born to sharecroppers in a small town in Texas. She earned a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literature from Harvard University.

She's currently the president's distinguished fellow at Rice University. Dr. Simmons actually came out of retirement, familiar story, to serve as the president of Prairie View A&M University, an HBCU, from 2017 till 2023. Under her leadership, Prairie View significantly expanded its scholarship support for students and was reclassified as an R2 research university under the Carnegie classifications. 

Ruth Simmons is one of these distinguished leaders who has led with great distinction, three very different institutions of higher education. From 2001 to 2012, she served as the 18th president of Brown University where she was the first African American president of an Ivy League institution, and she came in with this wonderful, wonderful initiative to expand the faculty and really build Brown. 

She made Brown University a need-blind institution and established a committee on slavery and justice to investigate Brown's historical involvement with the transatlantic slave trade. Before Brown University, She headed Smith College beginning in 1995, and she was a transformational president for Smith. As you only know when you follow in someone's footsteps, I know all the amazing things that she did.

She launched the country's first engineering program in a women's college, she created incredible internship program called Praxis, and she was just such a wise, charismatic and visionary president for the college in ways that are benefiting it still today. 

In addition, Dr. Simmons has held leadership positions in various advisory roles at other universities. As a transformational higher education leader, Dr. Simmons has received many awards and more than 30 honorary degrees. Dr. Simmons symbolizes the kind of generous, inspirational, and impactful leader the Clark Kerr Lectures were created to recognize. 

Throughout her long career and even in her retirement, she's worked tirelessly to open higher education to all, regardless of background or means. For these and for so many other reasons, the Center for Studies in Higher Education has invited Dr. Simmons to give the 9th Clark Kerr Lecture. We're honored to have her with us today. Please join me in welcoming her, and I'm honored to present her with this plaque.

Ruth Simmons: Thank you.

Carol Christ: Thank you.

Ruth Simmons: I think I'm going to have put it... I hope I don't knock that over.

Lisa García Bedolla: There's a stool right behind you.

Ruth Simmons: OK, thank you. Carol, I thought I was in pretty good shape as you were introducing me, but I found myself getting very emotional, in part because to be in the company of so many people whom I respect and who have shown me the way is an amazing experience. 

The other aspect of it is that, my God, I'm at Berkeley. At Berkeley. And so you mentioned that I was the 12th child of sharecroppers. I think about my tiny community in Houston during deep segregation and the very low expectations that the world had for me and people like me when I was a child. And to think that I have been able to receive so much help and support over the years to do things that have meant so much to me is quite overwhelming. So thank you, Carol. Thank you for all of our leaders here who've done so much for young people around this country. We have not done nearly enough, so thank you.

I want to express my gratitude for the honor of the invitation to visit Berkeley as the Clark Kerr lecturer. I'm sincerely humbled to be here in that capacity honoring a venerable and courageous educator whose remarkable leadership inspired so many and made such a difference for all of higher education. I'm grateful for the efforts of the Center for Studies in Higher Education in arranging an itinerary for the week's residency that has led to many informative meetings and lots of exhaustion.

Helena Brykarz, senator manager; and vice provost, and Dean Lisa García Bedolla have been immensely helpful and attentive. Although Lisa, where are you? I have to chastise you for one thing, that's what we do, and that is, you actually told the president of the University of California system to sit down because you had to start. I was appalled by that, but hopefully he wasn't though.

And of course, I want to thank Margaret Heisel, a colleague from my earliest days as a faculty member, and she has been especially welcoming to me. I could go on and cite many more people here who have been meaningful to me, including Bob Birgeneau and Jan Holmgren, but I want finally to say to Carol how much it means to me that you are here and that you introduced me this afternoon. Thank you for such a generous introduction. 

And to President Michael Drake, who's been a valued colleague for so many years, sharing the experience of leading an AAU institution. When we started, there were very few people we could relate to in a way because we were out there on our own, and it was always good to see you leading so confidently when there were so few like you to observe. So, thank you. What I want to talk about today, as you know, is access and equity in higher education, but I want to warn you that you're not going to like what I have to say.

