Sheldon Hackney sits in a distinguished office in College Hall. It’s a familiar scene — the tall southern gentleman’s presence in the building where the University’s biggest decisions are made.
But this is not 1993, and Hackney isn’t sitting in the President’s office where he worked for 12 years. The former Penn President is not embroiled in controversies about race relations or anxious over his nomination hearings for chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Bill Clinton.
Now 76 years old, Hackney is upstairs in the History Department, grading his last few stacks of term papers and finishing up his final week at the University to which he devoted over 25 years.
Hackney will retire this spring after an illustrious career that included terms as a professor and then provost at Princeton and president of Tulane before his time at Penn.
“It is my great honor and bittersweet pleasure to officially say au revoir to my esteemed colleague and beloved friend, Sheldon Hackney,” current Penn President Amy Gutmann said at a retirement reception for Hackney Wednesday.
Hackney’s presidency saw a record-breaking $1.33 billion fundraising campaign and major improvements to the undergraduate programs. When U.S. News and World Report released its first-ever undergraduate rankings in 1983 — two years into his term — Penn didn’t even make the list. It was number 11 when he left in 1993.
But that same year, as his capital campaign wound down and the National Endowment for the Humanities opportunity arose, his presidency ended amid controversies that caught the national spotlight. The media criticized his handling of the “water buffalo” incident, in which the University prosecuted a student named Eden Jacobowitz for racial harassment after yelling “Shut up, you water buffalo” at a group of rowdy black sorority sisters outside his high rise dormitory.
Widespread public discourse and a slew of what Hackney deems inaccurate reports on the incident led to interrogations during his NEH confirmation hearings. In 2002, he published a book recounting the turmoil of what he calls the worst year of his life.
Even with the controversy well behind him, he still flinches when asked about the negative impact of the scandal on his legacy. “I hate it,” he said. “I think about it more often than I would like, and it’s not pleasant.”
Following his NEH chairmanship, Hackney returned to Penn as a History professor in 1997.
“I had never been a full-time faculty member here, so I had to learn the ropes,” he said.
His colleague Steve Hahn, with whom he has co-taught a graduate seminar on topics in southern history, put it another way. “He’s like John Quincy Adams, the only president to ever go back in the House of Representatives,” Hahn said of Hackney, capturing the spirit of the two hearty history buffs.
The transition required some adjusting, the most taxing of which was simply catching up on reading.
“That was the biggest challenge,” he said. “When I started doing the lecture course on the South, I really had to hustle to keep up with the literature and not embarrass myself. I’m not sure I accomplished that.”
But if you ask Hahn, a professor of 30 years who will take over Hackney’s popular lecture (HIST171: The American South 1860-Present), the Alabama native more than held his own.
“He’s incredibly knowledgeable in many ways,” Hahn said. “Even with all his administrative responsibilities, he managed to keep up with a lot of the literature, which is not really easy to do.”
For all Hackney’s history at Penn, he has managed to go fairly unnoticed since returning.
“I get the impression, particularly in the lecture course, that a lot of students didn’t realize that I had been president,” he said. “I prefer it that way.”
That low-key nature is why he’ll be spending his retirement on Martha’s Vineyard, where his family already resides year-round. When he and his wife Lucy visited a friend on the Vineyard in the summer of 1966, they enjoyed the vacation so much that they decided to rent “a ramshackle old inn” for one month the following summer. The couple returned every summer for 10 years before buying the house to which Hackney will retire.
“The Vineyard has been our place for a very, very long time,” Lucy said. “We go, we have great friends, they don’t give a damn whether Sheldon’s the president of whatever.”
Hackney will spend his retirement finishing a biography of his mentor at Princeton, eminent historian C. Van Woodward, while continuing work on his golf game. But he plans to stay connected to Penn however he can.
“It is my participation in this culture of Penn that has made me a better individual,” Hackney said Wednesday in his closing remarks. “I thank Penn for that, and Penn will always be in my life and in my family’s life.”
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