University president emeritus Hanna H. Gray, right, and a panel of provosts discussed the peculiarities of academic leadership. (Photography by Jason Smith)

Following Levi’s lead

A look back at the University’s first provost and a look ahead to his successors’ challenges.

“Welcome to a pride of provosts,” Hanna H. Gray said, gesturing to a panel of six seated to her right on stage at the Logan Center. The University of Chicago president emeritus introduced the panelists not by name, but by the etymology of the job title.

She noted that the ancient term “provost” has applied to a range of professions, from supervisors of monasteries or convents to prison wardens, along with high-ranking law enforcement and military officials. “You can see easily how it came to be used for provosts of colleges and universities, who combine all these roles,” Gray said.

The group gathered September 21 for a celebration of the career of Edward H. Levi, U-High’28, PhB’32, JD’35, on the 50th anniversary of his appointment as the University’s first provost. Levi went on to become president of the University from 1968 to 1975 and US attorney general under President Gerald R. Ford.

A morning session featured four speakers discussing Levi’s contributions as a legal scholar, a teacher, an administrator, and a government official. An afternoon panel, moderated by Gray, included current provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum and five of his predecessors discussing “the changing university,” a conversation that touched on finances, technology, student life, and the challenges of maintaining academic standards under increasingly complex conditions. The peculiar aspects of university leadership were prevalent in each session.

Dean of the College John Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, outlined how Levi assumed the newly created provost’s post. A phone call from Levi, then the Law School dean, had convinced his close friend, the Nobel Prize–winning geneticist George Beadle, to accept the University presidency in 1961. Early in the new president’s tenure, Board of Trustees chair Glen Lloyd, JD’23, expressed concerns to Levi about “the drift in academic planning and the lack of leadership that Beadle and his team were demonstrating,” Boyer said.

The trustees had decided to establish a new second-in-command position and they wanted Levi to take it. When he demurred, according to a story Levi told Boyer in 1993, “Glen Lloyd leaned over the table to him and said, ‘Ed, you were a member of the search committee, you persuaded George to take the job. You helped get us into this mess, now you’re going to help get us out.’” 

Boyer described Levi as bringing almost instant direction to the University. As provost and as president, he led a rebuilding of the faculty and the physical plant, and guided “a stunning intellectual and cultural recovery in the ’60s,” while navigating the student protest movement on campus. “We were deeply fortunate,” Boyer said, “to have a scholar and an administrative leader of Edward Levi’s insight, courage, and intellectual good taste in what were, in retrospect, quite perilous times in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Levi, who died in 2000 at age 88, resumed teaching at the Law School after his stint as attorney general. Larry Kramer, JD’84, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, was a student in Levi’s exhaustive first-year course Elements of Law. “The materials started with the debate between Thrasymachus and Socrates from The Republic. It ended with Roe v. Wade, about 2,000 pages later,” Kramer said. “And it essentially covered literally everything in between those two.” 

The University’s reputation for such academic intensity “derives from Edward’s way of talking about the institution,” said former provost Geoffrey R. Stone, JD’71, the Edward H. Levi distinguished service professor in the Law School. Levi, he said, strengthened the University’s distinctive identity in higher education. “One line I particularly liked from a faculty report about 20 years ago,” Stone said, “was that, at the University of Chicago, the only appropriate response to even the most withering question was not resentment, but gratitude.”

Tending that academic atmosphere is the provost’s primary focus, and Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson distinguished service professor in physics, the James Franck Institute, and the College, has occupied that office since 2007. Gray asked what keeps him up at night:  “It becomes very expensive to compete in all areas and, in fact, you can’t lead in all areas,” he said. “So, trying to think intelligently about which areas you put your resources in so that you’re eminent enough across areas to be a great university, but not frivolously spending money in one area where you don’t have an advantage to be able to compete on the worldwide stage. Getting that balance right keeps me up quite late.”

An audience member asked whether increasing complexity in managing budgets and bureaucracy will require university administrators with more specialized training, as opposed to leaders promoted from the ranks of academia. The panel’s response was a resounding no. “You want leaders who come from us, and who are us,” said former provost Edward O. Laumann, the George Herbert Mead distinguished service professor of sociology, noting that lawyers could read the fine print, but only an academic could truly understand the impact of policies on a university environment.

“They once asked me what I was doing as a Renaissance historian in this business,” Gray said. “I could always point out that my major work was on Machiavelli.”