College leader shows her face

Recruiting: A powerful weapon in the campaign of Smith College President Ruth Simmons to bring minority and disadvantaged students to her school is her own African-American heritage.

October 12, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LOS ANGELES -- At Hamilton High School, a grand old building in a gritty slice of West Los Angeles, Ruth J. Simmons surveyed a roomful of 35 black and brown female faces and saw her own.

Striding through the Hamilton library, with its posters of Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg announcing "Reading is Power" in Spanish and English, Simmons shook each hand and introduced herself as the president of Smith College. "You're the president?" one girl asked, incredulous.

Called the Jackie Robinson of higher education when she became the first black woman to head a top-tier college or university in 1995, Simmons has embarked upon what she calls a "personal crusade" to bring more disadvantaged students to her campus and similar institutions nationwide.

The 12th child of a sharecropper-turned-factory-worker who grew up in a Houston home with neither books nor desk, Simmons is stepping out of the ivory tower to recruit personally at vast urban public schools like Hamilton, a rarity for a college president.

"When I walked in the door, I thought, `This is home.' I recognized where I was," she said of Hamilton, a place with bars on the windows and where SAT scores average 944 (Smith students' are typically in the 1,200s). "One of the reasons I talk to students is because I want them to know a president looks like them."

Though the number of African-American and Hispanic students pursuing higher education has swelled in recent years, their presence in selective schools has remained flat.

At Smith, about 4 percent of the 2,800 undergraduates are black, 4 percent Hispanic and 12 percent Asian-American. The faculty is even less racially mixed, with just seven Asian-Americans, nine African-Americans and three Hispanics among 244 full-time instructors, at Smith, nestled in the small town of Northampton, Mass.

"Maybe they are trying, but it just hasn't worked so far," said Tory Shelley, 19, a sophomore who is one of two Hamilton High graduates enrolled at Smith.

So Smith, where tuition, room and board total $30,442 a year, has tried to sell itself to minority applicants with special campus visits; it has started a scholarship for inner-city students in Springfield, Mass.; and it has admitted a dozen first-year students with lower-than-normal grades and test scores, bringing them to campus a month early for extra help.

To prime the pump, it has also established partnerships with the Harlem School for Girls and with community colleges in Miami.

Other top-flight schools are taking similar steps. Princeton University has replaced student loans with extra grants for families with incomes below the national average (this year, $42,000).

The former president of Dartmouth College, James O. Freedman, said he tried to send a message by giving honorary degrees to prominent black and Hispanic scholars -- one recent recipient was Ruth Simmons.

At Smith, students and professors say the president's presence is as effective as any program. The class of 2003 has 32 African-American women, up from about 20 in previous years.

"She doesn't have to be speaking about diversity," said Katrina Gardner, 22, the president of the Smith student government. "You look at her, and it's like, wow, that's who she is."

Elisha Smith, a 20-year-old junior from Tupelo, Miss., who is president of the Black Student Alliance, said the small cadre of black students often feels pressured to educate the white majority on issues of race. Many have sought refuge in Simmons' weekly office hours and have become frequent dinner guests in her home.

"To me, this is a matter of national interest, a matter of national salvation," Simmons said of her efforts, which include convening a conference on race this fall.

"Bringing poor people from the margin into the mainstream is what we're best at, what we're known for."

Smith's profile has swelled alongside Simmons', as has its endowment, to $862 million from $507 million. Now Simmons, who spoke at the White House in March, skates seamlessly through a sea of white faces at alumnae events, receiving praise from well-coiffed older women and tattooed young feminists alike.

Pub Date: 10/12/99

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