Voices of Simmons

President Wooten’s Investiture Address

Delivered at Simmons University, April 11, 2022. The following remarks have been edited for length and clarity.

Good morning and welcome! It gives me great joy to share this day with my mother Delores Perry who is joining virtually, my husband and life partner Dr. David Wooten, my children Justin and Jada, my aunts Mary and Glenda and my Uncle Kevin, who are taking care of my mom while I do my Simmons work, and many other family members, friends, colleagues, and guests, some of whom have traveled to Boston from around the country. I know, too, that my ancestors who have transitioned are here with me today.  
Please know that I am excited, honored, and humbled to stand before you. As I look around this room and at our virtual viewers, I am struck by how many of you have had a tremendous impact on my life, personally and professionally. Thank you for joining us to celebrate this historic moment for our institution.  
Let me also recognize our distinguished guests, including Senator Edward J. Markey, State Representative Chynah Tyler, former Boston Mayor Kim Janey, Boston City Councilor Kenzie Bok, and past Simmons presidents Helen Drinan and Dan Cheever, who are joining us virtually.
I would also like to thank our Investiture Steering Committee, our Board of Trustees – including our extraordinary board co-chair Regina Pisa and vice chair Bert Ifill – and other members of Team Simmons for their hard work in putting this Investiture together. I am also grateful for all of the wonderful speakers and performers who have made today so memorable. I especially would like to give a shout out to my brother and sisters in the academy: President Dwight McBride, who is always there for advice and support; Dean Erika James, my best friend and co-author; and President Martha Pollack, my mentor.  
As a child, I was taught that proverbs are earthly sayings with spiritual meanings. Proverbs help you make sense of the world through metaphors and collective, wisdom and serve as conversation starters. I especially enjoy African proverbs. There is so much wisdom in these brief sayings and phrases – guidance that has been passed down from one generation to the next. Here’s one, especially for today: Every success has a foundation.
For me, every success I have ever achieved has been built on the foundation first given to me by my family, my various villages, my kinship networks, and by higher education. In 1984, I went to college at the age of eighteen and never left. I love college! If you do not believe me, just ask the postal service, or my friends joining us here today from my various college towns – “Aggieland,” North Carolina; Gainesville, Florida; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Ithaca, New York; and now Boston.
Because of my extensive experience on college campuses as an undergrad student, graduate student, faculty member, parent, dean, and now president, I can personally attest to the transformative power of Higher Education – in changing lives, in creating opportunity, and in advancing a more just society.
I became the ninth president of Simmons in July 2020 during the middle of a global pandemic. Let’s put it bluntly: It has not always been easy. But while the pandemic has created many challenges, this time has also provided me with many gifts – gifts of people’s time, of their warm welcome, of their grace and guidance. I have been able to meet so many of our students, faculty, staff, and alums while also getting to know new people throughout greater Boston. You have helped me feel at home here in this city, making sure I have been able to attend my first Red Sox game, visit the MFA with my family, and experience more than a few local restaurants. Just as important, this first chapter has given me the opportunity to learn and discover about Simmons itself – its history, the vital importance of its mission, and the people who serve as the heartbeat of this great University.
Investitures are a unique opportunity to both reflect and look ahead. As I look back on these 21 months, two words jumps out: passion and resilience. The passion and resilience of Simmons itself and of all those who make up our community.
Let me tell you about one of my first introduction to the passion of the Simmons community. Back when I was an assistant professor, I had just won a grant, and I wanted an extraordinary MLK Day speaker to come to my class at the University of Michigan. I decided was going to invite the first African American president of Junior Leagues, my friend Deborah Brittain. I didn’t know Deborah at the time. But she came. She arrived in Ann Arbor on a typically cold, snowy day, dressed to kill in her heels. And from the moment I met Deborah Brittain, it seemed that every word out of her mouth was about the passion of Simmons: “Simmons is so innovative! Simmons has this great leadership conference! Simmons transformed my life when I got my MSW there!” Well, I wanted some of that passion. I wanted to be like Deborah when I grew up. And honestly, that’s a big part of why I accepted this job at Simmons. The passion that I felt from Deborah has always stayed with me.
I have also learned how resilient our community is. We have faced, and are facing, daunting challenges – a global pandemic, a major social and racial reckoning, threats to democracy at home and abroad, and changes to the higher education business model. Through it all, as the gospel song says, our community has rallied, helping to make the world better through our teaching, scholarship, learning, research, and service. This is our special sauce, and it leads us to a simple but powerful rallying cry:  When Simmons leads, the world works better.
Since our university’s founding more than 120 years ago, members of the Simmons community have quietly gone about the business of making the world a better place. Healers and helpers. Learners and doers. Our graduates are nurses, social workers, librarians, artists, archivists, authors, at least one Grammy-nominated singer, writers, scientists, journalists, CEOs, and so much more. We infuse vibrancy and leadership into institutions across Boston, the nation, and indeed the world.
And while I believe humility can be a virtue, we should never be content to be quiet. This is our moment. We have so much to be excited about. It is time to tell the Simmons story – our collective stories – loud and proud. It is time to lean into this as we build the foundation for the next generation’s success, by advancing our mission, investing in innovation, and empowering everyday leadership.
The University’s founding mission has never been more important, or more relevant. Simmons University was founded to educate women for their life’s work and financial empowerment – thus creating more an equitable society. A Simmons education is and has always been grounded in a kind of learning that links passion with lifelong purpose. At its best, it is a vibrant and expansive resource for students who want to go out and do good in the world—for themselves and for others.
Today, we offer the only undergraduate program in Boston for individuals who identify as women, along with a variety of nationally recognized co-ed graduate programs. A women’s-centered education is incredibly powerful, particularly when paired with liberal arts, professional education, and faculty members who genuinely love to teach. 
It is not true of every school, the way it is of Simmons, that students and teachers can engage side by side, sharing their vision and imagination, brimming with equal parts self-determination and generosity. This is the source of our magic, unique to these halls, that attracts a certain kind of scholar today as it has since 1899. Let us all be proud to walk among them. I know I am.
But to keep our mission thriving, we must continue to support our faculty and the academic excellence Simmons has always been known for. As part of this commitment, I am excited to announce a new Faculty Excellence Fund to provide additional resources, support, and funding for faculty.

