The first woman to serve as president of a major research university intermingles her impressive life story with the history of American higher education in the 20th century.
Despite her incredibly impressive resume, Gray (Emeritus, Early Modern European History/Univ. of Chicago; Searching for Utopia: Universities and Their Histories, 2011) is one of those powerful women with whom readers are likely unfamiliar. With the reserved good humor of someone whose goals have all been met, the author gives a precisely detailed record of her life and brilliant career among some of the world’s most gifted intellectuals. The daughter of professors exiled from Germany in the 1930s, she spent her childhood on the Yale campus living out her parents' European ideals with second-generation American energy. After her education at Bryn Mawr and Harvard, she taught Renaissance and Reformation history, and her colleagues quickly learned to value her knack for untangling unforeseen problems and deriving consensus from warring interests. These skills earned her invitations to be a dean at Northwestern and later provost of Yale, and they served her well for more than 15 years as president of the University of Chicago. True to form, she intends her life story to accomplish more than the typical career retrospective, translating her experiences into an insider's history of the perennial struggles and vast changes in higher education during her tenure. Gray never misses an opportunity to pause in her own story to laud the achievements of her fellow second-generation scholars, including many Nobel Prize winners. Her recurring meditations on the perennial questions of academia—the purpose of higher education, where to draw the boundaries of free speech, what to do with football—enliven some of the more tedious recollections. The author never wavers from her ideal vision of a university free from political entanglements as the key to preserving academic freedom.
Readers interested in academic administration or the history of American universities would do well to spend a couple hours in Gray’s edifying company.