Gray Matters

Nearly 50 years after she first honed her teaching skills at Harvard, Hanna H. Gray has wisdom to share.

When a young History and Literature tutor was called into meet with her flustered department chair one morning in 1956, she feared she was about to be fired.

But when she walked into his office, she soon found out that the concern wasn’t a teaching problem or a student complaint, but a small, engraved invitation to the department’s 50th anniversary celebration at a prominent, all-male club in Boston, which had accidentally been mailed to her.

“I said I understood...I would not be coming,” Hanna H. Gray, the first female Hist and Lit tutor recalls. “But apparently they expected me to scream or become hysterical or something, and so they kept repeating this to be sure I understood what they were saying. Then at the end one of them said, ‘Maybe that night you could go up to Radcliffe and have dinner with some of the girls.’”

More than 40 years later, Gray recalls the incident with a smile. “Some of it just seemed to me comical, and I think some of it has to seem comical,” she says.

Harvard has come a long way, she says, since the days when she was an assistant professor at the University but couldn’t enter Lamont to check the reserve shelf for her courses. At the time, she wasn’t allowed to walk through the front door of the Faculty Club (not that it ever stopped her, she laughs: “I figured if I was going to have to go, I’d go through the front door, and nobody ever said a word, even though I was clearly flouting the law.”).

Today no Harvard door is barred to Gray, even the closed doors behind which its elite Corporation rules the campus. Currently, she is the only woman sitting on the University’s highest governing board.

If you name any administrative post in the top tiers of higher education, there’s a good chance that Hanna Gray has either filled it, been considered for it or served on the committee to select its current occupant.

It’s no longer unusual for women to be considered, consulted and chosen. Schools across the country, including three in the Ivy League, have women at the helm. And a woman was on the short list of candidates during Harvard’s most recent presidential search.

But as Gray ascended to the highest echelons of academia, she was often the first woman to receive serious thought from search committees along the way.

When she became president of the University of Chicago in 1978, the first woman to head a major research university, she was alone in those ranks, too.

“For quite a while I was the only woman president of a major research university, not just the first but the only,” she says. “I think that there is a slightly greater burden when you are alone in these roles.”


The woman who rose first and farthest in academia began her pursuit of higher education early: she entered Bryn Mawr College at age 15.

Professors at the women’s college “stressed this individual, independent development of women,” she says, giving her confidence—and sparking a change in career plans.

Born in 1930 to professor parents, Hanna Holborn entered college determined to avoid the bourgeois academic life. As a child growing up in New Haven, Conn., where her family had come after fleeing Nazi Germany, she even contemplated a career as a radio comedian.

“The last thing I was going to do was teach or marry an academic,” she says, “and above all, I was certainly not going to marry someone I met in a seminar, which I thought was the most unromantic thing I’d ever heard of, and which my parents had done in a Sanskrit seminar.”

But at Bryn Mawr, she changed her mind.

“I can remember an epiphany I had that night when I went into the library,” she says. “There was something in the lights, and the creak of the stairs. And I came around to the view that I really wanted to be an academic after all.”

Several years later, after returning from a year at Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship, she came to Harvard to pursue a doctorate degree in history. She met her husband there—Charles M. Gray ’49 was in her seminar on the early Latin works of Erasmus.

She began her teaching career at Bryn Mawr but soon came back to Cambridge as a tutor in History and Literature. Within two years, she was an assistant professor.

The culture at Harvard—where she was often the only woman in the classroom and the conference room—differed distinctly from her own college experience.

But even far away from her alma mater, she carried the confidence with her that had been instilled as an undergraduate.

“We had superb women faculty and administrators [at Bryn Mawr],” she says, “and so I really became used to the notion not only that women did these things, but also that women and men worked together as colleagues in such institutions.”

Those years made her “fairly independent,” she says, and aware of how “foolish” the treatment of women at Harvard often was.

“Given all that”—her Bryn Mawr background, together with the encouragement of her parents and her husband—“I had a lot of support,” she admits, “and maybe more confidence than I should have.”


Though she had established herself as an academic, Gray expected she would have to give up her career when her husband accepted a post in the University of Chicago’s history department.

With job opportunities for a female Ph.D. scarce, the couple left for the Midwest in 1960.

She had a fellowship at the Newberry Library, an independent research collection specializing in Renaissance texts, and she even considered going to law school.

At the time, she says, landing a professorship alongside her husband in the history department seemed impossible.

“The assumption generally was that nepotism could result, that you didn’t have husband and wife at the same institution, particularly not in the same department,” she says.

But much to Gray’s surprise, the university offered her a job as an assistant professor of history the very next year.

Chicago had been coeducational from its founding and had already had other women professors.

“It was not being a woman on the faculty that was extraordinary,” she says, “but it was being part of a faculty couple.”

Gray established herself at Chicago. And as she climbed through the ranks, earning tenure in 1964, times changed: students in her classroom donned bell-bottoms, and chatter of building takeovers filled the university’s halls.

Campus tensions boiled over in 1969, when university officials decided not to reappoint a leftist sociology professor named Marlene Dixon.

A group of students took over Chicago’s administration building in protest. Many of them—male and female—alleged gender discrimination in the tenure decision.

University officials asked Gray to chair the faculty committee investigating the case, and it was during this “time of troubles” that she discovered her knack for administration.

Her investigation upheld the university’s decision not to reappoint Dixon but suggested a one-year extension of her contract. The protesters felt let down by the decision the committee had reached, but within the ranks of university administrators its chair had made her mark.

