Editor’s note: This story will be published in the Fall 2021 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. Read more at the UChicago Magazine website.
On Paul Alivisatos’ last day as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, a friend asked him where he thought his career was headed. Though Alivisatos, AB’81, had a postdoctoral fellowship lined up at AT&T Bell Laboratories, he hadn’t decided what to do after that. But he knew one thing for certain, he told his friend: “I’m not going to be a professor.”
Alivisatos laughs as he remembers the conversation’s twist ending. “Eighteen months later, I was a professor.”
Embracing the unexpected has been a hallmark of Alivisatos’ career as a scientist and academic leader. In the College, he went from taking classes in German and political science to majoring, somewhat to his own surprise, in chemistry. Nanoscience, the field in which he eventually made his mark, was brand new when he began his doctoral studies; today, he is one of its stars. A hesitant entrant into academia at Berkeley in 1988, he rose to become director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and then the university’s executive vice chancellor and provost.
None of it was what he envisioned when he arrived in Hyde Park in the fall of 1977, but he’s a firm believer that taking things step by step will lead him to the right place. “I always try, at each moment, to think really hard about what is the next thing for me. And once I settle on it, I go for it,” he says. “Which is kind of what’s happening right now.”
Right now, of course, is the start of Alivisatos’ tenure as the 14th president of the University of Chicago. He sees in the institution what any ambitious new leader would hope for: a combination of strength and opportunity. “It’s already a truly great university, but there’s a lot to build with here,” he says. When a chance to take the helm presented itself, “it just all felt right.”
It felt right to others too. A chorus of congratulatory voices heralded the February announcement. Alivisatos’ predecessor, Chancellor Robert J. Zimmer, called him “an extraordinary scholar and academic leader” who is “superbly equipped to serve as president of the University in a way that honors its legacy while building upon it for the next generation of scholars and students.”
“He’s an outstanding administrator, a world-class scholar, a proven, leading educator, and recognized by his peers as an outstanding human being,” says Joseph Neubauer, MBA’65, the chair of the University’s Board of Trustees. “He truly loves the University of Chicago, and cherishes the principles and values system we stand for.”
Randal C. Picker, AB’80, AM’82, JD’85, the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law, served on the faculty advisory committee for the presidential search. He says Alivisatos fulfilled all of the group’s hopes: an outstanding scholar, an experienced leader, and someone who understands UChicago’s culture. “He is seen as being a killer scientist. He’s run a national lab and been provost at Berkeley, a very complicated public institution. He was a University of Chicago undergrad,” Picker says. On top of that, “he seems like a really decent guy. And that’s a good characteristic.”
At a virtual Alumni Weekend event in June, Alivisatos’ enthusiasm for his new role and his alma mater was evident. After relating early meetings with students and faculty and sharing reminiscences of Valois and the Shoreland, he paused to reflect on the possibilities ahead. “The feeling that there could be an impact on thousands of the most creative people in the world—I mean, what a wonderful opportunity to have.”
When Alivisatos took office on Sept. 1, it was both a venture into the unknown and a return to the familiar. He is the second Chicago native and second University alumnus to lead the institution. (He shares both distinctions with UChicago’s eighth president, Edward H. Levi, LAB’28, PhB’32, JD’35.)