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APRIL 2000: FEATURES (print version)


"I will do my best for this institution which I love."
> > With those words, Edward Hirsch Levi, PhB'32, JD'35, accepted the presidency of the University of Chicago in September 1967. The University's eight--and first alumnus--president died March 7 at age 88.

Addressing the entering College class in October 1972, Edward Hirsch Levi, PhB'32, JD'35, paraphrased a famous remark made by Robert Maynard Hutchins, Chicago's president when Levi himself was an undergraduate. "He said it really is not a very good university," Levi told the assembled first-years, "but it happens to be the best." He paused. "Sometimes I think it is the only university." Edward Levi spent more than 50 years in the service of the only University--including terms as a professor in the Law School and the College, as dean of the Law School, as Chicago's first provost, and as president. President emeritus of the University, the Glen A. Lloyd distinguished service professor emeritus in the Law School and the College, and a University life trustee, Levi died in Hyde Park on March 7, after six years of suffering from Alzheimer's disease. He was 88.

On the national stage, Levi was best known as President Gerald Ford's choice for U.S. attorney general, a position he assumed in 1975, after the credibility of the Justice Department had been eroded by the Watergate scandal. Ford called Levi a "superb" attorney general. "When I assumed the presidency in August 1974, it was essential that a new attorney general be appointed who would restore integrity and competence to the Department of Justice" in the wake of Watergate and the war in Vietnam. Levi, said Ford, "was a perfect choice."

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was a senior official under Levi in the Justice Department, seconded Ford's assessment, telling the New York Times that in Levi's two years as the nation's 71st attorney general, he "brought the department through its worst years....He brought two qualities to the job, a rare intellectuality and a level of integrity such as there could never be any doubt about his honesty, forthrightness, or truthfulness."

Seen by politicians of all persuasions as an exemplary attorney general, Levi exhibited the characteristics that were--along with his ever-present and sometimes slightly askew bow tie--hallmarks of his career on the quads: force of personality, keen intellect, and unwavering integrity.

"Educated at the Laboratory Schools, the College, and the Law School, he breathed deep the air that Robert Maynard Hutchins described as 'electric,'" said President Hugo F. Sonnenschein, at whose 1993 inaugural festivities Levi was an honored guest, "and the University's sensibilities helped to shape the man he became."

The institution did much to mold the pattern of Levi's life, but Levi did much to shape the life of the institution. "Our University bears the stamp of Edward Levi's accomplishments and of his character," said former U of C president Hanna Holborn Gray, who now teaches history at Chicago, "and it will be measured always by the high standards and demanding ideals that he insistently, and unforgettably, placed before us."

A legal scholar whose Introduction to Legal Reasoning (University of Chicago Press, 1949) remains a classic, Levi was also famed for his teaching ability, blending clarity, wit, innovation, and intellect. As dean of the Law School in the 1950s, he led the school's physical and intellectual advances, building the Laird Bell Quadrangle and fostering a merging of law and other disciplines, including the influential law and economics movement. As provost (1962-68), he spent several years as acting dean of the undergraduate College, reorganizing it into five divisions with a Common Core program for the first two years. He also played a key role in what was at that time the largest fund-raising endeavor of any U.S. university.

Chosen by the University's trustees as president designate in September 1967, Levi succeeded Nobel laureate George Beadle upon Beadle's retirement in 1968. The first Jewish president of a major American university, Levi was also the first alumnus to lead Chicago. His presidential tenure coincided with some of the most turbulent years on America's college campuses, and his handling of the forcible takeover of the University's administration building in 1969 came to be seen as a model for a measured response to student anti-war protests. Overseeing the construction of such major campus buildings as the Joseph Regenstein Library, he also promoted investment in the Hyde Park neighborhood, especially initiatives with the neighborhood schools. A voracious reader (his speed was legendary), Levi often would prepare for a meeting with a prospective faculty member by reading everything the scholar had written, as well as works by other writers in the field--a practice that helped him attract world-renowned scholars to the University.

