Ruth J. Simmons — a former president of Brown University and the first Black leader of an Ivy League institution — told the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Class of 2023 to “nourish and inspire generations of learners” during the school’s convocation ceremony Wednesday, one day before University-wide Commencement exercises.
Simmons’ keynote speech was preceded by opening remarks from HGSE Dean Bridget Terry Long, several speeches from graduating students, and a faculty address delivered by HGSE lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy ’93. Several HGSE faculty members also received awards for excellence in teaching.
Simmons previously served as the president of three universities, most recently leading Prairie View A&M University until she unexpectedly resigned from the role in late February. She will begin a new part-time role at Harvard on June 1 as a senior adviser to the president of Harvard on engagement with historically Black colleges and universities.
Facing an audience of graduates and their loved ones, Simmons stressed the importance of educators in a world where education is coming increasingly under attack.
“Educators are now frontline workers with the task of not merely providing a service but the duty to bring to the world a vision of what is possible, even when signposts read, ‘Danger ahead, do not proceed,’” she said.
With school shootings on the rise and an increase in political attacks on educational curricula, Simmons also said students themselves are increasingly anxious about the future.
“What new tragedy they must ask will arise tomorrow to unsettle further their future? What old hatreds will reemerge, slamming shut doors that heretofore stood ajar?” she said. “More and more often, it seems such doubts are the ever-present companions for students from the time they start school until they graduate from college.”
Simmons said educators will have to contend with classrooms of students who question whether there is any hope for the future.
“Fortunately, you will be called on to provide that hope to those who face ever-present doubts as they attempt to focus on doing their best,” she said.
Simmons recounted the importance of education in her experience growing up during the 1940s in the Jim Crow South, when “unknowing demagogues ordered that every person of my ilk should be relegated to limited education and achievement.”
“I was born at a time of darkness and limitations,” she said. “Enlightened individuals resisted the calls for permanent enslavement of our minds, and aspirations. And with the help of educators, I was able to have access not only to learning — not only to learn, but to hope in the future.”
Simmons praised the graduating class for their choice of profession and urged them to take an “oath of office” to “exemplify and defend the bedrock values of education, truth, open-mindedness, independence and rigor of thought, and a commitment to the advancement of society.”
“If you accept these values — and, more importantly, if you live up to them — you will forever be hopeful, forever strong in your views of what matters and forever, forever able to heal this nation,” Simmons said.
Closing out both her speech and the HGSE Class of 2023’s convocation ceremony, Simmons reminded the graduates that they, as educators, have the “capacity to shape the future.”
“By embracing education, you’re clutching the lifeline to a sane and sensible future for our children,” she said.
“Yours is a calling above all others,” she said. “Thank you for embracing this magnificent profession.”