“I really liked the enterprise of dealing with very complicated issues and all kinds of different people and points of view,” she says. “That kind of turned me a little bit to the sense that maybe there would be muscles that would be interesting to use or to try to use.”


Her scholarly work focused on the politics of the Renaissance and the Reformation, but Gray found herself quickly becoming an expert on the incestuous inner workings of the world of higher education.

A master of the subtle, firm diplomacy required of a university administrator, Gray faced tough issues head-on and often used her wry, sharp sense of humor to break the bureaucratic ice.

Picked away from Chicago by neighboring Northwestern University, Gray rose a rung in becoming the dean of its college of arts and sciences. And during her two-year stint in Evanston, she joined the Yale Corporation as its first and only female member.

That appointment came shortly after Yale President Kingman Brewster consulted with Gray about a plan to bring Vassar College to New Haven to make the university coeducational.

“I advised very strongly against this, in part because of what I’d seen [at Harvard],” Gray says, “in part because I thought to bring a women’s college to New Haven, plunk it down, and make it Yale’s sister would be to recreate conditions of second-class citizenship, rather than to promote the idea of genuine integration.”

Yale made a rare exception when it offered her its provost post even though she wasn’t a faculty member there. With a new and larger administrative role—and a tenured professorship in the history department to go with it—she returned to the East Coast in 1974.

She came to the institution where she grew up and where her father had taught for 35 years.

“It was both the plus side in the sense that you were really helping an institution that you cared about, but it wasn’t easy,” she says. “If things did not go that well, then if you were a woman who happened to be provost, and you had women who were very unhappy about the pace of change at Yale, you came to be seen as not a very good woman.”

Three years into her term as provost, when President Brewster resigned to become U.S. ambassador to Britain, Gray was tapped to be the university’s acting president.

The choice sparked tensions and disagreements among many at an institution that, like every other major research university, had never had a woman at the helm. “You could tell that there were certainly some Yale alumni who were not very happy to see a woman sitting in Woodbridge Hall at that time,” she says.


Yale was still looking for its next leader when, on Dec. 10, The New York Times reported an end to Chicago’s presidential search with a headline announcing that the university had settled on “Mrs. Gray of Yale.”

After serving as the interim president of Yale for more than a year, Gray handed over the keys to her New Haven office and set out on a two-day road trip back to the Midwest—as the 10th president of the University of Chicago.

When she arrived in 1978, the university faced a drastic deficit, and balancing the budget was a top item on Gray’s agenda. Though she led several major building initiatives during her tenure, including the construction of a new science quadrangle, Gray trimmed some aspects of the university. She closed the department of geography in 1986 and the graduate library school in 1988.

In response to declining graduate school enrollment across the nation, Gray’s administration led the way in efforts to attract top students to advanced degree programs. And enrollment in the college grew by more than 25 percent with Gray at the helm.

During her 15-year tenure, she was one of the most visible college presidents in the nation—especially since she was the first woman to head a large research university, a fact that she says often got more attention in the popular press than it deserved.

“It was sometimes difficult to get beyond that to talk about ideas about education, and where the university was going and so on,” she says.

The message came across in different ways.

Once, at a meeting of the Association of American Universities, Gray was handed a name tag and asked by a staffer to pin it on.

Since she was wearing a silk dress, she refused. But the staffer insisted: “No one will know who you are.”

Gray replied: “Look around this room. Do you see another one?”


She’s intimidating and no-nonsense, a grand dame of academia, well respected and well connected, a trusted and fair-minded consultant to CEOs and university presidents alike. No one else has served on both the Harvard Corporation and the Yale Corporation.

Gray once sat on corporate boards ranging from Ameritech to J.P. Morgan. She was one of 12 foreign-born Americans to receive a Medal of Liberty from President Ronald Reagan at a ceremony marking the rekindling of the Statue of Liberty’s lamp in 1986. Five years later she won the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Now, she spends about half her time juggling meetings for the boards of numerous nonprofit institutions, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Smithsonian Institution and the Marlboro School of Music—and her meetings run like clockwork.

Former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles praises Gray’s “intimate knowledge of the idiosyncrasies and the goals and the raison d’être” of academic institutions.

Even in retirement, Gray has not left academic institutions behind. Many professors give up their offices when they retire, but not Hanna Gray.

When she’s not criss-crossing the country for board meetings or relaxing in her Vermont farmhouse, Gray can be found in the West Wing of the University of Chicago’s Harper Memorial Library, meeting with students and continuing her own scholarship.

Though she is an emerita professor, the master of academic politics taught two courses this academic year, a survey of the Italian Renaissance and a lecture course about Machiavelli. Her lectures—always delivered in trademark business suits—are legendary on the Chicago campus, and on registration day, her courses are often filled to capacity.

Colleagues say that, in addition to her contagious love of teaching, Gray’s ability to manage large institutions has come in handy at history department meetings.

“She has the force of personality, but also the fairness, to encourage people to work together and get things done,” says Kathleen M. Conzen, who chairs the department at Chicago.

Now, as she watches women run some of the top schools in the country—led by Judith Rodin at the University of Pennsylvania, Shirley M. Tilghman at Princeton and Ruth J. Simmons at Brown—Gray says she’s optimistic about the future of women in higher education, although much remains to be done.

She sees an added burden of leadership for female presidents. “You have a responsibility to the whole institution, for everyone at the institution,” she says. “But you also have a special experience and knowledge, presumably, and therefore must be particularly sensitive to the kinds of lives that women are leading.”

“It is inevitable that people see the distance there is to go,” she says. “I’ve seen the distance that has been traveled.”

Gray will always be the first. But now her successors don’t have to be the only.