After his term as attorney general, he returned to campus, teaching in the Law School and the College. When he retired in 1985, the University established the Edward H. Levi distinguished service professorship in his honor, a chair now held by law professor David P. Currie, AB'57. Levi is survived by his wife, Kate Sulzberger Hecht, whom he married in 1946; their three sons--John, a partner in the Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin; David, a U.S. district judge in Sacramento, California; and Michael, a high-energy physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory--and a brother, Harry J. Levi, AB'40, LLB'42. A memorial service was planned for April 6 in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

Born in Chicago on June 26, 1911, Edward Hirsch Levi was the son and grandson of rabbis. His grandfather, Emil Hirsch, was a close friend of William Rainey Harper, who appointed Hirsch to the original University of Chicago faculty as professor of Oriental languages & literature. His father, Rabbi Gerson Levi, led Hyde Park's Temple Isaiah Israel from 1924, when the temple was completed, until his death in 1939. Like his two brothers--Harry, a retired Chicago real-estate attorney, and the late Julian Levi, PhB'29, JD'31, who was the architect of urban renewal in the Hyde Park neighborhood and a former U of C professor--Levi graduated from the Laboratory Schools, which he entered as a kindergartner. Continuing at Chicago, he received his Ph.B. degree in English literature in 1932 and his J.D. in 1935. He spent the 1935-36 academic year as a Sterling fellow at Yale University, earning his J.S.D. degree in 1938 and joining Chicago's faculty as an assistant professor of law in 1936.

After World War II, when he was a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle and first assistant in the antitrust division under Assistant Attorney General Thurman Arnold, he returned to campus as a professor of law. An early advocate for civilian control of atomic energy, in 1945 he acted as counsel for the Federation of Atomic Scientists on the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which created the Atomic Energy Commission.

From the beginning, Levi stood out. In Chicago Revisited (University of Chicago Press, 1967), journalist John Gunther, PhB'22, described him as "aristocratic, brilliant of mind," with "the interesting trait of being able to probe without arousing antagonism. His touch, his attitudes, his slight figure and flashing eyes, the mobility of his good looks, all indicate sophisticated refinement, but his record--he is an old Hutchins man--is that of a Young Turk."

As a Young Turk, Levi changed both the intellectual and physical landscape of the Law School. In An Introduction to Legal Reasoning, he argued that legal institutions develop a logic of their own, which is accessible and consistent but capable of adapting to changing conditions and convictions in society. His interest in law's relation to the social sciences had lasting effects. Stanford University president Gerhard Casper--who like Levi, served as Law School dean and provost at Chicago--traces one of the school's most influential developments to Levi's decision to co-teach his course in antitrust law with economist Aaron Director. From Levi's innovation, Casper told the New York Times, came a more interdisciplinary approach to the study of law: "This was the beginning of the law and economics school of thought for which Chicago would become famous."

Richard A. Posner, chief judge of the federal appeals court based in Chicago and a senior lecturer at the Law School, told the Times that Levi's original pairing of an economist--Aaron Director--and a lawyer was followed by a statistician and lawyer team, and then a sociology-law match. The approach, Posner said, "was a major development, not only in the law and economics sphere but in creating interdisciplinary studies in general at law schools."

In 1958, Levi founded the school's Journal of Law and Economics, a vehicle that helped Chicago remain preeminent in the field. He also created one of the nation's first law school-run legal-assistance programs, now the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. As dean, Levi worked with architect Eero Saarinen on the planning and execution of the landmark Laird Bell Quadrangle (1959). With the attention to detail for which he was known, Levi and his wife walked along the Midway every evening to inspect the building's progress. Levi moved in on schedule, even though the building wasn't completely finished. Soon after the move, a secretary complained about the plaster dust on her desk; that evening the dean and his wife mopped the office.

