Nearly twelve years ago, while completing my dissertation, I was seated next to Hanna Holborn Gray at a conference dinner. The Renaissance historian, who served as the president of the University of Chicago from 1978 to 1993, told me about the changes she had witnessed in higher education during a long career, and described many of the émigré scholars whose works occupied my time and whom she had known—Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Henry Kissinger, to name a few. Gray’s sonorous voice and matter-of-fact approach to education mesmerized this eager graduate student. I resolved to learn more about her, and a few weeks later sought her permission to write her biography. She politely declined my request.

In retrospect, it was Gray’s no-nonsense approach to higher education that I found most enthralling.

In retrospect, it was Gray’s no-nonsense approach to higher education that I found most enthralling. Contemporary leaders at major research universities often seem to apologize for the work of their schools. Speeches from such presidents regularly focus on the responsibility of research universities to train leaders, socially conscious citizens, and entrepreneurs, or to provide the critical-thinking skills that employers value. Colleges regularly repackage graduation requirements in an effort to make a college education seem sexy and relevant. Rather than acknowledge research and teaching as intrinsically important—for the individual and society—university leaders risk coming across as snake-oil salesmen, boldly selling a product in which they have little confidence. It is no wonder students increasingly view themselves as consumers—confident that their demands with respect to every aspect of campus life (from curriculum to investment strategies) will be granted. Gray offered the unapologetic defense of higher education that I had longed to hear.

“As daughter and granddaughter, sister and niece, and finally spouse of an academic,” she begins, “I have lived in the university world all my life.” It is that world which Gray records in An Academic Life, a book that largely eschews confession in favor of a more dispassionate and annalistic chronicle of American higher education in the post-war period and the various institutions where she studied, taught, and governed. This opening line also reflects the ironic tone that flows through the book. Gray is generally applauded for being the first woman to serve in numerous executive roles in higher education, but, to her chagrin, this often became the primary focus of the media attention she received over the years, which “took the theme of the ‘first woman’ to do this or that;” she laments that “reporters never seemed to take any interest in my views on education or other relevant topics.”

The book begins with the vital role played by the exiled academics of her parents’ generation, who fled Hitler’s Germany and shaped scholarship in the New World, before shifting to her own generation of German immigrants, who inhabited both the Old and New Worlds of higher education. “I belong to that cohort,” she writes, “growing up in two cultures and schooled to some degree in two academic traditions.” Gray’s parents—the historian of Europe Hajo Holborn and the classical philologist Annemarie Bettmann—ended up in New Haven, where Holborn was appointed to Yale’s history department. Gray describes in vivid detail her learned family (consisting of multiple generations of academics), the intellectual ferment of Weimar universities, and their catastrophic decline following Hitler’s rise. Among the most interesting sections of the book is the story of the visionary philanthropic organizations that worked to find university homes for these exiles, and the network of scholars whose coordinated efforts brought important academics to America’s colleges and universities.

The memoir moves through the various cities and universities that have shaped Gray’s life and career. After a childhood spent in Berlin, New Haven, and Washington, D.C. (where her father worked for the Office of Strategic Services), she studied at Bryn Mawr, the University of Cambridge, Radcliffe, and Harvard, where she earned her doctorate in history. Gray followed her husband, the legal historian Charles Gray, to the University of Chicago, where she ended up receiving tenure and serving as a member of the history department until she left for a position as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University. After Northwestern, she spent four years at Yale, as provost and acting president, until she assumed the presidency of the University of Chicago.

In describing the process of writing a memoir, Annie Dillard once wrote, “You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, ‘And then I did this and it was so interesting.’ ” Gray successfully avoids that temptation. Her narrative presents the eccentric, and often comedic, charm of the collegiate world while also seeking to “discern larger conditions and developments of an academic universe always in flux . . .”

Gray’s declarative style provides a frank portrayal of academic culture and a refreshing acknowledgment of the constant, changing tensions faced by universities in contemporary society. She recognizes the difficulty of governing universities—a difficulty that largely stems from the conflicting visions of students, faculty, alumni, and the broader public. Unlike so many modern presidents, however, she does not couch her defense of scholarship and liberal education in the usual empty calls for schools to teach critical-thinking skills, encourage civility, or train leaders. In fact, she looks with concern on the “pursuit of the faddish or conformist, or the mere desire to avoid trouble at all costs or to engage in forms of competition among our universities that could scarcely enhance the robust quality and autonomy of distinctive centers of educational excellence.”

A lifetime of threats to academic freedom—from the Third Reich to loyalty oaths in the 1950s to the student protests of the 1960s—taught Gray to be uncompromising in her defense of the principle of liberty within the academy.

A lifetime of threats to academic freedom—from the Third Reich to loyalty oaths in the 1950s to the student protests of the 1960s—taught Gray to be uncompromising in her defense of the principle of liberty within the academy. She writes that “[u]niversities have always been vulnerable to outside influence, and to the threat of control and manipulation, and they have been vulnerable, too, to conformities imposed from within.” That problem has certainly not faded. Gray does not attempt to offer a solution to this perennial concern. Instead, during an era when levels of public distrust in universities are high, and the confidence of university leaders is low, her honest narrative reminds us of the importance of the scholarly enterprise—warts and all. “The belief that universities should be, above all, the homes of searching and critical intellectual vigor and thought,” she writes, “needs recurrent renewal and affirmation.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 71
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