In Conversation with Hanna Holborn Gray

On May 2, 2013 Jonathan Fanton sat down with former President of the University of Chicago, Hanna Holborn Gray, to discuss her renowned career.

Hanna Holborn Gray
May 2, 2013

Good evening. I am Jonathan Fanton, Interim Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and it is my pleasure to welcome you to a very special evening. Many of you have been here before to enjoy book discussions like Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself, hear world leaders like former Prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno Ocampo, or talk presidential politics during our recent conference entitled Ike Reconsidered: Lessons from the Eisenhower Legacy for the 21st Century.

Tonight is different. I have been long wanted to have a series of conversations with the most interesting people I know personally. Ed Koch was my first guest, followed by former MoMA President Agnes Gund, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Foundation, James Lipton of Inside the Actor’s Studio, and, most recently, Harvard Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.

Tonight I will have a conversation with my close friend and mentor, Hanna Holborn Gray. I first met Hanna in 1971 when she was elected to the Board of Yale University and I was Assistant to President Kingman Brewster. But I had known her father with whom I studied European History some years before. In 1974 Hanna became Provost of Yale and shortly I joined her as Associate Provost. When Kingman left to be Ambassador to England, Hanna became Acting President and she and I made common cause in rescuing Yale’s major capital fund drive. And when Chicago recruited her to be its President, she asked me to join her as Vice President for Planning.

Along the way, I became close friends with Hanna and her remarkable husband and fellow historian, Charles, with whom I had frequent games of squash.

She and I continue to work together on the Board of Scholars at Risk. She has been a staunch advocate of academic freedom and knows firsthand the dangers of oppression as her father and mother were forced to flee Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s.

Growing up in the New Haven area, she attended Bryn Mawr College and went on to earn her Ph.D. in History at Harvard where she taught before moving to the University of Chicago with Charles. Her gift for leadership earned her in rapid succession appointments as the Dean of Northwestern University’s Arts and Sciences, Provost at Yale and President of the University of Chicago where she did an outstanding job in strengthening the faculty and the college and graduate divisions.

Along the way, she gave leadership to important institutions, serving as Chair of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation and serving on the boards of Harvard, the Smithsonian Institution, Bryn Mawr, the Mayo Clinic and Brookings among others.

She was co-editor with Charles of the Journal of Modern History and is author of Searching for Utopia: Universities and Their Histories.

I could go on. But you get the point. Hanna Holborn Gray is an extraordinary person. She is smart, courageous, inspiring, demanding but loyal and fun to be with. She has laser insight into people’s characters and motivations and an awesome ability to put the present in a historical context that reveals layers of meaning.

Whatever good I have done in my career owes to her honest and caring mentorship.


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