When Edward Levi was inaugurated as president at the November 14, 1968, convocation in Rockefeller Chapel, the event was attended by three of his predecessors: Robert Maynard Hutchins, Lawrence A. Kimpton, and the retiring George Beadle. Levi had served under all three. He used his inaugural address for a consideration of the institution's primary mission, calling for a reaffirmation of "our commitment to the way of reason, without which a University becomes a menace and a caricature."

As "custodians not only of the many cultures of man, but of the rational process itself," Levi continued, "[u]niversities are not neutral," but "exist for the propagation of a special point of view; namely the worthwhileness of the intellectual pursuit of truth." This view, he added, "does not remove universities from the problems of society."

Indeed, as Levi spoke from the Rockefeller pulpit, 100 students stood outside the chapel, protesting the war in Vietnam; other protesters showed up outside the dinner held in his honor that night at a downtown hotel. Two months later, the subject of student protests centered not on national but on University policy.

On January 30, 1969, students forcibly took over the Administration Building to protest the non-renewal of a faculty member's contract. Levi's response differed from that of many college and university administrators in those years: rather than call in outside authorities, he enforced the University's internal disciplinary process. When, two weeks after it began, the sit-in ended, he issued a statement to the campus community, making clear his bedrock values:

"The University has sought throughout this period, however imperfectly, to exemplify the values for which it stands. It has encouraged discussion through faculty and student groups. It has sought to institutionalize a process for wider participation. In a world of considerable violence, and one in which violence begets violence, it has emphasized the persuasive power of ideas. It has sought--and the unique response of faculty and students has made this possible--to handle its own affairs in a way consistent with its ideals." Admitting that "[a]s I write these lines, I cannot help but wonder what our success has been and whether the choice we made remains viable," Levi continued: "These consequences to the University will be felt for a considerable period of time and will be disappointing to many. We must make the best of them."

Edward Levi's accomplishments were not limited to the University. In 1950, as counsel to the Subcommittee on Monopoly Power of the United States House Judiciary Committee, he conducted hearings on the steel and newsprint industries. During the 1960s, he served on the White House Central Group on Domestic Affairs, the White House Task Force on Education, and the President's Task Force on Priorities in Higher Education.

After leaving the Ford administration, he spent the 1977-78 academic year as the Herman Pfleger visiting professor at Stanford University Law School before returning to teach in the Law School and the College. His research interests included jurisprudence, constitutional law, bankruptcy and reorganization, federal procedure, antitrust law, law and economics, and legal education. He often spoke on higher education, and many of his speeches were collected in Point of View: Talks on Education.

A founding trustee of the MacArthur Foundation, he was a trustee of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, the Institute of International Education, the Institute for Psychoanalysis, the International Legal Center, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Urban Institute, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

A former chairman of the Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility, Levi had been president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a vice president of the American Philosophical Society, a member of the Council of the American Law Institute, and a fellow of the American Bar Association. Among his many other honors were L.H.D. degrees from seven institutions, including the University of Chicago; L.L.D. degrees from 18 institutions; and the French government's Legion of Honor.

Perhaps the best illustration of the interwoven threads of Levi's personal, intellectual, and public life can be seen in the list of speakers scheduled to speak at the April 6 memorial service in Rockefeller Chapel. His brother-in-law, Bernard D. Meltzer, AB'35, JD'37, the Edward H. Levi distinguished service professor emeritus, and President Hugo Sonnenschein were to be joined by former U.S. President Ford and Justice Scalia, as well as Stanford president Casper; Washington Post publisher and University life trustee Katharine Graham, AB'38; and Chicago Tribune publisher and U of C trustee Jack Fuller.

It is easy to imagine a common thread running through each eulogy: Edward Hirsch Levi was a man who believed above all in the power of ideas. "I remember he was asked if he was going to write his memoirs," Bard College president Leon Botstein, AB'67, a former student of Levi's, told the Times the day after Levi's death. "And he replied, 'If I were to write a book, it would be about ideas, not about myself.'" --MRY

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