In return to UChicago, President Paul Alivisatos sees ‘strength and opportunity’

President and alum has big ambitions for University that helped shape him as a student

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.)

Finding his ‘own compass’

Born to Greek immigrant parents on Chicago’s North Side, Alivisatos decorated his childhood bedroom with models of rockets and lunar landers. He remembers building a radio and playing with a toy chemistry set—fascinated by science already. In second grade, a Northwestern University student visited his school and taught the students about space travel and the solar system. “I just loved all that stuff,” Alivisatos told Chemical and Engineering News earlier this year.

This happy childhood was upended by the death of his mother when Alivisatos was 10. The loss was soon followed by another life-altering change: Alivisatos’ physician father, struggling to care for two children on his own, sent him and his older sister to live with extended family in Greece.

Alivisatos spoke almost no Greek when he arrived. Early in his schooling, a teacher handed him two paragraphs of text, instructing him to underline every word he didn’t understand. “I underlined about 50 words,” Alivisatos remembers with a laugh. In time his Greek improved, and he came to appreciate the tongue that had challenged him so much at first. “It’s a very deep, expressive language,” he says.

For all the difficulty of his schooling in Greece, Alivisatos found a certain kind of freedom too. “There was no possibility that I could be amongst the better students in the class, at least for a while,” he says. The lack of pressure “allowed me to have my own compass” about what to learn and how to learn it.

But there were limits on what could be learned. When Alivisatos first arrived in Greece, the country was under a military dictatorship, and the atmosphere was tense. “Teachers were frightened that a student might write something in an essay … that would land them in jail,” he recalled at Alumni Weekend. The effect “was corrosive. It made it almost impossible for any kind of discovery or real sharing of knowledge to occur the way it should.”

Having experienced firsthand the suppression of speech and its dangers, Alivisatos is eager to uphold the University’s stance on freedom of expression, which he regards as essential to the health of universities and democracies alike. “I’m very gratified that the University of Chicago has taken a strong position on it over many presidential tenures and many decades,” he says.

He knows there is more work to do. Disagreeing productively and respectfully is not a skill we are born with; it must be learned like any other. He hopes to see UChicago find creative ways to model and teach healthy debate. “When people are first coming to the University,” he says, “I’d like them to learn more about free expression, about the history of the University, and how to be resilient in a discussion that may lead to some uncomfortable interactions—and also how to enter into a discussion in a way that respects other people and doesn’t make them feel terrible.”

It’s one of Alivisatos’ many ambitious goals for his presidency; a true Chicagoan, he makes no little plans. In interviews and early communications, he has outlined a vision for sustaining the University’s distinctive approach to inquiry while broadening its connection to the wider world—goals he regards as complementary.

Foundational inquiry and external engagement “reinforce each other, and through that reinforcement, they both become stronger,” he says. He intends to build on existing partnerships—with the city of Chicago, Argonne, Fermilab, the Marine Biological Laboratory—and to forge new ones, especially on the South Side, and use those connections to confront major societal problems.

High on his list is ensuring the health of democracies. “It’s no news, I think, to any reader of the alumni magazine that there are stresses on democracy both domestically and globally,” he says. With strong programs in the humanities, social sciences, public policy, and social work, the University of Chicago is well positioned to consider what he calls “the hard problems of democracy”: What makes a democracy work? What are its critical challenges, at the philosophical level and at the nuts-and-bolts level? What does it take to forge resilient and strong democracies that address the needs of citizens?

None of the University’s other priorities can truly flourish, Alivisatos believes, without improving diversity, equity, and inclusion—nor can the University reach its highest aspirations for open debate. “Critical to having the kinds of give-and-take that are vital to the University is to create a sense of belonging for all people, no matter what background they come from,” he says. It’s not only the right thing to do—it’s good science, Alivisatos points out: “All the evidence tells us that the most diverse teams are the ones that function the best.”

At Berkeley he sought opportunities to put these ideals into practice. In selecting students for his lab, says Vida Jamali, a postdoctoral scholar in the Alivisatos Group, he strives for a balance of backgrounds and points of view. He’s been attentive as well to the perspectives of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). While the Alivisatos Group is almost 50 percent women, Jamali has been part of collaborations where she is the only woman in the room. Alivisatos “has been there for me when I want to talk to him about this,” she says, and offered guidance and support.

As Berkeley’s provost, Alivisatos founded the Faculty Leadership Academy, which helps tenured faculty develop the skills to become successful department chairs, deans, and administrators. “He ensured it was designed from the beginning to be very inclusive,” says anthropologist Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, executive dean of Berkeley’s College of Letters & Sciences. Today, thanks in part to that program, she says, the group of university deans “is quite different than when Paul began, and is more representative of our students and our country.”

UChicago at his core

Alivisatos’ experience in the Core curriculum as an undergraduate student had its humbling moments. His first essay, on Plato’s Republic, came back to him “with more red than black, just completely torn to shreds,” he remembers. He met with the professor, who helped him clarify his thoughts and how best to express them in writing; persevered; and learned.

He never forgot that paper, and he’s struck by the ongoing influence of the Core curriculum on his life and work. “Clearly I learned things in my science classes that I’m deeply grateful for as a scientist,” he says, but his humanities and social science courses imparted “techniques and ways of thinking that I draw upon almost every day.” There the questions were not defined, but framing a good question was part of the education—useful training for a scientist, because “so much about what makes really good work is to ask a big question.”

As president, Alivisatos welcomes the task of defending the liberal arts education that tested and shaped him. At Berkeley, Johnson-Hanks saw him earn the trust of scholars across the university. “He is truly committed to a liberal education, to the production of knowledge for its own sake, to cultivating old knowledge,” she says, “not just discovering new stuff, but attending to what we’ve already known.”

