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.”

LESSONS TAUGHT, LESSONS LEARNED

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.”