‘An Academic Life’

Hanna Holborn Gray, who led Yale and the University of Chicago in eras of overt sexism, discusses her new memoir -- and her advice for a new generation of women rising through the ranks.

March 20, 2018
Cover of An Academic Life, by Hanna Holborn Gray

Hanna Holborn Gray was born in Germany in 1930 and as a young child immigrated to the United States with her parents, part of a generation of academics who fled Nazi Germany. She grew up as her father taught at Yale University and demonstrated academic excellence from an early age, enrolling at Bryn Mawr College at the age of 15.

She rose through American higher education as a faculty member and administrator. Gray was typically the first and/or only woman in various roles throughout her career. She served as acting president of Yale in 1977-78, and then for 15 years as president of the University of Chicago. At gatherings of the leaders of research universities, she was regularly the only woman in the room.

Gray's memoir is An Academic Life (Princeton University Press). She discusses her childhood and her work at Yale (primarily as provost, where she was the first woman to hold that position there) and at Chicago, helping both institutions deal with economic changes and budget cuts. She notes that at Chicago, younger than Harvard and Yale, she did not encounter as much sexism as she did at the older, more elitist institutions.

Via email, Gray responded to questions about her book and her career.

Q: How did your background as an immigrant -- and as part of a family escaping Nazi Germany -- shape the way you viewed the world?

A: Growing up in two cultures made my outlook internationalist and my interest decidedly European. I was exposed early in life to the political threats posed by the Nazi regime. I came into contact with many of the Central European academic refugees who were friends of my parents and listened as they discussed the loss of academic freedom and integrity in their home countries, the failure of democratic hopes and republican institutions, the evils of anti-Semitism and its impact, the prospects for war in the Europe of the 1930s. I grew up in a household committed to the New Deal and to the principles of openness, opportunity and freedom in America’s institutions of higher learning, brought up to respect the dominant values of the higher learning and its purposes. Education was all important in the lives of the refugee scholars and their ambitions for their children.

Q: You come from an academic family. Were you destined for "an academic life" from early on?

A: My academic family certainly stressed education as the greatest priority, but my parents did not necessarily expect me to become an academic. They did, however, assume that I would have a profession. As a child, the last thing I wanted was to enter the family business (this included both grandfathers and my aunt as well) by becoming a professor. I thought being a writer of great novels or an international journalist much more exciting. My parents took every idea of this sort seriously and urged me to work very hard and strive to excel at the highest possible level in whatever the project of the moment. In my second year of college, I realized that what I really wanted was to be a historian, that there could be nothing more interesting or satisfying, and that ambition has never changed.

Q: What led you to move into administration?

A: Moving into administration just sort of happened rather than coming from a plan or pre-existing goal. One thing led to another. I have always been very happy in the life of teaching and scholarship, and I was happy in returning to it after leaving the presidency. Participation in institutional activities, serving on committees, stimulated an interest in learning something of the nature of university governance and the issues and responsibilities it deals with. The events of the 1960s that saw a drive to transform universities into activist instruments of social ideology heightened my sense of the fragile independence of institutions whose purposes need constant and recurrent affirmation and reaffirmation in the light of such recurrent challenges and new contexts. I found that I enjoyed working with so many different people, with the wonderful variety of issues that present themselves, and with always new and unexpected opportunities for learning across a wide range of disciplines and programs, all this in the service of a mission that really matters.

The process of finding ways in discussion with others to resolve or find workable consensus on issues of importance that provoke disagreement but require action in the university’s best interest (and coming to some agreement on what that may mean) I found infinitely interesting. I found, too, a genuine satisfaction in leading or enabling such processes. There is, I discovered, a significant teaching component in teasing out and communicating the complexities of the questions involved and the decisions or recommendations to which they lead.

Q: At Yale and the University of Chicago, your leadership came at a time of budget cuts. Today many universities again face belt-tightening. What was your philosophy about managing such situations?

A: Universities live in cycles of growth and consolidation or retrenchment. They are of course subject to larger economic cycles and to the shifts of public support, both at the federal and state levels. They are also subject to their own tendencies to want to do more things that are worthwhile, more and more desirable programs, than they have resources to manage. They have also to contend with an irreversible reality: the costs of learning itself keep rising, in part because of their own successes. Quite apart from adding new programs or simply keeping up with important new developments of knowledge, the underlying costs that accompany the search for new knowledge and state-of-the-art education have a dynamic of their own.

