Paul Alivisatos Wants To Begin His Presidency by Listening

From attending UChicago as an undergraduate to serving as provost at UC Berkeley, future university president Paul Alivisatos understands the importance of collaboration and open discussion.


UChicago News

Incoming president Paul Alivisatos in his office.

By Kate Mabus

In 1974, having just moved from Greece to attend the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, Paul Alivisatos (A.B. ’81) was placed in the residence halls at the Shoreland Hotel. At the time, the building was mostly occupied by elderly Hyde Park residents, except for the two floors that served as student housing. Although it was not a traditional first-year experience, Alivisatos saw the best in it. “It was an amazing experience to get to know each other…to have very young people and much older people kind of together and trying to make our way through.”

The historic mixed-use building sits right off of Lake Shore Drive, across from Promontory Point, and about a mile from the quad. While making the long walk to the main campus, Alivisatos would experiment with different routes through Hyde Park; this gave him the opportunity to explore the neighborhood more than he would have had he lived closer to campus.

Today, the Shoreland is a luxury apartment building owned by Mac Properties and also houses the offices for UChicago’s Center for Research Informatics. Upon learning of the developments at his old stomping ground, Alivisatos mused, “Things evolve in all kinds of unexpected ways. We need to always be looking at how to have a good compass and look at where there might be an opportunity to do good and make discovery.”

At the beginning of April, The Maroon conducted its first interview with a UChicago president in years. Before being named the 14th president of UChicago in February, Alivisatos served as executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Berkeley. Now, returning to his alma mater almost 50 years later, Alivisatos is enthusiastic about returning to a community known for its intellectual inquiry, and he seems to hold a sense of nostalgia for his formative years here.

“My return now, it just fills me with a lot of happiness,” Alivisatos said. “The experience [at the College] really helped me in my whole life in really important ways. I really learned about the kind of deep way of academically thinking that the University of Chicago fosters. It was a place of lots of debate, open kind of free expression, people really talking about everything, debating everything in a really big way.”

Undergraduate Exploration

During his time in the College, Alivisatos embraced the multidisciplinary nature of the Core Curriculum and took advantage of the opportunity it offered for intellectual exploration.

Alivisatos spent much of his free time participating in Doc Films. Although he was roped into joining by his friends, Alivisatos quickly dedicated himself to the organization and eventually climbed the ranks to club president. When he wasn’t contributing to Doc Film’s nightly series, like one featuring the Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi that he recalled putting together, he would indulge in binge-watching the club’s collections of rare film copies, fascinated by the different uses of light and direction.

This same curiosity led Alivisatos through many possible courses of study. He took political science electives where he learned about the philosophy of collective action and discussed European politics in the German classes he took for his minor. “At that stage,” he said, “I was really looking for something I found really captivating, that I really would enjoy doing.”

It wasn’t until his third year that Alivisatos found his niche in a physical chemistry course that mapped the way atoms move. According to Alivisatos, the course was unpopular among his peers, but he was hooked. Similar to his attention to detail in the projection room, Alivisatos was fascinated with understanding the invisible workings at the small-length scale of atoms.

It was only then that he committed to a chemistry major. “I think I took the absolute minimum number of classes that you could take and still get a chemistry degree,” Alivisatos laughed. “In fact, I don’t think so, I know.”

A Promising Young Scientist

Despite this fact, Alivisatos has since excelled in his scientific career and is now one of the world’s most renowned chemists. A pioneer in the study of nanomaterials, Alivisatos has earned a long list of awards, including the National Medal of Science and the American Chemical Society’s Priestley Medal. In 2010, Thomson Reuters ranked him fifth among the world's 100 most influential chemists. Alivisatos has also appeared on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry numerous times.

After completing a doctorate in chemistry in five years, Alivisatos left Berkeley for Bell Labs in New Jersey. According to Louis Brus, a chemistry professor at Columbia University who mentored Alivisatos at Bell in the ’80s, Alivisatos stood out from the other postdocs. “I think everyone recognized that he was a very strong scientist and he had the right personality to do things well. He was fearless to try to do new things, so we mentored him very closely,” Brus said in an interview with The Maroon.

