Hackney began presidency on rocky ground
Students, faculty had hoped that then-Provost Vartan Gregorian would be president
September 25, 2013, 8:32 pm · Updated September 25, 2013, 10:30 pm·
The day after Sheldon Hackney was announced as Penn’s sixth president in September 1980, then-Provost Vartan Gregorian submitted his resignation to the University. Gregorian, an immensely popular figure among faculty and students, had been the odds-on favorite to succeed Martin Meyerson, the president at the time.
The selection of Hackney came as a surprise to most at Penn. That week, headlines in The Daily Pennsylvanian forecast an ominous future for Hackney, whose presidency began several months later. “A tragic loss,” one headline read, referencing the Board of Trustees’ decision to pass over Gregorian. “Ignoring the obvious choice,” another said.
On Sept. 17, several hundred students and professors rallied in support of Gregorian on College Green, saying that the presidential search had been unfair and prejudiced.
Hackney, who died earlier this month, acknowledged then that the situation bothered him, although he did not let on until years later how toxic the climate around campus had become.
“It was assumed by campus activists, the student newspaper and the local press that I must be the opposite of [Gregorian],” Hackney once wrote. “He was short, plump, swarthy, charming and ebullient; I was tall, slender, white and reserved. Since he was liberal and creative, I must be conservative and managerial. It took me perhaps four years to break through those stereotypes completely and establish warm relationships with the dominant political center of faculty and students.”
Throughout his presidency, which lasted from 1981-93, Hackney made it a point to continue to involve Gregorian in campus affairs, despite the fact that he was no longer on campus. Linda Wilson, Hackney’s former chief of staff, called the move “conciliatory.”
“When we’d be putting together events, Sheldon would often say, ‘Make sure Vartan’s on that list,’” she said. “He believed that it would be an error or a misjudgment if he didn’t keep the door open to Vartan.”
In 1988, Hackney gave Gregorian an honorary degree at Penn’s commencement, calling the former provost — who went on to become president of Brown University and is now president of the Carnegie Corporation — a “galvanizing humanist” and a “born teacher who exemplified the ideals of Benjamin Franklin.”
Despite his initial disappointment at not getting the Penn presidency, Gregorian said that Hackney was a bright spot in his relationship with Penn’s administration over the years. While Gregorian could not fully shake off a grudge against some trustees who had spoken out against him during the presidential search process, he said that Hackney always helped him stay connected with the University.
“I’ve never felt any alienation from Penn,” Gregorian, who was at Penn for nearly a decade, said. “I learned early on never to confuse the church with the gatekeepers; I never had any rancor toward Penn, or toward Sheldon. I greatly respected Sheldon.”
In 1980, when Hackney was announced as Meyerson’s successor, some at Penn said that Gregorian, an Iranian-born Armenian-American, had been denied the presidency because of his ethnicity. Others said that it had to do with his poor standing in the eyes of some trustees.
Hackney recognized soon after he arrived on campus in 1981 that, if his presidency were to be successful, he would have to win over the “Gregorian loyalists,” said Claire Fagin, a former School of Nursing dean who served as interim president after Hackney. To that end, Hackney and his wife, Lucy, decided early on that they would live on campus, something that no Penn president had done before.
“It was a move to show that he was committed to being part of the community at Penn, and I think it paid off,” Lucy said.
Hackney and Gregorian, Lucy added, always kept up a strong mutual respect for each other. In 1993, when Hackney was a leading candidate for the National Endowment for the Humanities chairmanship, Gregorian gave him a strong recommendation to then-President Bill Clinton.
At Penn’s commencement in 1988, Hackney introduced Gregorian with a short message: welcome home.
“As the throngs of faculty, students and alums cheered wildly, all of a sudden I felt very peaceful,” Gregorian wrote of receiving the honorary degree in his book, “The Road to Home: My Life and Times.” “I realized that was the real enduring Penn I had loved.”