Death of Dr. Sheldon Hackney: Penn's President 1981-1993
September 24, 2013, Volume 60, No. 6
President Emeritus Sheldon Hackney, "a Southern gentleman" who led the University of Pennsylvania from 1981 to 1993, died on September 12 at his home on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, at the age of 79 from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Penn President Amy Gutmann said, "All of us in the Penn family are heartbroken by the news of Sheldon Hackney's passing. Sheldon was one of the most beloved presidents in the history of our University. He also was an exceptional leader and renowned scholar who was a national champion for the humanities and for a broad-based liberal arts education. He approached his work with grace and dignity, a sense of kindness and genuine humility, and a wry, oft-times unexpected sense of humor. He was a friend to everyone who had the good fortune of working with him. Sheldon also will always be remembered as a true gentleman scholar."
Dr. Gutmann added, "Sheldon's vision and leadership helped guide Penn to greatness in many ways that will continue to be felt all across our campus and broader community. I was honored to be able to count him as a dear friend.
"We extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife and our friend Lucy, their surviving children Sheldon Fain and Elizabeth, and their grandchildren.
Sheldon's life was one we could do well to emulate. He will be greatly missed," Dr. Gutmann said.
A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Francis Sheldon Hackney earned a bachelor's degree from Vanderbilt University on a Navy ROTC scholarship in 1955. He served as an ensign and lieutenant in the US Navy from 1956-1959 and attended the US Naval Academy from 1959-1961. While in the Navy, he married Lucy Durr, whose parents were prominent civil rights activists, most famous for having posted the bond for their close friend, Rosa Parks, when she was jailed in Montgomery after her iconic act of refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Lucy Durr Hackney's wedding dress was fitted by Ms. Parks, a seamstress who was also secretary of the NAACP.
Dr. Hackney received both a master's and doctorate at Yale University where he was the protégé of C. Vann Woodward, the pre-eminent historian of the post-Civil War south.
Dr. Hackney was a nationally recognized scholar who specialized in the history of the American South after the Civil War. Among the books and articles on history he wrote, Populism to Progressivism in Alabama (Princeton Press, 1969) won the Albert J. Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association for best book in American history that year and the Sydnor Prize by the Southern Historical Association. New South Books is due to reissue a 45th anniversary edition in 2014.
He also wrote Magnolias Without Moonlight: The American South From Regional Confederacy to National Integration (2005).
Prior to coming to Penn, Dr. Hackney had been an instructor at Princeton where he started teaching an Upward Bound Program for disadvantaged high school students and became its director. The program became a model for the country. He was instrumental in the establishment of an African-American studies program at Princeton and became more involved in the administration there. He taught at Princeton from 1965 to 1975 and served as Princeton's Provost from 1972 to 1975.
While serving as Tulane University's 12th president from 1975 to 1980, the university acquired new computer capabilities, enjoyed salary increases, established the chair of Judeo-Christian Studies, received increased gifts and grants and achieved a balanced budget.
Describing his years at the helm of Tulane and Penn, he told an interviewer in 2007, "I enjoyed my college presidencies a lot, so I do enjoy being involved in things. It's not just ego gratification. I enjoy getting things to happen, making institutions better, and bringing in people for those tasks."
Dr. Hackney was elected by the Penn Trustees as president in October 1980 (Almanac October 28, 1980) and took the helm in February 1981 (Almanac February 3, 1981). He was inaugurated—a return to an old Penn tradition—on October 23, 1981 with a "celebration of one University's past, present and future" (Almanac September 29, 1981). The Inaugural Address was given by his mentor, Dr. Woodward (Almanac October 27, 1981).
His comprehensive plan, Choosing Penn's Future (Almanac January 25, 1983) identified three challenges: undergraduate education, the research experience and student financial aid. It also established a framework of priorities for the decade that followed. Building on that framework, he released Investing in Penn's Future (Almanac January 22, 1985) followed by Planning for the 21st Century: Final Reports of the Ten Working Groups (Almanac December 5, 1989) and Investing in Academic Excellence (Almanac March 3, 1987).