Brus recalled a moment early in Alivisatos’s days at Bell that demonstrated his willingness to push boundaries. At the time, the lab was operating off an outdated, highly technical computer system. Brus said that Alivisatos took one look and didn’t want to use it, so he introduced and mastered the WordPerfect processing system, a modern technology at the time. “He was the first guy in the entire organization to do something like that, to step away from AT&T standards. He was just fearless like that to do new things,” Brus said.

Brus said that, although he provided input as an advisor, Alivisatos had independence as a postdoc to self-guide his research and took the opportunity to ambitiously pursue his interests. When they did work on projects together or ran into a disagreement, Brus said their approach was nonconfrontational and compromising.

“In research you’re dealing with uncertainties all the time…so there’s always questions about what we should do next,” Brus said. “We had occasionally difference of opinion but the way scientists work that out is they sit and discuss it and not take it as a threat to you personally if someone disagrees with you.”

This practice set the tone for how Alivisatos would go on to work with his colleagues once returning to Berkeley as faculty. “It was a very collaborative friendly internal environment where you could learn from other people and change fields very quickly,” Brus said. “[Alivisatos] appreciated that very much. He tried to create some of these aspects of Bell Labs when he was back in a leadership position at Berkeley.”

Indeed, to many of his colleagues, Alivisatos sets himself apart in his scientific research and leadership beyond with his ability to connect and collaborate. It’s one of the qualities which led Mark Yudof, former president of the University of California, to promote Alivisatos from deputy to director of the Berkeley Laboratory, his first administrative role. “He’s a brilliant scientist, but I liked the fact that he also seemed to have humanistic sort of values and had empathy and related well with people,” Yudof said.

It's a skill Alivisatos says he learned at UChicago. “The Common Core really did have a big effect on me,” Alivisatos said. His humanities and social science classes gave him ways of thinking that he uses every day, especially in his scientific work.

Leading by Collaboration

It was at Berkeley Labs, however, that Alivisatos found his appreciation for collaboration. In his research there he made a discovery that he said many scientists wanted to build on. In his own words, Alivisatos described it as knowing “how to grow a certain kind of material.” However, a cursory Wikipedia search shows that Alivisatos’s discovery that semiconductor nanocrystals can be grown in two-dimensional form completely transformed the field of nanoscience. The finding literally lifted the production of nanocrystals into a new dimension, allowing scientists to control for their size and shape, and opened the door to various biomedical and technological innovations.

Whenever Alivisatos met someone at a conference that was interested in replicating the technique, he’d invite them to visit the lab and work on it with him. That is, until his postdoctoral students approached him and told him not to invite any more people. “They said we aren’t getting any work done,’” Alivisatos chuckled.

In order to keep hosting scientists and also give his lab space for research, Alivisatos helped to open the Molecular Foundry to facilitate collaborative research in nanoscience. “That was a moment when I learned that building things with a community is something I truly loved doing,” Alivisatos said. “I learned more by working with other people than I did if I was off in my own corner.”

Even after climbing the ranks of Berkeley’s administration to executive vice chancellor and provost, second in command only to the chancellor, Alivisatos continued to seek collective input. Sean Burns, director of Berkeley’s Center for Undergraduate Discovery, collaborated with Alivisatos while he was provost to create the Berkeley Discovery Initiative. It’s a curriculum meant to “support students on a journey of engaged creativity and self-actualization,” much like the path Alivisatos was able to follow at UChicago.

In an interview with The Maroon, Burns said, “It wasn’t historically common for vice chancellors of research to have a whole lot of concern for the undergraduate experience.” In the initial stages of planning, Alivisatos initiated eight to 10 hours of forums to solicit the input of campus. “These open forums were very popular and very productive, and I think the importance he placed on this open community process as a starting point for the initiative demonstrates his deep-seated commitment to generating good ideas through collective dialogue.”

When asked to describe Alivisatos’s leadership style, Burns became enthusiastic and waved his hands while rattling off a list of admirable qualities. “He’s visionary, he’s someone who’s looking at possibility for transformation, he's looking at trends, and he’s an integrative thinker that’s trying to steer organizations and obviously higher-ed institutions into a vision that can include solutions to many of the things that need to get transformed,” Burns said.

