After Anthony Marx graduated from Yale University in 1981, he wrote a letter to then-Penn president Sheldon Hackney. Marx was interested, he wrote, in learning more about university governance, and a friend had recommended Hackney as a good person to get to know.
Hackney, impressed by the recent Yale graduate, hired Marx as a special assistant to the president. The two became friends over the next few years, with Marx serving as a close adviser to Hackney on community relations.
Nearly 30 years later, Hackney reunited with his former protégé, taking the time to speak at Marx’s inauguration as the 18th president of Amherst College.
Today, Marx is among several current and former university presidents — including Harvard University’s Drew Gilpin Faust, Indiana University’s Thomas Ehrlich and California State University at Chico’s Paul Zingg — who view Hackney as a major influence in their administrative careers.
“Sheldon was among very few presidents who really recognized a certain responsibility to develop leadership, both at his own university and beyond,” Zingg, an assistant to Hackney in the mid-1980s who became president of Cal State Chico in 2004, said.
Hackney, who died on Sept. 12, always believed that he had a duty to help usher in a new generation of university presidents, Linda Wilson, a former chief of staff to Hackney, said. “I don’t think you could have found a person as committed to helping individuals in higher education realize their leadership potential,” she said. “That was critical to him.”
Faust, the most prominent of Hackney’s presidential protégés, became a close colleague and confidante of Hackney during her 25 years on Penn’s faculty. Both were southern history scholars, and when Hackney returned to Penn’s faculty in 1997 after a brief stint at the National Endowment for the Humanities, the two co-taught a course on gender and the South.
By the late 1980s, Hackney was trying to convince Faust to become dean of Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. “She really had the trust of the administration and faculty,” Hackney once told The Daily Pennsylvanian. “Everyone always spoke so highly of her judgement.”
Faust, who also directed Penn’s Women’s Studies program, declined the offer, telling Hackney that she was not ready to make the jump from faculty to administrative life.
“Sheldon made me feel that I had some leadership capacity, even if I didn’t immediately take up those opportunities and pathways,” Faust, who was inaugurated as Harvard’s first female president in 2007, said. “He became a real role model for me of what an academic leader can and should be.”
Hackney, Zingg said, made it a point to pay particular attention to younger talent at the University. Several years after Zingg arrived at Penn, Hackney nominated him for a national leadership fellowship with the American Council on Education, a leading higher education umbrella organization. The ACE fellowship — as well as Hackney’s role in helping him get it — played a major part in developing Zingg’s higher education leadership interest, he said.
Hackney, who taught history courses throughout his presidency, was a “scholar-president,” Zingg said — a model that he has tried to follow by continuing to teach throughout his own presidency at Cal State Chico.
Marx, who served as Amherst’s president from 2003-11 and is now president and CEO of the New York Public Library, called Hackney a “moral touchstone” for those who learned under him. “Sheldon always understood that there were higher values at stake,” he said, “and even in difficult times of debate, he kept his eye on what the ideals were. That’s been a beacon for myself and others to think about as we’ve dealt with our own conflicts and debates.”
Ehrlich, who was a provost under Hackney before he served as president of Indiana from 1987-94, credited Hackney in particular for his work to repair Penn’s relationship with its West Philadelphia neighbors — an initiative that helped to establish the model for the modern-day urban institution, he said.
Hackney was also keen on getting more women into leadership positions, at Penn and throughout higher education, Wilson said. During the final year of his presidency, he was a vocal supporter of former School of Nursing Dean Claire Fagin, who became Penn’s interim president in 1993.
When Fagin began serving as interim president after Hackney left Penn for the NEH, she became the first woman to hold that position in the Ivy League. Today, of the six female Ivy League presidents who have served on a permanent basis, two — Judith Rodin and Amy Gutmann — have been at Penn.
“He took a big chance in supporting me,” Fagin said of Hackney, adding that if her interim presidency had not gone well, “it would have been very hard to appoint a woman following me.”
When Hackney returned to Penn’s faculty, he also became close with Gutmann, who started serving in 2004. Hackney’s office in the history department was in College Hall, and Gutmann said she would often receive calls or emails from the former Penn president that were of a “cheerleading” nature.
“That was just so reinforcing,” Gutmann said, “especially from somebody who I knew would tell me if he thought otherwise.”
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