Prairie View A&M President Ruth Simmons to step down

Ruth Simmons has been at the helm of Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black university, since 2017. (Marjorie Kamys Cotera For The Texas Tribune For The Texas Tribune, Marjorie Kamys Cotera For The Texas Tribune For The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University and a leading voice in higher education for decades, plans to step down.

Simmons announced her decision in a message to the Prairie View community Friday, writing that "it is evident to me that a new leader must assume responsibility for advancing the University to a new level of excellence in student outcomes, faculty achievement and research output." She has been at the helm of the public, historically Black university since 2017.

"When I took on this challenge, I did not know that the country would experience social and political upheaval unlike any I had seen in my previous leadership roles. I did not know that a historic flood would affect the community so grievously," she wrote. "I did not anticipate a pandemic that would upend the way we work and experience the educational environment. I did not imagine that I would feel so grateful to be able to lead PV through this series of challenges and that PV would emerge stronger after such a perilous period, gaining in resources and reputation."

Before leading Prairie View A&M, Simmons served as president of Smith College in Massachusetts and Brown University, where she was the first Black woman to preside over an Ivy League school.

Simmons said she will continue to serve in the president's position until a successor is chosen, if Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp wishes. In a statement, Sharp said he has no intention of "allowing Ruth to leave the service of Prairie View and we will work hard to keep her here at a higher capacity." Sharp said that he and Simmons are discussing ways for her to continue serving the A&M System.

A Houston native who grew up going to Prairie View sporting events, Simmons thought she was retired from higher education when Sharp came calling in 2017. She initially agreed to be only the interim president — declaring herself "old and retired" — but later said the determination and commitment of the university's students convinced her to agree to becoming the permanent hire.

"Talking Ruth Simmons into coming out of retirement to lead Prairie View A&M University is one of the things I am proudest of," Sharp said. "In five years, she has transformed the university and set it on a path to success and I am thankful for her time as President."

When she was hired, she said she would focus on three elements: the state of the faculty, the financial support of students and the financial health of the school.

"I am pleased to say that while we have not made anywhere near the progress I had hoped for, there have nevertheless been quite substantial gains in all of these categories," she wrote in her letter.

During her time at the helm, the university increased its endowment by 40%, dramatically increased fundraising in all areas, launched multiple building projects and boosted financial aid, she wrote. In 2020, billionaire MacKenzie Scott donated $50 million to the university.

"Even as I reflect on these and other changes, I am humbled by how much remains to be done," she wrote. "Prairie View A&M is nowhere near what it could ultimately achieve as an institution of the first class. Our students deserve more, and we must provide it for them."

Disclosure: Prairie View A&M University and the Texas A&M University System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.