The Student Perspective

The Maroon talked with representatives from Berkeley’s student government, a body housed under the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), to understand Alivisatos’s impression on the student body. Nicole Anyanwu, ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President, attested to Alivisatos’s down-to-earth, sympathetic, and collaborative leadership style and said that he is transparent and direct when the administration is unable to meet a student demand.

“We have a good working relationship with Paul—we call him Paul on our end,” Chief of Staff for the ASUC Office of Academic Affairs James Weichert said. “It’s a very fun experience being in meetings with him, especially because he has a long history on this campus,” Weichert said, referring to Alivisatos’s success as both a scientist and administrator at Berkeley.

Weichert and Anyanwu both remarked on the transparency that Alivisatos brings to his interactions with the student body, a highly desired though often-lost quality of university administrators. According to Anyanwu, Alivisatos “leads with a mutual respect for student leaders, and is often very sympathetic to student issues.”

“Especially during this very difficult and extraordinary year, it's been great to have those frank conversations and really think outside of the box. Provost Alivisatos is really willing to take that step outside of the box and have that conversation openly,” Weichert said.

He recalled a project that Alivisatos helped the Berkeley student government facilitate to connect students with professors on campus. “It’s something that hasn’t been tried out before and something that we were ideating collaboratively as opposed to it just being a student idea or it just being an administrative idea,” Weichert said.

However, Weichert shared that Alivisatos will stand his ground when it comes to an issue that the administration is firm on. One such instance was in response to a campaign by the ASUC Office on Academic Affairs to appoint another student representative to the search committee for Berkeley’s vice chancellor of equity and inclusion.

“The fact that it was dismissed so offhand was, I think, a little shocking to us because it's not how we were accustomed to working with Dr. Alivisatos,” Weichert said. “In general there are some of those moments where in contrast to opening a dialogue and having a conversation he sort of shuts down and says, ‘No, I don’t think that’s feasible.’ He’ll try to put it in nice words… but the message is pretty clear that there’s no appetite for that.”

Ultimately, Weichert accepts it as a consequence of university bureaucracy more than a reflection of Alivisatos’s character. He has also used it as a chance to grow as a student representative. “We’ve enjoyed working with him and being in the room with him and learning how he thinks as a proxy for learning how other administrators or how faculty might think. And that has only made our arguments stronger as advocates and as students leaders. Even if we were first rebuffed then we would go back to the drawing board,” Weichert said.

Looking Forward to a Chicago Presidency

Rejoining the UChicago community for the first time since his undergraduate days, Alivisatos is approaching the task like a student who’s conscious of the work he needs to catch up.

“In my first quarter for sure I’m just going to actively listen everywhere that I can. I want to hear student voices.… I want to hear from what students are experiencing, I want to hear how they’ve held up through COVID, I want to hear what their ambitions and dreams are.… I want to visit with the faculty across the campus and I want to talk to the amazing staff…with our South Side neighbors and other partners.”

Alivisatos is entering the presidency at an extremely difficult time in University and world history. He is inheriting a long list of existing demands on campus including those to recognize the Graduate Student Union, endow a department of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, and defund the University of Chicago Police Department. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on the South Side at the same time as the community is grappling with the harm of systemic racism and police violence.

Alivisatos claims to have been doing his homework. “I’ve been looking from the outside and I could see what was happening between the University and the South Side today.… I saw a lot of beautiful things happening to address all the challenges that are there,” Alivisatos said. “I think the opportunity and the responsibility of the University to work with the South Side is profound and that the South Side will enrich the University in terms of helping make our community stronger.”

“I need to know what the community is ready and excited for, and of course, I’ll have my own thoughts and we’ll share them, but it’s going to be a joint process of discovery,” Alivisatos said. “If there’s one thing I’ve really learned in my experiences is that for something to emerge as a successful endeavor in a university it is really important that it rise from within the community of the university. It’s not something that can just be parachuted in.”