Well, you're not supposed to like what I have to say, but I have been thinking and pondering constantly what to do in the midst of this seemingly intractable dilemma that we have with regard to access and equity. And I've been trying to put together some thoughts about what this moment means right now and how we should see this moment, because I know that many like me who've been through these past years have very strong views about equity and access, and I think one of the dangers we have is we might not be open to looking with clear eyes at this moment in history. So I want to deal with that a little bit and I look forward to your comments afterwards about how you think about this. It's no overstatement to assert that the long journey to equal access and fairness in education has reached a critical inflection point.

It's also no overstatement to say that policymakers, legislators, educators, scholars, students, parents, and others are in a quandary about how to resolve sharp differences of opinion about the proper path forward. Yet as history has shown, the failure to resolve satisfactorily the issue of whether and how the state should address the causes and effects of discrimination will continue to impair progress, sow seeds of hatred and despair, and make even more distant the goals and ideals enshrined in the United States Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. 

Yet as we know, considerable efforts have been undertaken by various branches of government, non-profit institutions, for-profit institutions, educational institutions, and activists, to reconcile the immense differences over what constitutes appropriate remedies for past and present discrimination. That we have failed to resolve this question adequately almost 250 years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights proves the intractability of the dilemma.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act is signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964, reads in part and acts to enforce the constitutional right to vote, to confer jurisdiction upon the district courts of the United States of America, to provide injunctive relief against discrimination in public accommodations, to authorize the attorney general to institute suits, to protect constitutional rights and public facilities in public education, to extend the commission on civil rights, to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs, to establish a commission on equal employment opportunity and for other purposes. 

And Title VI of that act reads as follow, Under Title VI, discrimination on the base of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance is specifically forbidden. Were that the authors of this act had considered the fact that the ambiguity of this provision, ambiguity, specifically forbidden, would engender a constant need for further exposition.

Looking back over the decades in which so many would-be statutes, rulings, and interpretations tried to clarify how affirmative action was to be implemented and contained, one must wonder why that clarity has not been definitively established. Institutions and branches of government have lurched through 60 years of debate about how affirmative measures are to be used to address past and present discrimination. 

Now opposition to the enactment of affirmative action was prevalent from its very onset. If you read the wonderful accounts of what it took to get the act passed, it will remind you how difficult it was to get it done and how much opposition there was to it at the beginning. In reflecting on the endurance of the opposition, we would do well to consider that this policy was created in large measure to address the social and political dilemmas that existed at a particular moment in U.S. history.

While a number of U.S. presidents, starting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had sought to initiate remedies for discrimination against Blacks, little progress was actually made until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The vote of the Congress to deliver the act to President Lyndon Baines Johnson occurred in the wake of end during a period of significant social instability and political turmoil. 

As we think about what's happening today, remember the climate in which it was created, and now today the climate in which we have to decide how to go forward. Very similar, and perhaps somewhat more challenging. Most notably, these things had occurred in that period, the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963, when four children were killed, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. These events opened a wrenching period of violence that caused many to contemplate the potential for the country to sink into greater and greater chaos.

During this period, civil rights leaders continued to call more and more insistently for the adoption of long-stage civil rights for Blacks. The deepening engagement of the United States in Vietnam was another factor. Frankly, the need for a large number of troops to support South Korea's campaign against the Vietcong aroused concern that the disaffection of Black troops, already a significant portion of the U.S. military, could become a problem. 

Martin Luther King Jr. made note of the fact that African Americans were paying a higher cost for the war in Vietnam and suggested that it was important for the nation to pay attention to the seriousness of this disparity. After all, he warned in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, "It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment." And so the troubling tenor of public and political life at the time demanded solutions.

The need to calm the nation in the wake of desperate calls for justice and increasing harbingers of violence gave rise to a solution that although not endorsed by all, was developed to withstand the inevitable assaults on its legitimacy in a nation still unable to deal ... I misread that, sorry. Was insufficiently developed to withstand the inevitable assaults on its legitimacy in a nation still unable to deal with what Du Bois called the problem of the color line. 

The act passed not simply because of a timely recognition of the need for change and the will of a majority of the country to do justice, but rather out of a concern that the survival of the democracy required action that moved us beyond chaos and violence to an improved chance for peace and security. A clear signal of where the country was headed was very much needed, and this act was meant to ensure that. The executive order of Sept. 24, 1965 that followed tried to provide guidance on how the recently affirmed rights were to be assured.

