Gray Matters

October 21, 2018 Topic: History Region: Americas Tags: Hanna GrayAcademicsEducationRefugeesIvy League

Gray Matters

Her memoir contains magisterial reflections but is also sprightly, often playful, and chockful of entertaining anecdotes.

Charles Gray was called to join the History faculty of the University of Chicago in 1960 and Hanna went with him “assuming that her academic career had very likely ended.” But this was to become the real beginning, and Chicago her ultimate home. Not long after her arrival she was offered an assistant professorship in the history department, with a charge to teach mainly in the “college,” the product of educational innovations introduced earlier by Robert Maynard Hutchins. Originally, the “college” had offered a uniform core curriculum oriented toward “the great books”; in its heyday it allowed students to graduate after they had passed exams in all the core courses. Because early admission was also available, the Hutchins college was once called “the greatest magnet for juvenile neurotics since the Children’s Crusade.” By Gray’s time, much of the Hutchins program had been dismantled; the iconic early-entrant “Aristotle Schwartz” had long since tearfully departed, dragging with him his duffel bag of metaphysics. But the “college history course” was still controlled by an old guard that saw to the entire staff hewing to a prescribed curriculum. Gray immediately was made chair of the “College History Group,” a committee that she candidly admits was “invented out of the blue.” This allowed her to institute individual discretion for each faculty member teaching the course as well as greater links with further studies in the history department proper.

The sixties at Chicago, as elsewhere, was a decade of student political activism. Already in 1962, a young Bernie Sanders led students to protest the university’s ownership of segregated apartment buildings. Vastly the most dramatic Chicago event took place in the winter of 1969: a protest of a decision not to rehire a young radical, Marlene Dixon, who had a joint appointment in an interdisciplinary unit and the Sociology department. Several hundred students seized control of the university’s administration building and escalated their demands from challenging the Dixon decision to greatly increasing the number of female faculty, having students participate in hiring and personnel decisions, and making courses more “relevant.” Because President Edward Levi decided not to call the police the sit-in lasted sixteen days, attracting much publicity. During this time, Levi appointed a faculty committee to investigate the circumstances of the Dixon case, with Hanna Gray as chair. Gray writes that committee members often had emotional arguments with each other, and that she never had “been more absorbed by the task of finding a way through the complexities of ascertaining essential facts or working through differences of opinion and perspective to reach a reasonable and explicable judgment.” The Gray report helped calm the waters, and Gray became noted for her judiciousness in the cause of order. With this she was on her way from teaching and scholarship to administration. She writes that “events at Chicago had made me in a minor way visible,” and that when she was offered a position in the summer of 1970 to become dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, she “was ready to try something new.”

HANNA GRAY served as dean at Northwestern for three years, from 1971 to 1974. Her sense then was confirmed that she “liked chairing meetings, finding ways to move toward consensus, and coming to consequential policy recommendations and actions.” During her third year at Northwestern she was invited to become provost at Yale, with the announcement being accompanied by “a cascade of news stories” about a woman reaching such a lofty position. Already in 1970 she had been a “fellow” of the Yale Corporation (the board of trustees), composed of “Old Blues” and mostly “Skull and Bones” men. Since these men knew and had confidence in her, they were able to move with the times. Gray did not disappoint them. During her tenure as provost she worked to bolster Yale’s finances and steer the school firmly through academic freedom crises. William Shockley, notorious for his views on racial genetics, was once invited to speak, with noisy threats of disruption, but Gray and President Kingman Brewster faced down crowds of demonstrators outside the building, and by the end of the evening “the university had passed its test: there had been no disruption.” Later, another challenge was posed by an invitation to a man on the left: C. Vann Woodward, the noted American historian, had recently penned a report on the importance of upholding freedom of thought and expression in the university, but now the Marxist historian and avowed member of the Communist Party, Herbert Aptheker, had been recommended for a semester-long visiting lectureship at a residential college. Woodward was so outraged that he called for the recommendation to be rejected. Vigorous discussion followed before Woodward’s call was rejected and Aptheker arrived to teach.

Brewster took the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom in the spring of 1977, and Gray thereby became acting president of Yale, serving in that position for fourteen months. She writes: “because I served for more than a year I am counted officially in the line of Yale’s presidents (my portrait, however, hangs with the provosts).” Speculation was rampant about the succession to the full presidency, and Gray writes frankly that it had been uncomfortable for her to be the subject of rumor in the months before the announcement that the choice had fallen on A. Bartlett Giamatti. But she did not actually desire the Yale presidency. She explains that there would have been such enormous opposition, especially among the alumni, to the appointment of someone who not only was female but also not true Blue (her father had long taught at Yale but that was irrelevant) that this most likely would have stalked her throughout her term. Nor was she bereft, for by Christmastime she was weighing an offer to become president of the University of Chicago, an institution more to her liking. Soon after her interview in Chicago she had to attend a meeting of Ivy League presidents, held to discuss Ivy policies on athletics “at boring length.” As she continues: “I wondered whether this was really how they should be spending their days (or mine) and was moved to depart the room early. Once in the lobby I called to accept Chicago’s invitation.”

During her previous stint on the faculty Hanna Gray had developed a rapport with the institution: “people actually talked without embarrassment about a mission that had to do with the life of the mind.” Whereas she had faced discrimination because of her sex at Harvard, at Chicago “it was taken for granted that women should enter the Quadrangle Club through the front door.” The undergraduates had been and remained intellectually earnest and nonconformist. They resisted big time football tenaciously. Once in the sixties, when a mere scrimmage was held with North Central College, students had staged a sit-on on the fifty-yard line and police had to be called in. When Gray returned as president she held a party for undergraduates in her first year; one student thanked her politely and then “fixed [her] with an indignant glare. ‘I hope you’re not going to make this into a fun school.’”

GRAY ORGANIZES her chapter devoted to her fifteen-year long presidency of the University of Chicago as a tour through a huge number of administrative and academic policy decisions. We learn that she introduced a sorely needed professionally staffed development office, and gathered funds to build a repertory theatre, an art museum, a law school annex and a downtown conference center. (Consulting with architects about the design of new buildings was “great fun.”) She established a school of “Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies” housed in the downtown center to facilitate attendance for the many who would not have travelled to the main campus on Chicago’s South Side. She added other academic programs and also subtracted, closing the geography department and the library school. She notes that “closing down the [library] school involved endless time and discussion.” But on reading this long chapter, one is moved to ask “what didn’t?” After all, in protracted discussions concerning financial decisions “committee members inevitably wanted to gore oxen other than their own”; governing medical centers called for “enormous amounts of time”; regarding the building of a school of public policy, “pressures to approve and begin on the project [were] intense”; and even establishing a date for a centennial celebration “turned into a contentious and time-consuming issue.” Yet Gray was endowed with sitzfleisch and even admits disarmingly to “having greatly enjoyed” her work. (She was proud also about having thrown out the first ball at a Chicago White Sox game: “it reached the plate, just barely.”)

As a long-time student of humanistic prose, Hanna Gray knows how to deliver forcefully the messages she finds most important. Regarding whether the university was to divest stocks in companies that did business with apartheid South Africa, she takes the position that “the university needs to resist speaking as a corporate entity when its own principal purpose is to create the conditions under which its members can speak individually and freely for themselves, whatever their views, on topics of common concern.” Regarding campus demonstrations against controversial speakers (in this case Robert McNamara), she states “we had made the point that unpopular speakers who might express very unpopular views [. . .] were to be heard and, if opposed, opposed in a way consistent with the norms of an academic community.” What about spending valuable funds on a Hittite dictionary, begun by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 1975 with many long years still to go? Gray writes: