There is a moment in former University of Chicago President Hanna Gray’s memoir, An Academic Life (published this spring with Princeton University Press), when Gray is appointed to chair Ronald Reagan’s Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, a committee whose object was reputed to be the dismantling of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Her co-chair is Charlton Heston, star of Planet of the Apes, outspoken social conservative and president of the NRA. We might expect a futile exercise in bureaucratic nihilism, but, as Gray describes the experience,
Charlton Heston and I got on well. We never discussed politics, or guns, and found ourselves in agreement on most of the matters before us. Charlton was intelligent, fair-minded, and hardworking, always courteous and tolerant, never full of himself, a good colleague … In the end, after four busy months of discussions and of hearings open to the public in different parts of the country, we concluded, with surprising agreement among committee members who actually represented a wide range of initial positions, that the federal government did indeed have a role [in arts funding].
Gray’s memoir is so insistently out of place among higher-education polemics that it might be worthwhile for that reason alone. She is an inveterate institutional loyalist, impervious to the appeal of the movements and ideologies to which many academics have openly and happily hitched their work. To call someone an institutional loyalist now cannot help but sound like an accusation of moral corruption—surely you’re not going defend Yale over justice? But in Gray’s depiction, correcting injustice rarely requires exposing the university to public humiliation, and, conversely, it is very unlikely that such humiliation will correct any injustice.