While John F. Kennedy's executive action had preceded this 1965 executive action, Johnson's more substantial Executive Order 11246 offered specific bureaucratic details without expanding the interpretation of the original language. Instead, the order required the dissemination of non-discrimination policies, ongoing monitoring of efforts, written plans and goals, the enumeration of actions to be taken, and a bureaucratic infrastructure to support these efforts. 

This was just in time, because by 1965, 31% of the ground combat battalions in Vietnam were African Americans. So in understanding recent actions opposing affirmative action, it's useful to recall the political violence which echoed the circumstances that led to the original development and enactment of affirmative action. This is especially important as a reminder that although we may now apply moral arguments to the conduct of affirmative action, that is neither the cause of its enactment nor the uniform present-day perception of its use, just at its beginning. Current-day legislative efforts, legal judgments and political activism in regard to the policy can be more pragmatically and perhaps more effectively understood as originating from the context of this moment.

We might do well then to fashion a response that recognizes that even persuasive arguments are unlikely to have a positive effect. In the effort to alleviate tensions, the creation of this path to greater equality and opportunity may have critically missed the mark in failing to foresee the problems inherent in the language. That language has given rise to its perpetual reinterpretation over the decades. 

For as specific as the statute language was as to setting goals, producing reports, appropriate monitoring and so on, there was little guidance given as to the actions that would definitively satisfy the government's intent under affirmative action. Strewn across many sectors, enactment would inevitably be interpreted in a variety of ways. Special measures particular to each sector could be created to render the various programs specifically relevant to that sector's goal. Further, as different practices developed, the reach and complexity of affirmative action's footprint grew. This expansion and ongoing reinterpretation ultimately stretched the credibility of the policy and invited its undoing.

Full realization of equal opportunity for all was to become a broad-scale ambitious effort leading some to our that it involved more than mere equal opportunity, but instead something far more sinister and contrary to the equal protection it afforded all citizens. To be sure, the quest for fairness across all races, genders, religions, and personal circumstances is a broad enough umbrella, and vague enough that there will inevitably be room for some to contest the legitimacy of the idea, and for others to affirm that such a goal is too vague to be practically or fairly implemented. 

Given the language enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the use of race as a consideration in addressing past discrimination was a high hurdle to overcome, at least not without a more fundamental reckoning with its implicit contradiction. As David B. Wilkins notes in Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, by Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann, "all race-conscious government policies should both reduce injustice and the colorblind criteria of fairness. This will help citizens to understand that it is justice and not simply race that underlies color consciousness and public policy."

Affirmative action as practiced over these decades has failed to persuade enough citizens and policymakers that its intent is appropriate. Wilkins further comments, "The relationship between moral argument and public opinion and the moral connection between results and process are central to the democratic process. Efforts to undermine, block and curtail affirmative action speak loudly to the fact that the moral connection between the process of affirmative action and its results lacks resonance sufficient to allow its continuation in its current forms." 

It has never been more apparent, I think, that the need to help policymakers and citizens appreciate the moral connection between the goal of fairness and the actual measures used to ensure it cannot be ignored. In universities where so-called academic merit is deemed paramount, affirmative action was initially implemented in ways to protect pre-existing meritocratic ideals on which selectivity practices were said to apply. Hewing to the standard practices of the past, institutions made little progress in the earliest days of implementing affirmative action.

The determination of merit could often be difficult to measure, particularly in areas where the interpretation of quality was patently subjective or where bias and favoritism had long prevailed. Further, as the idea of explicit goals was undermined, institutions moved to new and untested approaches for determining merit. 

In applications, holistic consideration became important. The context for the individual's prior performance of appeared a legitimate means of comparing applicants with disparate prior experience and unequal preparation. The cottage industry of diversity and inclusion flourished in most recent university efforts as a means of contextualizing and addressing such disparities. Acknowledging the limited knowledge of many in regard to the lived experience of minorities, institutions turned to educational programs to ensure that those making decisions in admission and hiring would be sufficiently aware of different contexts within the pool of applicants.

While the executive action initially gave permission for the education of individuals in positions to make such decisions, the practice expanded to include a more general and generous idea. Should not all in the community be made more aware of different cultural contexts among students? 