The faculty have heard me say that I know they think administration is the Dark Side, but at the heart of my identity, I am a professor. You have also heard me say that when I forget I am a professor, I go home to my husband and he reminds me to be a professor. This fund is so important to me because I remember, in my professor days, the funds that helped Erica [James] and I to write a book, the funds that helped me write a case study or create a simulation, the funds that provided conference which I told my children were their vacations.
We also have also to continue our commitment of becoming one of the most inclusive campuses in New England. Our mission is enhanced through our deeply held values of diversity, inclusion, social justice, belonging, and what I call “experiential equity.” That is, that every member of our community is provided with transformative opportunities to be their best self. Because if one does not lead inclusively, one is not really leading at all.
The University will also continue to invest in the innovation and creativity that has set Simmons apart over the decades. Simmons was an early leader in online education, and we must utilize our experience and expertise to distinguish the value of our online programs in the years ahead – especially for our Complete Degree and graduate programs. If the pandemic has taught higher education one thing, it is this: high-quality, technology-aided instruction must be a key component of our degree portfolio moving forward.
Even as we understand the need to be ever-more sophisticated and differentiating in our online presence, we also affirm and celebrate our physical location, right here in one of the nation’s most vibrant and iconic cities. For so many in our community, our campus in the heart of the Fenway is a glorious part of the Simmons experience.
Our major campus innovation project, called One Simmons, is both a key to our future and part of our present. During the past 18 months, we have modernized our academic campus and will soon celebrate the opening of new, state-of-the-art library and science facilities. Later this year, we will break ground on the final phase, a new Living and Learning Center that will serve as a vibrant epicenter for all of Simmons. 
At the same time, we must continue to model innovation in the workplace. The pandemic has permanently changed the way we work. And we must be creative and flexible to continue to attract and retain the faculty and staff that make Simmons thrive.
Finally, we must promote and empower everyday leadership at every level within our institution.
It is the everyday leaders who inspire me. Everyday leaders embrace a life of continuous learning and are true to their origin story, their identity, and their strengths. They are courageous in pursuing their individual vision even as they empower others to be their best selves. Everyday leaders utilize their talents to solve problems of their time and to make the world a better place.
The world needs everyday leaders now, perhaps more than ever before. Top-down leadership will never be as effective, or as inclusive. And each of us has a role to play in our collective future.
The Simmons Institute for Inclusive Leadership is playing a critical role in helping us advance leadership as we envision a future where every individual is valued, educated, empowered, and emboldened to lead.
Simmons University is Boston’s premier leadership institution, and today I am honored to announce a substantial gift and transformative investment in leadership initiatives at our university with the establishment of the new Jennifer Eckert Center for Leadership and Engagement. The Eckert Center is made possible through a $5 million dollar gift from alumna and Trustee Jennifer Eckert ’08 MSW and will provide new leadership experiences for students, faculty, staff, and alums. A portion of the funding will also go to our Institute for Inclusive Leadership to advance leadership programming geared for the corporate, nonprofit, and government sectors.
I am also thrilled to announce that Simmons has been accepted into the nationally acclaimed Bonner Leader Program. We are the first university in Massachusetts and only the third in New England to do so. This program will enable students to access scholarships and boost leadership training through community service, campus involvement, and civic engagement. The Bonner program is aligned with our initiative of work and career development as a high-impact learning practice.
As I close today, I am struck by another African proverb: However far a stream flows, it doesn’t forget its origin. We stand here today bolstered by our past as we work to achieve an even stronger future.  And I am reflecting on Youth Poet Laureate Alondra Bobadilla’s poem from earlier this morning. She spoke powerfully about a “renewed, reborn, and reformed” Simmons, and reminded us that this is “not the work of one but of the collective, of the community.”
We will no doubt have challenges in the months and years ahead as we renew and reform. But what stands before us is a bright future – one filled with opportunity as we continue to fulfill our mission and leverage our creative drive to chart the University’s future course. It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. Because we know that when Simmons leads, the world works better.

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