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Looking Back

In New Memoirs, Two Former College Presidents Explore What Made Them Who They Are

Interviews by Wendy Greenberg

Two extraordinary women, both with leadership roles in higher education — and each with ties to Princeton — have written compelling memoirs that were published in 2023.

Drew Gilpin Faust, the first female president of Harvard University (2007-2018), whose father, uncle, and brothers were Princeton University graduates (she might have been, but Princeton didn’t admit women in 1968), has dug deep into her childhood and adolescence to understand the roots of her rebelliousness in Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury.

Ruth J. Simmons, president of Smith College (1995-2001), the first woman president of Brown University (2001-2012) and the first Black president of an Ivy League institution (and a former Princeton administrator), relives her journey from poverty in rural Texas, and circles back as she becomes president of Prairie View A & M University (2017-2023) near her hometown, in Up Home: One Girl’s Journey.

Each woman’s childhood made them who they are, setting them up to travel vastly different paths to the heights of higher education. Yet, they have some common ground. Each lost their mother as a teen. Each was motivated by the civil rights movement: one wrote to President Eisenhower when she was 9, pleading with him to end segregation; one lived segregation. Both experiences informed their responses to affirmative action as college presidents.

Born in 1947, Faust grew up in Virginia horse country, the great-granddaughter of a U.S. senator, and the daughter of McGhee Tyson Gilpin, Princeton Class of 1942. A historian of the Civil War and American South, she is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard and was the Annenberg Professor of History and director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees, and served on the faculty for 25 years. The author of six books, she visited Princeton this past fall for a talk at Labyrinth Books with former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman.

The book’s title is an homage to civil rights leader John Lewis, who often referred to “necessary trouble.” Faust writes in the book: “I did not have the privilege of getting to know Congressman Lewis until very much later in my life, but I have often seen that his words captured something of the essence of my childhood rebelliousness. It was urgent and imperative and I did not feel that I had a choice … penetrating the blindness and the taken-for-grantedness of the present and coming to terms with the real meaning of the misrepresented past would become for me work for a lifetime.”

Simmons, born in 1945, grew up in rural Texas and then in urban Houston, the 12th child of sharecroppers, in a loving family. She lived for a time with no running water, no electricity, and no books; discovered reading and going to school; and was mentored by teachers. She graduated from Dillard University, where a teacher had gone, and from there, Harvard Graduate School where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in Romance languages and literature. She is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.

At Princeton, Simmons is an honorary board member of the Princeton University Department of African American Studies. This past fall she presented a talk with Eddie Glaude Jr., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies, who provides praise for Up Home on the book cover. She spoke at Princeton’s Baccalaureate ceremony in 2021, and her portrait is in the University’s permanent art collection. Simmons was also first director of studies at Butler College, acting director of the Program in African American Studies, and a former University trustee. She is now an adviser to Harvard on relationships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and a president’s distinguished fellow at Rice University.

She writes: “I was born to be someone else. Someone, that is, whose life is defined principally by race, segregation, and poverty. As a young child marked by the sharecropping fate of my parents and the culture that predominated in East Texas in the 1940s and ’50s, I initially saw these factors as limiting what I could do and who I could become.”

Later in the book, as she is going to study in France, she writes: “I was constantly trying to return to the place of my childhood, which had imparted values I somehow knew I would need in my life.”

Here, the two women answer questions posed by Princeton Magazine about their memoirs, and their futures.

Drew Gilpin Faust, author of Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury

PM: What prompted you to write a memoir, and what process did you use to remember or research those vivid details from your childhood?

DGF: I wanted to tell the story of a time fewer and fewer living people remember — a time of rapid transformation and powerful reaction in American life: the 1950s and 60s. It was a time of constraints and conventions that were slowly being overturned to open paths for me that my mother and grandmothers could never have imagined.

My process in writing this book included rather traditional historical research in archives and in published materials — from family letters in a manuscript collection in North Carolina to the run of LIFE magazine in the 1950s. I come from a family of pack rats, so I had accumulations of scrapbooks and notebooks that included such gems as my elementary school report cards. I also wrote most of this book during COVID and discovered the magic of Zoom, which enabled me to reach out to people who were part of my life many decades ago and learn from their memories and perspectives.

PM: Who from your childhood most likely influenced you? Who did you consider a role model growing up?

DGF: I had no real role models for life as a woman beyond taking care of a husband and children. I knew no female doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, politicians. But I found role models in books that depicted girls who dare — from Nancy Drew to Anne Frank to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. I also began to see young people, including many girls, playing an important role in the world around me — as fighters in the Hungarian Revolution, as students courageously integrating schools. They were inspirations, too.