Ultimately, in many instances, the broader project of educating institutional members about the nature of diversity offended more than it informed. As the conduct of affirmative action expanded to include such broad efforts, affirmative action became the problematic policy that many had feared. No longer narrowly constrained, it had grown into a set of practices in direct conflict with the venerated if unrealistic policy of race neutrality. So what started out as a simple and mechanistic process of assuring fairness to all who qualified evolved into a complex set of measures intended to change society and ensure a broad understanding and acceptance of the continuing need for measures to compensate for past and present discrimination.

It should have been evident that in time, the practice of affirmative action would be challenged in its breadth and reach, if not in its presumed intent. Through a series of measures at every judicial level, courts have tried to address the burgeoning practices that grew out of affirmative action. Over time, as court cases steadily narrowed the basis on which an applicant's race could be considered a factor in admission, universities proceeded with an ever-broadening list of approaches. 

One wonders today why we were not aggressively seeking a simple more self-evident rationale for justifying the effort to diversify our campuses. The best rationale was not only staring us in the face, but steadily growing more important over time. The makeup of the country and the trajectory of the percentage of non-whites in the U.S. population was predicted to surpass the capacity of the nation to ignore affirmative action to achieve a kind of moral parity in access. The argument for a diverse and inclusive approach is that it is the best means of preparing the country for an economically sound future and a peacefully and productively engaged polity.

According to the 2023 U.S. census, the 59% of whites in the United States is expected to be overtaken by the combined numbers of Hispanics, Asians, Blacks, and others, resulting in non-whites and Hispanics being the greater proportion of the US population. In my view, as long as bias against such groups persists, that is the unimpeachable argument for a continuation of a virile policy of broad ethnic, racial and gender inclusion across education and elsewhere. 

Notable educators such as Bowen and Bok and Bollinger and Stone have asserted as much. Bollinger and Stone state unequivocally in a legacy of affirmative action, "Those who believe that affirmative action creates more problems than it corrects, or is a solution to a problem that is no longer a problem, are deeply misguided. Yet as misguided as they may be, a new political reality, similar to the one that created affirmative action, is now questioning the morality of the practice and pushing away any notion that it is a just practice."

This is taking place even while and perhaps because of the fact that the states at the leading edge of condemning and ending such practices, Texas and Florida, are already majority minority populations. The introduction of the complicating factor of white fear and the question of the right of whites who become a minority makes this the most challenging political environment yet for affirmative action. 

How does one make convincing arguments in favor of affirmative action practices to remedy discrimination when a large portion of the public do not see it as relevant to their rights and their well-being? Directionally, the most recent decision of the Supreme Court could be said to have been predictable, given the various shoots that had sprouted over the decades since the 1960s legislation.

While repeated attempts had been made to narrow the aperture through which we view affirmative action and diversity, the argument that diversity as practiced by Harvard and North Carolina was a sham and inconsistent with the intent of equal protection had come to roost among the justices, as well as among many in the public. I was an expert witness in the Harvard trial, in the run-up, at least, to the Supreme Court case, and in my testimony at trial as a witness for Harvard, opposing counsel asked me to justify the use of race as a factor in providing access to opportunity. 

Remembering the divisions in the country during my childhood and the long road from the harm of segregation policies, I recalled in that moment how challenging it was for us as a nation to overcome persistent hatred and bias. And in that moment, for some reason, the anti-Semitic shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh came to mind, and I lost it.

Losing my composure, I could only respond because if we don't bring different people together in this country, what is to become of us? Though embarrassed by my loss of composure, I was not embarrassed to assert what I've asserted all of my life since my experience of deep segregation as a child, what are we to become if we are unable to bring different groups together in the service of an overridingly important common project, a thriving democracy? That question animates all that I do. 

Indeed, what is to become of us if we turn aside the imperative of creating not only a fair environment for all, but one in which we can all feel a stake in the preservation of our way of life? I was recently at the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia where I had the privilege of going into the vault that protects and preserves original documents from the period of the founding of the country.

It was breathtaking and sobering to see the marginal notes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as they tried to fine-tune the outlines of the country they would bequeath to us. The difficult work and trade-offs necessary to create and preserve a shared project to which in the main we all belong and from which we all benefit must not be underestimated. It will take more than a mere reassertion of the myth of meritocratic decisions in a country rife with bias since its founding. 

