Former university president Hackney bows out at Penn

Sheldon Hackney, former Penn president and Humanities Endowment chairman.
Sheldon Hackney, former Penn president and Humanities Endowment chairman.
Posted: June 08, 2010

With the laudatory farewell dinner behind him, his last papers graded, commencement over, and much of the packing done, Sheldon Hackney poured black coffee from a thermos and savored one of his last days in his frumpily elegant office in College Hall.

Seated at the long wood table where he has taught seminars for 15 years, surrounded by awards, honors, and books, the long, lanky, professorial Hackney seemed to fit comfortably and timelessly.

But his gig is up. The former University of Pennsylvania president and history professor retired at the end of the spring semester and is leaving Philadelphia this month, selling his condominium at 42d and Pine Streets and moving to his home on Martha's Vineyard. "It's time," he said. "My powers are receding a bit."

His wavy hair has gone silver and the skin has slackened above his hooded blue eyes, but if he's lost any of his intellectual acumen, it would be hard to tell. During an hour-long interview, Hackney spoke at length and in detail about his family, his career, his appointment as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Bill Clinton, the civil rights movement, the evolution of Penn's relationship with West Philadelphia, and his mother-in-law's close friendship with Rosa Parks.

He laughed, remembering how he once opposed the university's decision to do away with its mandatory retirement policy. Forcing professors to make a graceful, if involuntary, exit at 70 seemed eminently reasonable to him when he was in his 50s.

"I thought it was terrible that we could no longer require faculty to retire, even when their teaching skills and interests were declining," Hackney said. "Now, I've violated my own rules."

In December, he turned 76.

Since Hackney arrived at Penn in 1981, the campus has been his adoptive home with all the attendant warmth, conflict, loyalty, rivalry, pride, disappointment, and love of any family. Especially one with more than 40,000 members.

His very appointment as president was not without drama. "I knew the provost, Vartan Gregorian, from educational meetings around the country. He was telling people he was going to be president of Penn, so when I got the call from the search committee, I thought, 'Why waste my time?' There was already an inside candidate."

Hackney, then president of Tulane University, allowed his wife, Lucy, to persuade him to talk to Penn anyway.

The interview took place late one August morning in his hotel room at the Bellevue. "Penn had lost a lot of money in the 1970s when Penn Central stock declined," Hackney recalled. In March 1978, students held a four-day sit-in protesting budget cuts that would have removed the men's ice hockey team from varsity status and closed the Annenberg Center's professional theater.

Hackney laid out his ideas for how to turn the university's finances around, create a more diverse student body, and mend the torn social fabric on campus. "We had a plane that afternoon to go back to New Orleans. At about noon, the phone rang." It was Paul Miller, chairman of the board of trustees. "Can we come up to see you?" Shortly afterward, Miller and then-Penn president Martin Meyerson were standing at the hotel room door.

"The trustees want you to be the next president of Penn," Miller said.

In his 12 years on the job, Hackney fulfilled most of his promises.

He oversaw a $1.33 billion fund-raising campaign, helped wrest Locust Walk from the fraternities to make it more welcoming to all students, and increased the university's academic standing, positioning it to become one of the most selective - and popular - undergraduate programs in the country.

Speaking in his native Alabama drawl, still thick as buttermilk after more than half his life up North, Hackney, a Faulknerian storyteller, ambles through the anecdotes fondly. All except The One. For all his accomplishments as a historian, administrator, author, and teacher, his legacy is scarred by the confluence of two events in the spring of 1993. Black students had confiscated copies of the campus newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, in protest over what they perceived as racist content. And a student, upset about being disturbed by a noisy group of African American sorority sisters one night, had called them "water buffalo."

Rather than slog through the complicated and painful story again, Hackney recommends reading his memoir, The Politics of Presidential Appointment: A Memoir of the Culture War.

In his account, he explains the university's internal politics at the time and the racial tension he says the Daily Pennsylvanian staff engendered. He fills out the picture of both incidents, noting, for example, that the "water buffalo" remark was one of the less profane things said that night by other students, who never stepped forward to confess or apologize. After reading the book and his account of how the facts were misconstrued, it seems a measure of stunning graciousness that Hackney would ever agree to be interviewed by the press again.

For in the reductive account that will probably always trail him, he personified political correctness.

He was pilloried in editorials for how he handled the conflicts. The imbroglio nearly derailed his nomination to head the endowment. "It was a teachable moment that was squandered by Penn and also by the mainstream press," he wrote. "It was also a moment that was hijacked for ideological purposes."

But that's history. And ironically, a chapter that fits exactly into the issues that have always fascinated him - having to do with social movements and race.

When he left Washington 15 years ago and returned to Penn to teach, he folded himself back into the community quietly.

"One of the things that's really amazing about Sheldon is that here's a guy who ran the university, then the NEH, and he was incredibly unpretentious," said Steve Hahn, who co-taught with Hackney. "He never got on his high horse. He was just in the department like everyone else. He never did anything that alerted you that he knew how things worked and you didn't."

One of the last items to come off his office wall was a framed, faded pink poster advertising Woodstock, signed by John Roberts, the former Penn student who helped organize the festival. It will find a new home on the Vineyard, where Hackney plans to finish the biography he's been working on for years, about his mentor, the historian C. Vann Woodward.

"I'm ready to write," Hackney said. "I don't feel the end of life is here. I have other things I want to do."

He's on a museum board on the Vineyard, where two of his three children have lived for years, and he'll spend more time with his family.

Told he must have been a great professor, Hackney winced.

"Past tense," he said, taking a look around the room. "I've got to get used to that."


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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