Sheldon Hackney dies; was president of Penn

Former Penn president Sheldon Hackney also led the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Former Penn president Sheldon Hackney also led the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Posted: September 15, 2013

Sheldon Hackney, 79, who served as president of the University of Pennsylvania and Tulane University, and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, died Thursday, Sept. 12, at his home on Martha's Vineyard.

The cause of death was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

During his 12 years as president of Penn, Dr. Hackney helped lead the school through a record-setting financial turnaround that raised $1.33 billion and quadrupled the endowment.

His efforts to help Penn shore up its finances were only part of the plan he implemented for the Ivy League university when he arrived in 1981. He had been president of Tulane, in New Orleans, from 1975 to 1980.

Dr. Hackney increased Penn's academic standing, developed programs that improved the school's relationship with its West Philadelphia neighbors, and became a fixture in the community when he moved into the Eisenlohr Mansion at 38th and Walnut Streets, becoming the first Penn president to live on campus.

After the news broke Friday, university president Amy Gutmann called Dr. Hackney an exceptional leader, a renowned scholar, and one of the "most beloved presidents" in the history of the university.

"He approached his work with grace and dignity, a sense of kindness and genuine humility, and a wry, ofttimes unexpected sense of humor," she said in a statement.

His presidency was not without controversy. The most contentious nearly derailed his appointment to lead the endowment, a post for which President Bill Clinton nominated him in 1993.

In the days before Dr. Hackney's confirmation hearings, he was criticized for his handling of two racially charged incidents at Penn.

In one, a group of African American students confiscated copies of the campus newspaper to protest what they viewed as racist content. In the other incident, a white student disturbed by a noisy group of black sorority sisters called the women "water buffalo," which they interpreted as a racial slur.

The white student was brought up on racial-harassment charges. The university's initial action in response to the black students who had taken the newspapers was not as severe.

Critics questioned Dr. Hackney's commitment to free speech and said he was adhering to political correctness. He later described the controversy as an effort by conservatives to embarrass Clinton.

In a book he wrote about the hearings, Dr. Hackney said the facts surrounding his response to the incidents had been misconstrued. But he also called the episode a teachable moment that was "squandered."

He served as chairman of the endowment until 1997.

Afterward, he returned to Penn as a history professor until his retirement in 2010.

"He was a believer in liberal arts education and enjoyed the relationships he had with students," said Fain Hackney, Dr. Hackney's son.

An award-winning scholar of Southern history, Dr. Hackney had continued to teach during his tenure as university president.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. Hackney earned a bachelor's degree in history from Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. in American history at Yale University in 1966.

He served in the Navy for five years.

He joined Princeton University as a lecturer in 1965 and eventually was named provost.

At Princeton, Dr. Hackney became involved in Upward Bound, a program for disadvantaged youth, and led the university's efforts to develop an African American Studies program.

He was married to Lucy Durr Hackney for 56 years.

In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Hackney is survived by a daughter, Elizabeth McBride; three brothers; and eight grandchildren. A daughter, Virginia, and a brother predeceased him.

A graveside service for family and friends is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, at West Chop Cemetery, Vineyard Haven, Mass. A memorial service will be held later.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Martha's Vineyard Museum, 59 School St., Edgartown, Mass. 02539.

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or


comments powered by Disqus