Remembering Sheldon Hackney


Alumni, administrators, colleagues react to the death of the former Penn president




In light of former president Sheldon Hackney’s death, The Daily Pennsylvanian will be publishing memories of Hackney from members of the University community. To submit a memory or comment for publication, email zweifler@sas.upenn.edu.

A beloved president

All of us in the Penn family are heartbroken by the news of Sheldon Hackney’s passing. Sheldon was one of the most beloved presidents in the history of our University. He also was an exceptional leader and renowned scholar who was a national champion for the humanities, and for a broad-based liberal arts education. He approached his work with grace and dignity, a sense of kindness and genuine humility, and a wry, oft-times unexpected sense of humor. He was a friend to everyone who had the good fortune of working with him. Sheldon also will always be remembered as a true gentleman scholar.

Sheldon’s vision and leadership helped guide Penn to greatness in many ways that will continue to be felt all across our campus and broader community. I was honored to be able to count him as a dear friend.

We extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife and our friend Lucy, their surviving children Sheldon Fain and Elizabeth, and their grandchildren.

Sheldon’s life was one we could do well to emulate. He will be greatly missed. -Amy Gutmann, Penn president

‘He never left Penn’

I am very sorry to learn of the death of Sheldon Hackney. He was a man I very much admired and a very decent human being.

As your article attests, he was a person of great accomplishment: Provost at Princeton; President of Tulane; President of Penn; Chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH). However, he never “left Penn.” After his term as Chair of NEH, he returned to his primary and enduring appointment, as Professor of History. He taught, he wrote, and he served in any number of School of Arts and Sciences roles, including first on, then as chair of, the Personnel Committee; and as Chair of the Department of History. These are all important but “normal” professorial roles, far “below” the elevated statuses that had characterized the preponderance of his career — and roles that he undertook dutifully after he had been at the “heights.” I saw this as the measure of the man and a positive reaffirmation of the central role of students and faculty in the life of the university. -Herbert L. Smith

Putting Penn on a course forward

I read the article today on the passing of Sheldon Hackney and it brought back some wonderful memories of my time at Penn. I was elected to the Board of Trustees as the Young Alumni or Recently Graduated Trustee in 1980. The main agenda item at my first meeting as a Trustee was the election of Dr. Hackney. Besides just the incredible honor of attending my first meeting as a Trustee was the fact that the other candidate to be President of Penn was Vartan Gregorian who was the Provost and someone I had gotten to know when I was a Wharton MBA. I felt at the time that the University was truly fortunate to have two outstanding candidates to lead our University. Over the next few years I had the great privilege of spending time with Sheldon and he truly inspired my interest not only in governance of a large institution but also in American History.

In thinking about Sheldon, I also recall his wonderful wife Lucy who was a scholar and someone steeped in history in her own right.

I truly believe that Dr. Hackney set Penn on a course of attracting world class leaders, as President as evidenced by his successors. -Mike Gilson, 1978 Wharton graduate

‘The little things’

Many times folks know about the big things people like Dr. Hackney do, but it’s the little things that make men like him so special.

I don’t know if my recollections will be beneficial, but I have something I’d like to share about Dr. Hackney. As an undergraduate under his presidency (SAS, ’93) and fellow Alabamian, I was always struck by his commitment towards improving life at Penn for minorities. He didn’t shy away from conversations about race. Oftentimes, he instigated these discussions. As a young Black woman with Southern lineage, I became curious about Dr. Hackney and his disposition. I read his books and those of his mentor, C. Vann Woodward, and learned about a different type of White Southerner than I’d been exposed to growing up. Dr. Hackney’s words and actions resonated with me. Therefore, when I entered graduate school at Penn and was tasked with an assignment to interview someone in higher education, Dr. Hackney was at the top of my list.

I didn’t know if I would be able to contact him, or if I did if he’d be receptive to speaking with me. However, I reached out to him and he was more than gracious in emailing and speaking with me several times over the course of my graduate school experience. My interviews with him and the paper I comprised based on them created one of my best academic experiences at Penn. He was never rushed speaking with me. Rather, he was candid, patient, thoughtful and very witty.

It was intriguing to hear about his life:

“Growing up in Alabama, I wanted the South to become better. I can’t ever remember thinking that segregation was legitimate or good.”

“When grammar school ended, I went as far North as I could imagine—Vanderbilt.”