To create and preserve a peaceful and commonly affirmed national life, it will take persistence, it will take vision, it will take belief in the value of justice. It will take an acceptance of responsibility for our past omissions and misdeeds that wrongfully exploited disadvantaged groups and the service of other groups. Could it be that we should have foregone the generalized and anemic postulation of the value of diversity in favor of a more reasoned and logical formulation of the impact of a robust and intentional diversity?

Could it be that the argument for diversity could have been greatly bolstered by the full engagement and varied contributions of scholars and citizens from across the entire spectrum of education and communities, rather than primarily from a narrow set of fields? After all, knowledge, theory and argumentation are our strong suit. The perceived wishy-washy concepts of do-goodism under the rubric of DEI may have proved to [inaudible] to answer questions about the dubiousness of these practices, or to stance the growing resistance among the public. 

Affirmative action moved from being a measure, a measure to address discrimination, to massive strategies covering a range of offenses. From addressing overt and illegal actions on the part of racists to unintended microaggressions, the range of behaviors and actions targeted under this rubric became fodder for derisive accusations. Yet we cannot convincingly maintain that we are a nation of freedom and equality if we lack measures to assure that every group is entitled to fair treatment and access.

Perhaps fair treatment and access should never imply that we are entitled to everything. So if our conduct of affirmative action has compromised its future, our conduct, and steadily impaired its use, what's to be done to preserve the importance of diversity in the educational environment? I have a few suggestions. 

Number one: Universities must collaborate, be proactive. They must be clear and persuasive in defining the elements of learning that are enhanced by the presence of differences of background, differences of viewpoints, and differences of cultural experiences. We should define to what extent a carefully curated diverse environment should take priority over rigid measures of merit. 

And being proactive, administrations should involve scholars from a wide range of fields who are able to develop cogent theories for how different fields benefit from an inclusive ideal. Instead of relying solely on intuitive and unproven measures that are no more than unilateral statements of values that can be dismissed by those with overridingly different values, we should attempt a framework as strong as that handed us by Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and others.

After all, as the makeup of the country continues to change, it will be ever more crucial to understand the parameters of an inclusive ideal. Universities should embrace fully the primacy of their research and scholarly purpose by inviting both a more probing and theoretical as well as fact-driven process to elucidate the necessity and benefits of diversity in education. 

The work of Bowen and Bok with its copious appendices offers an excellent example. University boards, presidents, faculties, and alumni should affirm the importance of universities and colleges making their own determinations as to what and who is qualified in the educational context. That's one of the most unsettling things about the current reality, is the growing power of people from outside the academy to dictate what universities should do, and they dictate that with more support than we should feel comfortable with. The Harvard case is a good example of that.

As Bowen and Bach said in The Shape of the River, "As a society, we should think very carefully before reducing the authority of institutions to make their own determinations." As flawed as we may be as institutions, we're still a heck of a lot better at making these decisions about the educational context than anybody else in society. 

Claiming this responsibility requires a serious commitment to hearing the concerns voiced consistently about the overreach of affirmative action and DEI. Such concerns more than suggest that universities are too far out of step with the public they serve. At the same time, it's precisely because of concern for the future of that public that universities must press ahead to play their role in securing justice for those who have been unfairly denied access to opportunity. We must consider and prioritize what we can do to regain the moral authority to represent the interests of the public.

I saw a very powerful photo in the president's office yesterday, if I may refer to that. You have a photograph of somebody working in a field, and what you said to me is that the fact that there are people in the public who are detached from what we do, completely unaware of our efforts, should not at all deter us from working feverishly on their behalf. I think that's a wonderful way to think about it. 

We serve the public. And whether they know it or not, we should work as hard as we can to ensure that their interests are served. We should commission anew an effort to draft a blueprint for a nation of difference. This may be far-fetched, but thinking about the congressional Congress and the Constitutional Convention and the ways in which the fights went on for days trying to come to some agreement about the shape of the country, I thought, what a wonderful thing.

It's not unheard of for us to continue to do that even today, and so I would love to see an effort led by universities to draft such a blueprint. Now, many different societies have attempted this in small part, but nothing as massive as what we ought to be trying to do. I believe that educators should assert the primacy of their experience and knowledge in forging policies of access to education. In doing so, we must begin to erase the impression that the conduct of fairness in education is sloppy, that it greatly overreaches, and that it has little to do with the quality of education. 

DEI as currently practiced may have been irreparably wounded, irrespective of the malevolent intent of recently formulated laws to terminate its use. Although many DEI programs will now be rebranded, it would be a mistake to assume that all of the practices developed and imitated under this rubric should continue.