One has only to think of the expenses connected with the new, and always advancing, forms of technology. Research and teaching demand better and better facilities. Their support requires larger and larger teams of specialists. The expanded range of activities mounted by (and expected of) universities in the larger economy is not costless, nor is the broadened range of student services they increasingly offer in a consumerist universe. I believe that these realities make it still more imperative to be disciplined and selective in choosing a university’s priorities, to define its areas of strength and focus, to confront the fact that no one institution can or should try to do everything, to find more points of collaboration with others where possible.

I think also that the need to tighten spending provides a potentially constructive occasion for thinking more deeply, freshly and carefully about the individual university’s specific goals, comparative strengths and strategic choices, for reviewing the institution as a whole and dispensing with things, not just adding them. Necessity may force one to make the decisions it is easier not to make in times of prosperity. I think this process has to take place with the greatest possible transparency, that one should share with the university’s community as much information as possible about the budget and how choices made there express priorities asserted for the institution as a whole. One should try to engage the faculty and other university members in understanding the reasons and substance of major financial difficulties and welcome their ideas and collaboration in helping do what needs to be done.

Q: What parts of your tenure as president at Chicago do you consider your most significant accomplishments?

A: I hope that my main contribution to the University of Chicago -- and of course any accomplishment rests not on a single person but on the large contributions made by a large cohort of colleagues -- is to have brought some stability and clarity of direction to an institution that was highly vulnerable to the very serious problems that beset the university world at the time I took office, working to preserve and strengthen its central tradition and character while responding to a changing and difficult environment. That we could do so speaks to the power of a pervasive ethos that the University of Chicago possessed as its most important legacy: a sense of itself as a genuine university that valued above all the vigorous life of the mind wherever that led, a veneration for tough intellectual debate and accomplishment, and a belief in connecting the differing subjects and modes of the higher learning in innovative ways. It is a university built on nonconformity, and I like that especially.

Q: You became an administrator and a university president in an era when there were very few women (arguably no women) in comparable roles. Today there are many more women serving as presidents, deans and so forth -- though many report experiencing plenty of sexism. What kind of sexist treatment did you receive?

A: I was fortunate to be returning to a university [Chicago] where I had taught previously for a considerable period, so I was not an alien presence and always felt accepted. I was lucky in my upbringing, had a wholly supportive husband, had attended a women’s college that encouraged independence and individuality and showed women as leaders in an institution where men and women worked together with mutual respect. I was also used to being a little nonconforming.

Study at Oxford and then at Harvard was an eye-opener; women were second-class citizens at both in ways hard to imagine today. For example, even as a junior faculty member, I was barred from entering the Harvard Faculty Club by the front door. That was only the tip of the iceberg. On the other hand, I had unusual encouragement from the men with whom I studied, and my own disposition was to find comical what was simply silly and to disregard rules that in fact tended to vanish once one actually walked through the front door.

As a junior faculty member at Chicago, I found a university, coeducational from its origins, that was far more welcoming. Even so, traditional attitudes toward women lingered in a variety of ways that subjected one not to what I would call “sexism” but seemed a kind of indifference or insensitivity to its existence. And at Yale, where becoming provost held high visibility, there were traditionalists among the alumni and faculty who were still trying to come to terms with a coeducational Yale and found my appointment hard to accept.

Q: What is your advice to women rising through the ranks of academe today?

A: I sometimes encounter young women who say they would like to become presidents and ask how to get there. I always ask why they want this and am often surprised to find them surprised by the question. They take for granted that it would be a great thing to do and that the position confers power to do something worthwhile. There are of course many different paths to administrative careers in the academic world. Above all it takes, I think, a strong sense of mission and the recognition that the work is one of service, of enabling and securing an environment in which people are free to do their creative best.

If the aspirant is already an academic, I think the best preparation remains that of pursuing a full career of teaching, scholarship and institutional citizenship, of gaining a deep acquaintance and experience and sympathy with the patterns and complexities of the institutional life that creates a foundation for the higher learning. It is hard to offer general advice; every situation is sui generis.

One useful bit of counsel: have a sense of humor. Another: be yourself. Cultivate perspective, listen and observe. Be sure that you are looking at the right fit, for yourself and for the institution you want to serve. Finally, be clear that it is not about power.


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