In memoir, former President Hanna Holborn Gray reflects on groundbreaking career

Historian to discuss her book during May 9 event at Regenstein Library

Hanna H Gray
University of Chicago President Hanna Holborn Gray gives her inaugural convocation address.
Courtesy of
Special Collections Research Center
Louise Lerner
News Officer for Physical Sciences and the Institute for Molecular EngineeringUniversity Communications

Forty years ago, when Hanna Holborn Gray walked into the president’s office at the University of Chicago, she had a lot waiting for her.

In the late 1970s, universities were confronting a flagging economy, rising inflation fueled in part by an energy crisis that made campus costs soar and low levels of market performance that radically reduced the value of their endowments. Federal support was declining, and universities faced a crisis in graduate enrollments as cut backs reduced the number of academic positions for newly minted PhDs. UChicago was struggling with declines in undergraduate enrollment as well.

Over her 15 years as president, she steered the University through its troubles to improve both enrollment and its financial situation. Her tenure saw a revamping of the Core curriculum and graduation requirements, the establishment of the Harris School of Public Policy Studies and of the Department of Computer Science, the creation of the science quadrangle and new science buildings (the John Crerar Library and the Kersten Physics Teaching Center), as well as large-scale renovations of Ida Noyes, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and buildings on the Main Quadrangles.

Through it all, Gray writes in her new book, An Academic Life: A Memoir, she always strove to preserve the University’s essential spirit: “its powerful sense of mission, its uncompromising intellectual spirit, its insistence on intellectual freedom, its capacity for interdisciplinary discourse and scholarship, its exceptional students and the breadth and rigor of education they had on offer.”

An Academic Life details Gray’s time with the University as well as her journey—from the child of refugees from Nazi Germany to dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, to provost (and then acting president) at Yale, and finally president of UChicago, all “firsts” for women in American higher education.

It also paints a portrait of UChicago life and characters, including the anti-sports riots in the 1960s; a “distinguished law professor” she caught in the shrubbery peeking into her garage to see what kind of car she drove; and Prof. William H. McNeill’s repeated petitions for the University to purchase the Chicago Bears in order to conduct academic lectures at halftime.

Gray, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Early Modern European History, will speak about the memoir at a May 9 event in the Regenstein Library. The event, hosted by the Seminary Co-op and the University of Chicago Library Society, is free, but registration is required.