The implications of the forceful attack upon DEI programs should not be missed. We should consider these factors. One, we cannot seek fairness by castigating those who have no responsibility for withholding the rights of others. That kind of language has crept into the way we talk about diversity to the extent that the broad brushstrokes of diversity programs indirectly or overtly impugn the dignity and morality of individuals not specifically responsible for actions in needs of redress. They should be abandoned. 

This is the wonderful thing about diversity and inclusion. The word inclusion says it all, and yet what we're doing is excluding certain people from that model. And so, that begs criticism when we do that. The academy has long held on to the myth of merit in its admission, hiring, and advancement decisions. The argument that decisions in regard to intelligence, potential, and future success must rely on a limited set of quantifiable standards is manifestly unfair in an environment of bias.

We argue that educators and experts are best able to make determinations of merit, yet we have a history of not using this expertise to make such decisions. I'm sure many of you could cite examples of outstanding, well-qualified people who have been barred from appointment. 

Instead, we have employed a number of proxies that have little to do with the gritty reality of exercising expert judgment where students have been educated [inaudible] scores they have achieved, even when we are aware of disparate preparation for such tests, are prioritized in the process. We look to ability in areas that have nothing whatsoever to do with intellectual work to inform our decisions. These practices should suggest that academic merit is not the sole, or sometimes not the most important factor in our decisions. Truthful and transparent declarations of how we select applicants and hire professionals is paramount.

We simply must be truthful about our practices, otherwise we lose the trust of people that we serve. We should defend and disclose the reasons for the legitimate weight given to educational experts in the admission process. Emphasizing the experience of educators who have observed performance and success over a protracted period of time as the most reliable and fairest means of judging present merit and future potential is worthwhile and sensible, and we should advance that argument without shame. 

In hiring, the lazy ways that we've organized our endeavor works against us. Let's do the work that only we can do, deploy our knowledge and experience as the best means of judging present ability and future promise. Opaque policies that are promulgated in equally opaque language share responsibility for setting the public against universities. We must remember that we are accountable to a variety of audiences in the profession of our work.

The marketplace expects that students will have the benefit of an education so that they will be maximally fit for the tasks they will have to perform over an extended period of time. Families expect that we will provide education in a reasonable framework and at an affordable cost so that postgraduate life will not be weighed down by disappointment and debt. Policymakers expect that we will purvey our wares in a transparent fashion that convinces the public that we are meeting our stated mission in a responsible manner. 

Yet if we do all that well, we still may not have done what the founding of this unique nation called for, that each and every one of us would be able to participate in our common governance, that each of us would be treated equally and fairly, that in this democratic nation of equals, we would share in the benefits of freedom.

I agree with Bowen and Bok's conclusion that the goal of greater inclusiveness is important for reasons both moral and practical, that offer all Americans the prospect of living in a society marked by more equality and racial harmony than we might otherwise anticipate. 

Education makes possible the smoothing out of the unequal circumstances into which many are born. Educators are therefore on the front lines in ensuring that this democracy endures because we are optimistic enough, brave enough, and wise enough to create and manage a process in which the public as a whole feels well-served by our work. And so our efforts to make plain where we stand in regard to evening out unequal circumstances are in this moment all-important. So, let's get about the work of making plain where we stand. Thank you.

Lisa García Bedolla: Thank you so much, Dr. Simmons. We are at time, but I'm hoping folks will indulge just a few questions, if that's OK. And I'm going to start-

Ruth Simmons: I didn't know about that 10 minutes late starting.

Lisa García Bedolla: Sorry. Berkeley time. We're going to start with some ... But folks were kind enough to offer questions online when they registered. If you have questions on your cards, if you could please signal to Helena who's coming down and pass them across so she can bring them to me. That would be great. But we had a few questions that speak to the role of HBCUs and whether in this moment, it's possible, and your microphone's right there, for HBCUs to teach us something about how to navigate that transition that you're talking about in terms of both having admissions processes that are open and fair, but also serving the public good in terms of educating diverse students?

Ruth Simmons: Well, first of all, that's a category of institutions that's not as monolithic as people think. And so, there are state institutions among HBCUs that follow the parameters of that state-governed educational system, and they have very little leeway to create any novel approaches. I think that the history of HBCUs teaches us a good deal about what matters in education, if I may put it that way. 