As Penn's president, he oversaw Penn's first billion dollar campaign, Keeping Franklin's Promise which raised $1.33 billion (Almanac September 27, 1994). He not only worked to improve Penn's reputation and selectivity, he also strongly supported Penn Athletics. He raised undergraduate minority enrollment from 13% to 30% and increased endowments from $160 million to $1 billion. He appointed a task force and diversified Locust Walk to make it more inclusive and not entirely occupied by fraternities (Almanac September 17, 1991).
Dr. Hackney was instrumental in improving Penn's community relations by creating the Center for Community Partnerships, now known as the Netter Center which is still led by Dr. Ira Harkavy. President Hackney understood the importance of the Town-Gown relationship. In fact he became the first Penn president to live in Eisenlohr Hall, which has become the official home for Penn's presidents since then (Almanac November 11, 1980).
Early in his term at Penn, the United Way/Donor Option campaign was unveiled giving donors more choices; he served as co-chair, along with the provost, and there was a dramatic increase in giving.
While serving as Penn's president he was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. During his confirmation hearing in 1993, he was embroiled in the "Water Buffalo Incident" as a result of Penn charging a white male student with racial harassment for shouting the now infamous term from his dorm room window to noisy black sorority sisters below. Penn and its judicial procedures became the focal point of a national debate concerning free speech.
Nonetheless, Dr. Hackney was easily confirmed 76 to 23, and served as head of the NEH from 1993 to 1997. One of his major projects was to encourage public discussion of difficult issues through a program called "A National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity." In One America, Indivisible A National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity, a 1997 book about the project, he wrote that he was concerned about the country's political atmosphere. He wrote an acclaimed memoir in 2002 about the experience, The Politics of Presidential Appointment: A Memoir of the Culture War, with a forward by his friend Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., a lawyer and former adviser to President Clinton.
In an interview, Dr. Hackney once said, "I was a true veteran of the multicultural wars; if they gave out Purple Hearts for wounds incurred while trapped between the front lines, I would have several."
Dr. Hackney returned to teaching history at Penn in 1997 and in 2001 he won a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching (Almanac April 17, 2001) at which time it was written that "during his tenure as President, he taught a history seminar each year and there was always a waiting list to get into the course. Students in the course were unanimous in their praise for Dr. Hackney and for how much they had learned in his seminar." He was subsequently involved in the then-new pilot curriculum as a member of the Committee on Undergraduate Education in the College.
Students praised his respect for their ideas and his ability to foster their creativity and independent thought and his skill in fostering open discussions in and out of class. A student wrote: "I can honestly say that through my work with Dr. Hackney, I left Penn a better writer, student of history, and creative thinker," while another notes: "I frequently advise current Penn students that, whether or not they are history majors, they must take one of Dr. Hackney's classes before they graduate." Both students and colleagues noted his love for American history, his respect for his students and his challenging approach to historical questions. By his deep commitment to knowledge and to his students, he embodied the ideals of the Lindback Award."
In 2010, Dr. Hackney had retired from teaching as the David Boies Professor of History Emeritus and moved to his home on the Vineyard full-time.
Last month, Dr. Hackney was honored with a medal from the Martha's Vineyard Museum for his many contributions to the Vineyard community where he and his wife, Lucy, had been going * since 1966. Their home overlooks the harbor; he had written a poem about the Vineyard, entitled, "My Favorite Place on Earth."
Dr. Hackney is survived by his wife, Lucy Durr Hackney; a son, Fain Hackney, L'87; a daughter, Elizabeth McBride; three brothers, Morris, Rob and John; and eight grandchildren. A daughter, Virginia, died of pancreatic cancer in 2007.
Related: President Emeritus Hackney's Memorial Celebration: Onward