On Campus

Colleagues, students remember late African American Studies professor’s passion for teaching

Courtesy of Amy Manley

Renate “Rennie” Simson graduated from Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences in 1956 and obtained her Ph.D. from the School of Education in 1974. Simson taught at SU for 37 years.

In the classroom, Renate “Rennie” Simson called her students “Mr.” or “Ms.” followed by their last names. She told her students that because they referred to her by her last name, she should give them the same respect, said Kenny Lacy, a senior African American Studies major.

“It was really the first time I have ever had a teacher or a professor or anyone in that sort of authority showed that they really did care about us with the respect,” Lacy said.

Simson, a professor of African American Studies who taught at SU for 37 years, died Feb. 19. Born in Austria, Simson graduated from SU’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1956 and obtained her Ph.D. from the School of Education in 1974. After teaching at the State University of New York Morrisville, she returned to SU for a faculty position during the 1990s, said Herbert Ruffin, African American Studies department chair and associate professor of history.

The African American Studies department will hold a commemorating event honoring Simson on Thursday between 5 and 7 p.m. at Sims Hall 219.

Andre Yearwood, a junior public relations major, took Simson’s writing class on black culture last semester. On the first day of the class, he was surprised that Simson, a white professor, walked in and started teaching a class that was filled with predominantly people of color.

Yearwood recalled that Simson was going to read a passage one day to the class that contained the N-word. Simson told the class that even though she considered the word horrible and didn’t want to say it, she also didn’t want to censor the word, because she wanted students to “get the feel for the truth,” Yearwood said.

“It proved to me that she was very dedicated but also she wasn’t going to sugarcoat what the history was and that is what something a lot of teachers sometimes do,” Yearwood said.

Over the course of the semester, he said Simson demonstrated her knowledge in the subject well by tying artwork from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s into the contemporary political climate. The class provided the opportunity for students to appreciate black artists who don’t get the same kind of appreciation as writers such as Shakespeare and Mark Twain, Yearwood said.

Lena Allen, a senior political science major, also took Simson’s class on black culture last semester. Allen said even though she was shy to speak in the discussion-based class, Simson, who showed up to class with abundant energy, made everyone in her class comfortable to speak up, ensuring she got the most out of students.

Lacy said Simson was a compassionate and understanding person. He recalled that while he was taking her class, he had to leave campus for a family emergency and she was the only professor of his to tell him not to worry about assignments and focus instead on being with family.

“It showed me that she truly cared and respected that we are also going through things in our lives. Every other professor still wanted me to get stuff in but she wanted me to take the time I needed to grieve and come back and get it all done,” Lacy said.

Simson published more than 30 articles and chapters in journals and books during her career, according to her faculty webpage. She also published a book in 2007 about inequalities of New York state public schools, her long-time research interest, per the webpage.

Karin Ruhlandt, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said Simson was not only prolific as a scholar, who published numerous papers and conducted research, but also active in her leadership role. Simson served as a department chair between 2010 and 2013 and an interim chair between July and December 2016.

“The African American Studies department is really a critical piece in educating all of our students about diversity and inclusion,” she said. “… And Professor Simson was a critical piece. She taught many students and thus, I think, enabled a lot of dialogues on campus.”

Simson’s cause of death has not been disclosed. Ruhlandt said she does not know specifics but knew Simson had not been feeling well.

Outside of her teaching role, Ruffin said Simson was fond of traveling. Simson worked to establish an exchange program with the University of Graz in Austria, her home country.

Simone Puff, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies, said in an email that Simson had talked at several Austrian universities as an outreach effort to help internationalize SU.

Puff, a graduate of Alpen Adria University in Klagenfurt, Austria — where she met Simson in 2006 — said Simson helped her settle in at Syracuse University about 10 years ago, making her feel at home immediately.

She described Simson’s passion for her work as “contagious.”

“… It consoles me that she is remembered by generations of students who are now residing all over the world,” she said. “ … Passing on knowledge to others in her pursuit to advocate for social justice was her ultimate goal in life. It makes me happy to know that her spirit will live on in all of us whose lives have been touched by her.”

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