A Groundbreaking Leader Who Lifted American Education Even Higher
Hanna Holborn Gray, Ph.D.
Former President of the University of Chicago and Professor of History Emerita
1950 Fulbright U.S. Student to the United Kingdom
A celebrated historian of political and historical thought, as well as a savvy administrator, Dr. Hanna Holborn Gray championed academic excellence and inclusion in some of the United States’ premier academic institutions. A 1950 Fulbright U.S. Student award to the University of Oxford laid the foundation for a groundbreaking career as a professor and administrator. During Dr. Gray’s tenure as the first woman to serve as president, the University of Chicago increased enrollment, expanded university offerings, and secured a vibrant future for the institution. Her lasting impact is captured in a citation from her 1995 Harvard University honorary degree: “Powerful in judgment, humane in values, profound in learning, incisive in wit. She has lifted American education ever higher.”
After fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Dr. Gray’s family settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where her father taught European history at Yale University. Raised by academics in a college town, Dr. Gray began her undergraduate studies at Bryn Mawr College at the age of 15 and extended her studies at Oxford through her Fulbright award after graduation. She subsequently earned her Ph.D. and began teaching in 1957 at Harvard University as that institution’s first woman to tutor in history and literature. In 1960, Dr. Gray moved to Chicago with her husband, Charles Montgomery Gray, and continued to pursue her academic studies in medieval and Renaissance European history as a Newberry Fellow. She taught Western civilization at the University of Chicago in 1961, where she also built relationships within the history department and university administration.
In 1972, Dr. Gray transitioned into higher education administration as Northwestern University’s first woman dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, a distinction repeated as the first woman as acting president of Yale University in 1974, and the first woman president of the University of Chicago in 1978. Dr. Gray assumed the presidency at the University of Chicago during a period of widespread fiscal uncertainty and low enrollment in the U.S. higher education system. Facing budget deficits, decreased enrollment, and fewer academic positions, Dr. Gray engaged new donors, proposed an ambitious campus expansion, and redesigned undergraduate and graduate programs.
By 1991, university enrollment had increased by 28%, and, upon her retirement in 1993, Dr. Gray was described as “one of the most productive presidents in the University of Chicago’s history.” Today, the University of Chicago is a mainstay on the Fulbright Top Producing Institutions list, producing 31 Fulbright U.S. Student award finalists in 2020.
In recognition of her academic and administrative achievements, Dr. Gray has received countless honors, including more than 60 honorary degrees, the Medal of Liberty from President Ronald Reagan, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George H.W. Bush.
In an interview with the Princeton University Press for her 2018 memoir, An Academic Life, Dr. Gray considered her duty towards the U.S. higher education system: “To become a historian was to become an academic, and I was increasingly engaged in coming to know and becoming involved in the academic institutions in which I studied and taught, in their missions and in the powerful need to strengthen and preserve those as they were threatened or distorted in times of crisis or complacency.”
Due to Dr. Hanna Holborn Gray’s perseverance, a new generation of thinkers has been shaped by high-quality education and prepared to reshape the world.