A Truly Exceptional Life
An Academic Life: A Memoir by Hanna Holborn Gray

Published by: Princeton University Press, 2018
Pages: 352
Price: $29.95
Reviewed by Judith Shapiro

“…its powerful sense of mission, its uncompromising intellectual spirit, its insistence on intellectual freedom, its capacity for interdisciplinary discourse and scholarship, its exceptional students and rigor of education they had on offer….” 


— Hanna Holborn Gray describing the University of Chicago 


An Academic Life is the story of a truly exceptional life. The life of a woman who belongs to the world of immigrant scholars whose arrival in America from Germany and beyond in the years before and during World War II transformed the quality and reputation of American higher education. The life of a woman, with direct experience of our nation’s most distinguished academic institutions, who became the first woman president of a major American research university. The life of a woman who is one of the strongest and most consistent supporters of the core values of academia. 

Hanna Holborn Gray (hereinafter HHG, following current practice for referring to a highly eminent woman with three initials) was born in Heidelberg, the daughter of Hajo Holborn, who fled from Nazi Germany and became a professor of European history at Yale, and Annemarie Bettmann, a philologist. She grew up in a social world populated by many of the most eminent academics of her parents’ generation, including historians Felix Gilbert and Theodor Mommsen; art historian Erwin Panofsky; theologian Paul Tillich; composer and conductor Paul Hindemith; and philosophers Ernst Cassirer, Hannah Arendt, and Herbert Marcuse, among many others. 

For this generation of refugee scholars, two values were central to the role of higher education in the United States. 

First, they felt academia bore a responsibility to address the significant social, cultural, and political issues of the day—among them, capitalism and liberation, identity and assimilation, and modernism as a force for progress. 

Secondly, these scholars sought audiences in society beyond academia, with the hope that they could shape public affairs. To these ends, they strongly defended the autonomy of institutions of higher education from government interference, and they pursued styles of writing suitable for a general audience. 

In our own times, we find these values increasingly challenged. Nearly instantaneous forms of communication advantage speed and polemics over thoughtful debate. The proliferation of arcane, discipline-specific, and often gratuitous jargon hinders widespread understanding of ideas birthed in the academy and stymies their potential for application to and impact on society at large. In addition, government attacks on the autonomy of colleges and universities have become commonplace—from the efforts of legislatures to punish politically unpalatable views on campus to politicians’ support for the weaponization of free speech by the extreme right. 

The immigrant scholars who shaped HHG’s thinking had the benefit of support from the organizations that helped them to come to the U.S. HHG followed in that tradition herself as a board member and advisor to Scholars at Risk, the major international organization devoted to the defense of academic freedom through finding safe academic harbors for those facing various levels of danger in their own countries. 

HHG nicely chronicles her experiences at a series of distinguished institutions—Bryn Mawr, Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago—where she played a variety of roles, from student to president and board chair. 

Her memoir includes a chapter on her undergraduate years at Bryn Mawr College, an institution that also provided a home for émigrés and whose students partnered with groups establishing scholarships for refugee students. She notes that “… women’s colleges could be (and, I think, can continue to be) in some sense the best or most single-minded advocates for the liberal arts in their purest form.” 

Succeeding chapters provide personal and insightful accounts of her year at Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship; her experience at Radcliffe/Harvard (as it then was) as a graduate student, the first woman tutor in history and literature, and later instructor and assistant professor; her time as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and thereafter dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern; and her experiences as a fellow of the Yale Corporation and the University’s Provost. 

HHG’s description of her years as President of the University of Chicago is a powerful portrait of the academic institution closest to her heart, for reasons reflected in the quotation prefacing this review. 

She describes the University of Chicago community as one characterized by a combination of exceptional academic distinction and a fierce loyalty to the institution—a culture that one hopes can persist despite ever-increasing free-agency tendencies among the illustrious. This culture, at Chicago and elsewhere, is greatly enhanced and sustained by a president who does not appear as a foreign body to the faculty but rather one who not only respects but actually likes them and considers them colleagues. 

An important element of Chicago’s distinctive culture has been its consistent and robust defense of free speech, an explicit and vigorous voice that is increasingly important in today’s deeply divided and rambunctious political environment. Chicago has been particularly forceful, cogent, and eloquent in this defense, which is all the more compelling coming from a university that embodies the core values of higher education: a respect for seeking truth, valuing evidence, and resisting government intrusion. These values, of course, were distinctive of the community of émigré scholars in which HHG grew up and to which she continued to belong throughout her professional life. 

Beyond her service on the Harvard Corporation, Yale Corporation, and as Chair of the Bryn Mawr College Board, HHG has also occupied important leadership positions on a number of foundation and corporate boards. She served as Chairman of the Board of the Howard Hughes Medical Institution, the second largest foundation in the United States, and as a board member of the Smithsonian Institution, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Council of Foreign Relations, Concord Coalition, Mayo Clinic, Brookings Institution, and JP Morgan Chase. She also received honorary degrees from more than 60 institutions—Brown, Chicago, College of William & Mary, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, and Yale, among them. 

With this breadth of experience, HHG writes especially insightfully about institutional governance and board leadership. She articulately describes the general features of boards while also emphasizing the need for them to adapt to the cultures of different institutions. 

Publicly, HHG is often identified as the first woman to fill some important position of authority, notably in the context of her Chicago presidency. As she points out, this often leads to a query about the role of a woman in such a position, as opposed to being asked about her views on higher education. While the former question is not without interest, this memoir highlights how surely it was a missed opportunity for the questioner not to focus on the latter. (Similarly, at one point in the history of feminist advances, writers who had once simply been considered “writers” suddenly became “women writers.” Not all viewed this as a welcome change.) 

Throughout this remarkable memoir, we also learn of the extraordinary relationship between HHG and her husband Charles, a distinguished historian, imaginative artist, and partner in a marriage one reads about with pleasure and admiration. 

HHG’s memoir constitutes a valuable guide to understanding and confronting the complex problems facing colleges and universities today. Even if we leave aside the major financial challenges—from declining government support to glaring wealth and income inequities both between and within academic institutions—there are important issues of student, faculty, and administrative culture that undermine what an institution of higher education requires to fulfill its essential purposes. 

Among these are presidents who understand and value the essential academic mission of their institutions; faculty who care about teaching as much as research, and respect those who communicate to a wider public both what they know and how they come to know it; students who are prepared to confront difficult issues rather than be protected from dealing with them; and the powerful links between what students learn in their courses and how they operate as citizens and members of a community. 

In brief, An Academic Life helps those of us who care about the future of higher education to understand both what to fear and what to hope for, looking back even as we look forward. 


Judith Shapiro is President Emerita of Barnard College.

Download PDF