In the College, Alivisatos made the most of his chance to soak up knowledge old and new. The classes he signed up for were “all over the place,” he says—German, political theory, endocrinology. He didn’t figure out his major until “as late as possible.”

Anchoring his extracurricular life was Doc Films, which was housed in Cobb Hall at the time. He first went with a friend (“I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think it was an Ernst Lubitsch film”), who explained the rudiments of understanding cinema—lighting, framing, camera movement. Alivisatos was bowled over. “I thought, this is unbelievable,” he recalls. “So then I started taking tickets so I could get in for free.”

He gradually became a more active member of the film society, programming a series by the Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi and contributing to the quarterly catalogs, which contained brief essays on the films being shown each quarter. “That was probably the most significant work that I participated in as part of a community at the University. It was really fun,” he says. (Though he’s not as much of a film buff these days, Alivisatos does plan to return to Doc when it reopens to catch a movie or two.)

He lived in Shoreland Hall in its first year as student housing, when the building was still mostly apartments—not the typical dorm experience, but one that sparked unlikely friendships between students and longtime residents. The distance from campus “had me traipsing through Hyde Park a lot, and actually, that was really good,” if occasionally perilous. On one wintertime stroll down 55th Street, he took a tumble, “so I looked back to see what the heck I just tripped over, and it was the top of a parking meter poking out of the snow.”

Not until he started the three-part physical chemistry Core sequence did he find his academic home. He loved a course taught by Stuart Rice, the Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Chemistry. “As long as he was talking, I felt like I understood everything,” Alivisatos says. “The moment he stopped, it was like, ‘Oh no, now what?’” By his own admission, he was not a top chemistry student—rather, a very enthusiastic one. “It just somehow connected for me all the different ways of thinking that I really liked the most.”

Though late breaking, his passion for chemistry proved to be lasting. As a graduate student at Berkeley, Alivisatos studied how energy is transferred from molecules to solids. That work led him to what he has called “the renowned and somewhat scary Bell Labs,” where he became entranced with nanocrystals—a small number of atoms arranged in a regular, orderly pattern (see “Matters of Scale”). Today his name is nearly synonymous with these ultrasmall structures.

Alivisatos’ affection for his object of study is evident. “These tiny crystals have brought a sense of wonder, not just to me, but also to thousands of scientists and engineers from around the world who study them,” he wrote in an essay accepting the 2021 Priestley Medal from the American Chemical Society.

A model for academic leadership

His research on nanocrystals is widely recognized for its significance to academia and industry. In an interview with Chemical and Engineering News, Mostafa El-Sayed of the Georgia Institute of Technology said Alivisatos’ work has led to “fundamental understanding and chemical tools that are used by thousands of researchers and companies worldwide.”

In the early 2000s, his lab’s success in fabricating a particular type of nanocrystal brought lots of attention from other scientists who wanted to know how they were pulling it off. “And I would just say, ‘Hey, come to Berkeley, come to our lab, we’ll show you,’” Alivisatos recalls. “And one day I came back to my lab, and my colleague said, ‘This is it, we’re done, you may not invite another person because we can’t get any work done. We’re spending all of our time sharing what we know.’”

In hopes of developing a more efficient way to spread knowledge, Alivisatos became the first director of the Molecular Foundry, a facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory created to share nanoscience methods. It was an early taste of academic leadership, and “it totally changed my life,” he says, by providing a model for what he’s tried to do since: help others advance, and learn from them in the process.

From there, Alivisatos’ rise was swift and steady: In 2008, he became deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—like Argonne and Fermilab, part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratory system—under Steven Chu. When Chu left to join President Barack Obama’s cabinet as U.S. Secretary of Energy, Alivisatos stepped up. Five years later, he became Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost, serving as deputy to chancellor Carol Christ.

As he took on new responsibilities, Alivisatos never abandoned the little nanocrystal. Through feats of time management, the Alivisatos Group remained active while he was Berkeley’s provost. (Alivisatos is attentive to his use of time, periodically creating pie charts to see how he’s allocating it and making adjustments as needed.)

At UChicago he plans to continue his research; he is also the John D. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Chemistry, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) and the College. “I view it as really being a part of the community, so I can be an effective president,” he said at Alumni Weekend.

During his first week, he still held a regularly scheduled drop-in meeting for researchers in his group. Postdoctoral scholar Jamali assumed it would be canceled, “but no, he had that hour for us, and we talked to him about science, and it was great. … That’s just who he is.”

“He’s still very much a professor,” agrees Matthew Tirrell, PME’s dean, who has known Alivisatos for about 15 years. Because Alivisatos has remained engaged in the practice of science, “he knows what professors are trying to do and how they do it and the tools and resources they need.”

Alivisatos is acutely aware that he’s arriving at a strange moment for UChicago and the world. COVID-19 upended everyone’s life, including his own. (During the early months of the pandemic, Alivisatos and his wife, Nicole, formed a pod with their two adult daughters, allowing the family to weather the crisis together.)

Yet he’s in awe of the resilience he witnessed, at Berkeley and beyond: “Even as we were pulled apart into our little Zoom boxes, into flatland, these versions of exile, what’s so amazing to me is how human beings found a way to connect.”

The impulse to seek connection and collaboration is one Alivisatos feels strongly, both as a researcher and a leader. He has said repeatedly that his first job as president will be to listen—to students, faculty, alumni, staff, and South Siders—and work together. Even before he officially took office, he was scheduling meetings with stakeholders across the institution, trying to understand the University community’s hopes and needs. He knows for his vision to be realized, “it’s got to be a collective project.”

He can’t do it alone. More to the point, he wouldn’t want to.

—This story was first published by the University of Chicago Magazine.