So when I graduated from high school, my teachers didn't think I was fit to go to an integrated university because I ran my mouth too much and I was very rebellious, and they thought that I would be punished for that in a recently integrated university. And so they sent me to an HBCU for a very particular reason, because they thought I would be able to develop there under the watchful eye of people who cared and understood that I needed that kind of time to develop as a student.

In that regard, I would say it's absolutely the case that HBCUs do well when it comes to understanding how to nurture students and how to give them room to grow. And that's something that we can certainly learn from. It's no accident that many of the strongest leaders that have been produced in this country have come out of HBCUs. That's not an accident. And that is because, again, of that opportunity that it's given students while they're in an HBCU environment to be challenged, to be pushed, to be accepted fully, and to be encouraged to do their best and to be strong in their identity.

Lisa García Bedolla: Thank you. There's a question about another non-monolithic group, but speaking to your broad experience as a president, what opportunities and challenges do you believe that Black women presidents in particular have ahead of them at this time? And has anything really changed for them as leaders?

Ruth Simmons: I don't think so, actually. I think that it is certain that we are in a moment in this country where people feel the ability to push back and to push hard, because isn't it wonderful that people have become impatient with the success of different groups? Isn't that wonderful? I think it is. They're impatient with the success of women, impatient with the success of Black women and so forth. 

And all that says is that that success is undeniable. And so what we're going to see is more and more attention given to that and more skepticism about it. Now, that doesn't mean that every woman is treated fairly. And if you look at what happened at Harvard, there's no question that the cabal that determined that they wanted to oust her at any cost were upset with her identity primarily. Not with other factors primarily, but her identity.

And so I think there are still venues where it's very hard in a leadership context to accept people who look different, who speak differently, who are different and so forth. So we can expect that we can sometimes be rejected as leaders because sometimes people like to identify with leaders, and when they don't look the way that they should look or sound the way they should look or have the background that they desire them to have, you can get reactions. But by and large, I think we'll see African American women continue to excel, and I think that that's going to be inevitable no matter how much people push back and attack.

Lisa García Bedolla: You raised my curiosity though in terms of ... Especially knowing Claudine Gay and being a colleague of hers, and knowing her background and just how incredibly accomplished she was as a person, I'm curious, was there anything that could have been done to push back against those that had a strong reaction to her appointment from the beginning? I'm curious, is there a response to the cabal, or does the cabal-

Ruth Simmons: Well, I'm very much a pragmatist, if that isn't obvious to you. I am, and I think that when we try to do anything different at all, we should expect that we have a special obligation to probe how to do it well. 

And so I believe that the corporation did not do an adequate job preparing themselves and preparing her for the onslaught that was to come, because anybody could see that that was coming. So I think that was very unfortunate. 

But again, think in terms of the way in political environments, the way in which people mobilize to counter actions that they do not approve of. And when they mobilize to counter actions, you should not be surprised that that's happening. And if you're surprised it's happening, there's something wrong with your strategy. And secondly, preparing for that, if I was sitting on the corporation ... Oh, my God, this is being taped, right?

Lisa García Bedolla: Yes. 

Ruth Simmons: I'm employed by Harvard, so I have to be very careful. 

(Audience laughs)

But nevertheless, I think if you are going to take a bold action, your first obligation is to take great pains to understand what the consequences will be, what the reaction will be. 

This is second nature to us because we've run universities and we're used to students reacting sometimes to things that we say and do, and faculty as well, and so we're ready often for the reaction that we're going to get. Governing bodies are not as fleet of foot, I would say, in doing that, but I do so wish that the corporation had been more mindful of the step that they were taking in terms of the way it could destabilize the institution if alumni came to weigh in the way that they weighed in. 

Now, admittedly, the Hamas-Israel situation arose, and that's difficult for anybody. All presidents have had challenges navigating that. But even without that, I think it would've been the same outcome, frankly.

Lisa García Bedolla: And just to explain in case people don't know, Harvard is governed by the Harvard Corporation. That's the governing body, which I think to a University of California audience may sound a little strange, but that's what they're called. So another question in a somewhat different vein, attacks on diversity exists alongside targeted attacks on African American studies, ethnic studies, and general women's studies. Can you speak about the value these departments bring to the university and what might be lost if they disappear?

