The College Memory Project: President Hanna Holborn Gray

We sit down with UChicago's first–and so far only–female president.

As the first—and so far only—female president the University of Chicago has ever had, Hanna Gray led the University through a formative period for the College in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. As part of the College Memory Project, a series of interviews with long-serving faculty and staff of the University of Chicago, she reflects on how she became a leader of the new era of the University of Chicago, which saw more emphasis on the College than ever before. She also tells us how she really feels about her twice-kidnapped portrait in Hutchinson Commons. 

The daughter of academic refugees who fled Nazi Germany after her father was dismissed from his post at a Berlin university, President Gray was raised to work hard and love learning.  “We were allowed to listen to three things on the radio on Sundays,” she said. “One was the New York Philharmonic. The second was the NBC Symphony of the Air…and the third…was the University of Chicago Roundtable of the Air.”

The roundtable's intellectual discussions sparked Gray’s interest in the University and in higher education overall. Knee deep in academia, Gray fell in love with history as she studied at Bryn Mawr, Oxford, and Harvard.

“I had a sort of epiphany one night, when I went to the [Bryn Mawr] college library, and there was something about the atmosphere and the way in which the library projected itself on one, with its creaking wooden stairs, a certain musty smell of books, a certain kind of lighting, and I thought I could really be happy doing this every night of my life,” she said.

She and her husband met at Harvard and came to UChicago when he received an appointment. Gray was soon offered a position here herself.

“I thought the students were unusual. I had been an assistant professor at Harvard before coming here and the students there were diverse in their intellectual interest,” she said, explaining that some cared a great deal and some didn’t show too much concern in their studies. “Here all the students all wanted to be intellectuals. That was different.” 

Gray gained university-wide status when she was appointed as the head of a committee reviewing the Marlene Dixon case, in which some students claimed the sociology professor was let go unfairly because of her gender and leftist political views. “Because it was a woman, [then-president] Edward Levi decided he’d better have a woman chairman, and that was me,” Gray said.

The experience introduced Gray to the idea of serving as an administrator and as a leader. She found parallels to teaching: “The best parts of the administrative work are those precisely where you are trying to untangle or cope with complicated issues and explain them and have others understand and help you to understand the complexities of what you are dealing with.”

President Gray went on to serve as an administrator at a few other universities before she returned to UChicago to serve as president.

“All times are difficult of course, in their ways—the University was not rich, to put it mildly, and so what we could have done would have been to hoard our resources and be a very decent place or we could think about what we really wanted to be, and see how we could build toward it,” she said.

Gray decided to give more attention to the College than ever before, especially as t-shirts adorned with “Where Fun Comes to Die” popped up around campus. In one instance, to boost morale in the College, she had her administration organize a party in Ida Noyes Hall. “I thought maybe we could lighten up the place a little bit for students without diminishing the intellectual seriousness,” she said.

President Gray continued to serve, making tough choices about academic departments and programming and the athletic department, until her retirement in June 1993. She is the president with the third-longest tenure.

Her portrait is the only female figure in Hutchinson Commons, though Gray said she sometimes wishes it was a different representation. “I’m not a fan of the portrait; I feel like it makes me look meaner that I am,” she said. “I appreciate the fact that the Board of Trustees thought they’d get a good modern artist to paint a portrait, and they were willing to support that. Unfortunately, the artist they got particularly likes to paint nudes, but that was obviously not the task here. And then of course it stood out in that room in the most terrible way.

“It was kidnapped twice and I thought it was a pity that it was recovered,” Gray noted.

The College Memory Project

Directed by: Max Asaf '16 
Produced by: Valerie Archambeau and Benjamin Chandler '04
Introductory text by: Christine Schmidt '17
Interviewed by: Max Asaf '16
Edited by: Max Asaf '16
Special Thanks to Hanna Gray and John W. Boyer
Archival Photographs Provided By: Hanna Gray and The University of Chicago Photographic Archive in the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago Library