PM: In what way did the civil rights movement, or the changes in society at that time, impact you in college? And today, do you advocate for affirmative action?

DGF: Racial justice has mattered to me from the time I wrote to President Eisenhower as a 9-year-old entreating him to support integration. I spent the summer of 1964 with civil rights activists in the South, and in the spring of my freshman year of college I cut my midterms to go to Selma to march for voting rights. I have been a firm supporter of affirmative action and was its beneficiary when it was first implemented in the 1970s. I testified in support of affirmative action at the trial when Harvard was sued, and I attended the Supreme Court oral arguments in October 2022 that resulted in its elimination. I have published a piece about this in The Atlantic entitled “The Blindness of Color-Blindness.”

PM: At your Labyrinth talk, you said that the role of a college president is not to run the college, but to preside over the college. That said, what makes a good college president? 

DGF: I meant that comment as something of a joke, underscoring how many different constituencies — students, faculty, staff, alumni, and more — have a voice and a stake in university affairs. Presidential power at a university is very much negotiated, and authority and legitimacy are to a considerable degree earned. I would say a college president should be someone who listens well, sees herself serving the institution rather than her own ambition, is curious about every possible field of knowledge, gets energy from engaging with people, and is passionate about advancing learning, discovery, and truth for the benefit of our society and the world.

PM: What do you want to accomplish in the coming years? And, if you write a sequel, what would you want it to emphasize?

DGF: I have retired from teaching as of this past spring but will continue to write. I am a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and I have been discussing ideas for a next book project with my editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux. But there will be no sequel to Necessary Trouble!

Ruth J. Simmons, author of Up Home: One Girl’s Journey

PM: What prompted you to write a memoir, and what process did you use to remember or research those details from your childhood?

RS: Over the decades, I received many questions about my life and about how I came to be the person that I am. It seemed to me that the questions generally implied a certain implausibility to my journey. I grew to believe that the only way to address the persistent questions was to write about the mostly ordinary details of my early life. I believe, and wanted to demonstrate, that every life, even under the most challenging circumstances, holds great promise.

While I recalled many details of those years, family members actively and collectively recount these experiences at every opportunity.  It was not difficult to retain shared memories that were summoned so often over the years. Still, returning home as often as possible, I felt it important to interview older family members to ascertain additional details and sharpen my own recollections. I also revisited the places of my early life to understand that period better.

PM: I kept realizing that teachers played a large role in introducing you to learning new things and opening up your world. Would you say the book, is, among other things, a tribute to your teachers, and to education in general? 

RS: This book is indeed dedicated in large measure to the influence of education and teachers. Teachers in particular were the rock stars of my youth. They were the most educated people I encountered, and their lives and personae were immensely inspiring.  At the same time, they cared about us, pushing us to be more than we dared think we could be. Without their intervention, my life would have been very different and certainly less satisfying.

PM: In what way did the civil rights movement, or the changes in society at that time, impact you in college? And today, do you advocate for affirmative action?

RS: The civil rights movement made all the difference in my life. The fact that brave and righteous people came together to overturn unjust, racist policies empowered our steps and stoked our hopes that change would be possible. Without that glimmer of hope, our persistence would have waned.

It should not surprise us that the socio-political reality can be infected by unworthy and self-serving action on the part of powerful groups. But we should always be alert to the need to press unendingly for the fair and humane treatment of all groups. After all, our devotion to holding ourselves accountable for such actions is the measure of our humanity.

PM: It has been said that the role of a college president is not to run the college, but to preside over the college. That said, what is your philosophy of a good college president, having been one three times, and from the vantage point of a vice provost at Princeton?  

RS: A college president has a unique vantage point. Others have the luxury of advocating for particular areas, interests, and constituents. College presidents must advocate for the overall well-being and future of the university. That may at times put them at odds with different groups, but their unique responsibility for the whole of the university should be understood to be their priority.

At no time during my presidencies have I seen my duty differently. I believe my steadfast insistence on this perspective accounts for my longevity as a president.

PM: You have several new appointments (Rice, Harvard). What are your goals for improving higher education during this next phase of your career? 

RS: My roles as distinguished presidential fellow at Rice University and special adviser to the president of Harvard allow me time to pursue my interest in building collaborations among different types of universities. I am particularly focused on assisting long under-funded HBCUs that are classified as R2 research universities to enhance their research capacity through partnerships with leading universities.

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