Ruth Simmons: Well, first of all, they bring truth. It is especially tragic to be in a learning environment in which you, by virtue of the absence of a full account, are teaching a portion of what people should know. 

And for so long, women were not a part of the curriculum. African Americans and others were not a part of the curriculum. And how can that be a valid university, speaking the truth about history and about culture? I don't get that. 

So these departments are essential to the modern university in that they represent the full inclusion of areas of study that have to be studied. And those of us who came along before that was possible, before universities accepted that, had to fight for the idea of these studies being legitimate areas of inquiry. And now that they are there and they are doing legitimate inquiry, we must not allow them to be removed.

Lisa García Bedolla: Thank you for that. So our final question, our audience has undergraduates, graduate students, new faculty, more senior faculty, retired folks, what are some final words of wisdom you would like to share with our audience today?

Ruth Simmons: Oh, gee. Well, I think that we are the luckiest people in the world. Denizens of educational institutions are at the most important place in society, in my view. I don't know of anything else that can have the impact on society or on the impact of evening out these disparate circumstances. I don't know of anything else. Certainly not money. 

You could say that, "Well, if I had money, I would be just like everybody else," but I think those of you who know people with a lot of money know that that's not always true. So what is better than being where we are? And that's why it's so important to both protect the university and all that it does for society, to continually be open to criticism of what we do, to be capable of adjusting what we do as time goes on. Because remember now, we're caught in a moment right now where people are heavily critical of universities.

But remember, it wasn't so long ago that people were heavily critical of universities because they were not doing enough to try to expand the base of learning and so forth. And universities at that moment had the capacity to understand that the university, as it was constructed at the beginning, was not the university that it needed to be today. 

So we are ever-changing, ever open to the possibility of becoming stronger and more effective, and that is the best of all possible places to be. I feel so fortunate that I have been able to be in this profession for all of my life. I have been a bit of a rebel. I have been critical most of my time as a university denizen. I have offered suggestions often about things that could be done better. And somehow, always it's been possible to get things done because there's somebody who will listen, there's somebody who's thoughtful, there's somebody who cares enough to want to be better. So I hope that students will remember that and not be shy about offering, oh, sorry, Carol, offering suggestions.

Lisa García Bedolla: After June 30, they're perfectly welcome to do that.

Ruth Simmons: Well, he's gone now, so it's OK. Because that is all-important. I remember I was a very junior person at Princeton, and I was very troubled by the fact that there were no women ... Is Jan still here? There were no women in certain fields at Princeton, and I was so troubled by that. 

And so I stayed up late one night writing a white paper about how important it was to hire women faculty, as was my want. I finished it and I marched down the next morning to the president's office and to Neal's office, the provost, and handed them my white paper and left, thinking that my job was done because I had had my say. The next morning, the provost called me downstairs and I went in to see him, terrified. And he said, "Well, we read your white paper and we agree." And what a thing to happen.

It wasn't my position to do that. I was just a person who was concerned, and I took the time to do that and gave it to the president and the provost. And they had no reason to read it, particularly, or no reason to accept it, but they did. And as a consequence of that, we hired a huge number of women in the sciences following that. 

So one never knows what input will have an impact. And I know now from my many years of working that the things that I least thought would have an impact have been the greatest things that I can recall. And so, small input, precise input is very important always, because the great thing about universities is that we are diverse and we have so many perspectives and so many insights. And imagine, I met a couple of students yesterday from Peru.

Imagine, you can talk to people from Peru, and you can share experience with people from all over the world. You can talk with people who've lived in poverty and want, and people who have grown up an entirely different way. 

So all of that is the opportunity for us to become better at being citizens and better at showing other people how to be good citizens. So my final pitch is, let's talk to each other. Let's not allow this period to split us apart. As long as we engage and we are insistent on listening to others and respecting others and accepting the fact that we have an obligation to everyone, I think we'll be OK as a country. But if we don't do that, I do worry about what is to become of us. Thank you.

Lisa García Bedolla: Thank you so much, Dr. Simmons, for all of the wonderful wisdom. And I invite you all to join us for a reception. There will be snacks in the atrium and we can continue the conversation. Thanks very much.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Outro: You've been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. Follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can find all of our podcast episodes, with transcripts and photos, on Berkeley News at

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