A Memory of Sheldon Hackney's Early Years at Penn


Louis A. Girifalco

Sheldon Hackney's great contributions to the academic excellence and financial health of Penn, along with his scholarly accomplishments and personal characteristics, mark him as one of the great University presidents. His campus presence was that of a caring, optimistic man who enjoyed talking with all members of Penn, whom he treated with respect and dignity.

Controversy and turmoil marked both the beginning and end of Sheldon Hackney's presidency at Penn. I cannot add much to what has been said about the end months, but I was present as acting provost at the beginning when he walked into a campus community that had been bitterly disappointed because Vartan Gregorian had not been appointed President instead.

Vartan handed in his resignation as Provost the day after Sheldon's appointment was announced. Not having Vartan appointed was described as a tragic loss and campus demonstrations for him drew hundreds of supporters. The presidential search and appointment process was said to be unfair and prejudiced, charges of ethnic bias were made, and Sheldon faced some great obstacles. He understood the situation from the first and, of course, it bothered him a great deal. In his own words it was a "painful period". He knew that his presidency would fail if the resentments and divisions continued.

Sheldon's talent and personality enabled him to succeed. He was conciliatory by nature, always calm and never confrontational. His approach was simple. He talked to everybody about their work, about the University and about the opportunity to enhance it in every way. I saw how even the most partisan individuals thawed out and developed a respect for him. The most important factor was his treatment of Vartan Gregorian. He made sure that Vartan stayed connected to Penn and involved him in University functions. Being rational and beyond pettiness, both men developed a great respect and even an affection for each other. The most visible manifestation of this was that Vartan was awarded an honorary degree during Hackney's term, and Gregorian was one of the four people that nominated Hackney for the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Sheldon was a familiar figure on campus, greeting everyone he met with a smile and often enjoying his legendary ice cream cone. He went on to a very successful presidency, marred only by the disciplinary and free speech issues at the end. In my view, he was treated unfairly and rather shabbily at that time. But those incidents cannot mask his great achievements or the fundamental goodness of his nature.