F. Sheldon Hackney Hon’93—former Penn president and the David Boies Professor Emeritus of History—died on September 12 at his home in Martha’s Vineyard, where he had been living since retiring from teaching in 2010. He was 79 years old, and the reported cause of death was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“All of us in the Penn family are heartbroken by the news of Sheldon Hackney’s passing,” said Penn President Amy Gutmann in a statement on his death, extending the University’s “heartfelt condolences” to Hackney’s wife, Lucy, his surviving children, Sheldon Fain L’87 and Elizabeth, and his grandchildren. She called Hackney “one of the most beloved presidents in the history of our University” as well as “a dear friend.”
Hackney served as Penn’s sixth president from 1981 to 1993. His tenure began on a note of controversy, mostly having to do with the fact that he was selected over the campus favorite, then-Provost Vartan Gregorian, and also because of the expense involved in his inauguration on October 23, 1981, by which time he’d been on the job nine months. “Pomp and Protest Mark Formal Inauguration of Sheldon Hackney,” went the headline in the December 1981 Gazette.
Those festivities—including an installation ceremony with speeches, a scholarly symposium, and assorted other events—would set the pattern for subsequent presidencies, but were then unfamiliar at Penn, “owing largely to the fact that provosts were the chief executives [at the University] into the 20th century and no inaugurations had been held since 1895.”
But that was nothing compared to the stormy conclusion of Hackney’s term in 1993. He announced his resignation in April of that year, after President Bill Clinton nominated him to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. More or less simultaneously, two racially charged controversies related to speech on campus—the “water buffalo” incident and the theft of an edition of The Daily Pennsylvanian by a group of students protesting the paper’s treatment of minorities—erupted in the national media, turning his confirmation hearing into a pitched battle over “political correctness.”
In The Politics of Presidential Appointments: A Memoir of the Culture War (excerpted in the May|June 2003 Gazette),Hackney wrote of the experience: “Thinking back on that spring-from-hell, I recall it not only as the worst time of my life, but as an out-of-body experience. I followed the story in the press of some idiot named Hackney, who was either a left-wing tyrant or a namby-pamby liberal with a noodle for a spine. My critics couldn’t decide which.”
Despite fierce opposition by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, Hackney was ultimately confirmed by a vote of 76 to 23 and served for four years as NEH director. But those weren’t quiet years. During his tenure the agency, like the National Endowment for the Arts, was frequently under attack by conservatives and had its budget cut significantly.
In a Gazette interview after Hackney rejoined the Penn faculty in 1997, he expressed pleasure at being free of those battles—as well as the fact that he’d be spending his time teaching and writing rather than under the spotlight in the president’s office.
Hackney was a noted expert on the American South since the Civil War, and in his first semester back he co-taught a graduate seminar on gender in the South with then-Annenberg Professor of History Drew Faust G’71 Gr’75, now president of Harvard University. In 2001, he won a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.
In between his tenure’s contentious beginning and ending, Hackney “helped guide Penn to greatness in many ways that will continue to be felt all across our campus and broader community,” Gutmann said. His administration saw an increased emphasis on undergraduate education and on outreach to the West Philadelphia community that has been continued and expanded by his successors. He was the first Penn chief executive to occupy Eisenlohr Hall, since then the official campus residence for Penn presidents.
During Hackney’s 12 years in College Hall, the University’s endowment more than quadrupled and its fundraising prowess ramped up significantly. Arriving on campus just after Penn had concluded its $255 million Program for the Eighties campaign, Hackney would see the $1 billion Campaign for Penn: Keeping Franklin’s Promise launch and near completion during his administration. Announced in 1989, it concluded in 1994 with $1.47 billion—at the time, the largest campaign total ever in higher education.
Increased support for athletics, growing minority enrollment at the University, and the diversification of Locust Walk—with the addition, for example, of the Penn Women’s Center to the traditional fraternity row—were also features of his tenure. And Hackney presided over the year-long series of events celebrating the University’s 250th anniversary in 1990, which, among many other attractions, brought former President Ronald Reagan, and entertainers Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers to campus.
Hackney was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and attended Vanderbilt University as an undergraduate, under a Navy ROTC scholarship. He served five years in the Navy as an ensign and lieutenant (1956-59) and while attending the Naval Academy (1959-61). While in the service, he married Lucy Durr, whose parents were active in the civil-rights movement and close friends of civil-rights icon Rosa Parks.
He received his master’s degree and doctorate from Yale University and was on the Princeton faculty from 1965 to 1975, serving as provost from 1972 on. From 1975 to 1980 he was president of Tulane University, leaving that post to come to Penn.
In addition to his memoir, Hackney’s books include the award-winning Populism to Progressivism in Alabama, published in 1969 (with a 45th anniversary edition planned for 2014), and Magnolias Without Moonlight: The American South from Regional Confederacy to National Integration (2005). Another book, 1997’s One America, Indivisible: A National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity, grew out of a signature project he had overseen at NEH.
While Hackney could certainly stir angry feelings among alumni—as attested by the response in the “Letters” section whenever the Gazette has revisited the events of his presidency—the prevailing view of him is one of profound reasonableness, a “true gentleman scholar,” as Gutmann put it in her statement.
“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,” Gutmann said. “Sheldon’s life was one we could do well to emulate. He will be greatly missed.” —J.P.