Christie Henry talks with Hanna Gray for International Women’s Day

This post is a transcribed excerpt from a forthcoming Open Stacks podcast interview.

I couldn’t be more fortunate to be in the company of Hanna Gray, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago and Jeff Deutsch, director of the seminary co-op. As a proud member of the University of Chicago diaspora, I am in awe and admiration of these two individuals, whose integrity and erudition animate the scholarly culture. We meet on the occasion of the imminent publication of Professor Gray’s memoir, An Academic Life. Professor Gray and I overlapped briefly in 1993 as inhabitants of the 5801 Ellis Avenue Building, now Levi Hall. At the time, the University of Chicago Press occupied two floors of the building, and the University Administration was on the fifth floor. Two months after I joined the Press, Professor Gray stepped away from the presidency. But the resonance of her leadership endured for the entire 25 years I was on campus. She was the first European born and woman to lead the University of Chicago. As our paths intersect again, I now have the privilege of being the first woman to Direct Princeton University Press, and in that capacity, also to be the publisher of Professor Gray’s forthcoming memoir. I have savored reading the pages of this work and learning more about the fortitude and intelligence she used to shape experiences for so many of us at USC and throughout the world.

GrayChristie: We could use hours of conversation given that so many themes of our discussion—particularly the investment in thought and the benefits gained from communal thinking—are resonating beautifully. I wanted to ask you about on the privilege and responsibilities of being first. You were the first European born president of the University of Chicago as well as the first female provost at Yale and first female president at Chicago. You talk about these opportunities that you have had as you being in the right place at the right time. And I think that that’s often the way I have described my own narrative, as I too have been lucky to be in the right place at the right time. But if one of the responsibilities we carry is to try to create that right place and right time for others to enjoy these opportunities—and especially now as we’re thinking about how to intentionally diversify the demographics of publishing and of the university—what were some of your experiences of creating those right places and right times? Consider this my plea for advice as to how to be intentional and less serendipitous in creating opportunities for others.

Hanna: I’m the first European born president of the University of Chicago but we haven’t had a lot of presidents. So it’s not the biggest deal right? [laughs] I think my work at Yale was more complicated because it was a very early stage in the coeducation of Yale. Women wanted to be seen so much as integral parts of the university, but there were not a lot of women—to put it mildly—on the faculty.

The women surrounding the university wanted things to happen very quickly. And obviously my role was to be concerned for the whole university not only for those who were women.

And at the same time, I felt that I could understand the situation of women much more than my male colleagues had over the years, and obviously a lot needed to be done at Yale. And so there was always this tension between my knowing that and working to address it. And the sense on the part of many women was that not enough was being done because they hoped for almost overnight change, which is of course impossible. I mean, you know how appointments are made in institutions and obviously as provost or President, as I was briefly, you can only do so much. It’s not you who make the appointments. You could encourage appointments you can allocate appointments, but you shouldn’t have quota systems. Rather you have to wait until those opportunities come up and you have to prioritize and so on and so forth. It was very difficult for women who saw themselves as competent. Why was there not for them a position in the history of art, as an art historian so well-trained and so ready to be a member of a good department? But there were no places. There were no positions in that area. Those kinds of issues were there all the time. And so the question of pace was a very big question and I think I made a difference.

We made a slow difference, but that slow difference obviously was not satisfying to those who didn’t benefit from it. And that is an issue that one confronts as one hopes to make a difference. Institutions that move slowly move slowly in part because that’s their way. They don’t know how to run. But that moves slowly also because process is so important and people need to feel things have been done fairly and appropriately and according to policies and rules that everybody understands and has one hopes been a part of shaping. Now when I came back to the University of Chicago, the situation was very different.

Chicago, of course, has always been a coeducational institution that had women on the faculty from day one. But the extraordinary thing about the University of Chicago, which speaks to the larger history of women in higher education in America, was that the percentage of women on the faculty when I became president was no larger than it had been on the opening day of the university. That was an extraordinary fact and it was something I had seen in my own earlier time at the university where I was, I think, one of the first women to be appointed to her husband’s department.

There were some obstructions to women’s progress within the university. There were some women on the faculty, of course, but none of them were in the sciences except for medicine. But even there, there weren’t so many. And I think I was one of—I forget, how many—five, in the social sciences altogether. And then, one of only two tenured female faculty at some point. We did make steady progress because the institution had made, I think, an institutional determination that these figures were ridiculous and they did not represent “our” institution, which prides itself on going against the tide. Chicago recognizes merit where merit is due, and it should certainly be doing just that. It wasn’t always smooth progress and it certainly did not involve quotas of any kind, but we steadily did increase the number of women. And I think that having a woman president was a help in that respect. And I think once again, my responsibility was for the whole institution and for being sure that the appropriate appointments were made and other policies were followed. There was clearly some weight to the kind of encouragement. And you know, just the fact of being a woman made a difference.

Check this space later this month to listen to the complete interview on Open Stacks.