…Dr.Hackney went on to share stories about how his father (a WWII Navy man) influenced him; his tenure teaching in the Naval Academy for three years; his in-laws (founders of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare); C. Vann Woodward sending him to Princeton when he was completing his dissertation; teaching at Princeton (when it transitioned to co-ed and instituted an African American history program) and working as an administrator under the tutelage of a man he greatly admired, President Goheen; serving as Princeton provost and working with Ruth Simmons at Princeton (who went on to also become an Ivy president of Brown); his Tulane presidency; his definition of leadership; his family, especially his eight grandchildren; and his legacy….

Dr. Hackney always struck me as a man ahead of his time. I’m saddened about his death, but very grateful to have had the opportunity to interact with him. -Yulanda Essoka

Strong support

I was president of GAPSA in 1981 and I remember the controversy that accompanied the Trustees’ choice of Sheldon Hackney as President, a decision that I strongly supported both then and now. Sheldon responded then to the reaction of some who supported someone else with the same grace and class that marked everything that he did. He cared deeply about Penn and its students and also provided superb service to the country as the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I am very glad that I had the chance to get to know him and as an alumnus I am profoundly grateful for the great service he gave in leading the University to outstanding new achievements. -Stephen Marmon

Deep impact

He was a great soul. He and his wife Lucy have had an impact on Penn, individuals at Penn and on the nation that is deep and far ranging. -Will Gipson, Associate Vice Provost

‘Modest to the end’

I was an entering freshman when Sheldon Hackney was inaugurated as University president. As others have commented, it was a difficult time in the University’s history. He inherited a challenging situation. Given his experience at Tulane and Princeton, it was kind of like southern gentleman meets Rocky — you wondered how the story would unfold. But, his leadership rose to the occasion — he worked to get the University on sounder financial footing and he worked hard to heal the University’s relationship with the community. Above all, he recruited great people to the University. Tom Ehrlich was a great provost and I can remember getting up super early to make 7 a.m. Academic Planning and Budget meetings in College Hall to review the University’s strategic plan — that was pretty tough given I lived in Beige Block at the time. And, he recruited really strong administrative leadership. Helen O’Bannon and Marna Whittington are still revered in my circles for their stewardship of the University.

When I returned to the University in 2000, it was a real treat to be reconnected with legends like Sheldon and Lucy Hackney and Martin and Margy Meyerson. Both former presidents were very kind and welcoming. (Think of how you will feel someday seated next to Amy Gutmann at a dinner 20 years from now.)

Finally, I can recall bumping into Dr. Hackney on College Green on a beautiful spring day shortly before he retired. College Green was abuzz with students and activity and, as we gazed about, I turned to him and said, “Look at what you helped to create.” He smiled. Modest to the end. -Craig Carnaroli, Executive Vice President

A teacher ‘in word and deed’

Dr. Hackney taught a seminar entitled History of the 60s. Spring semester of my senior year, 1987, I was privileged to be accepted to study with him in this seminar. It met on Tuesday nights, I think. We sat in the living room at Eisenlohr, the President’s House, ate Pepperidge Farm cookies and learned about the civil rights movement, women’s movement and other aspects of 60’s activism. To this day I cannot hear anything on the subject without recalling that course and just how much I learned from this terrific history professor. Yet, for as much as I learned in that class in terms of the subject matter, I learned as well from Dr. Hackney’s enthusiasm on the topic and his accessible, easy presence with the small seminar group. That spoke volumes about who he was. He taught me in word and deed. -Lisa Greene (Wharton ’87)

Contributions to athletics

Dr. Hackney is being fondly remembered and rightly hailed for his contributions to academia and public discourse, but there was another aspect of his tenure that can not be overlooked.

Dr. Hackney knew and understood the value of college athletics to the Penn community. Under his administration, the athletic department thrived. He was a vital part of the football resurgence with Jerry Berndt and I believe Al Bagnoli being hired on his watch. Craig Littlepage became Penn’s first African American coach in a major sport and Fran Dunphy took the basketball program to lofty heights.

Dr. Hackney was a fan and a presence at all sports from the Palestra to Franklin Field to the Penn Relays. He took an interest in the personal and academic interests of Penn athletes and had a true appreciation for their contributions to the Penn community.

For all his academic and administrative accomplishments, it was his personal commitment to the students that I will remember most. He was visible and approachable. With his warm smile and southern charm, he epitomized the word gentleman.

I’m glad to see the outpouring of recognition for all he did for Penn. It was a glorious era in the illustrious history of America’s finest university.

Thank you, Dr. Hackney -Bruce A. Lefkowitz, Class of 1987 CAS, Captain Varsity Basketball

One of the ‘all time greats’

I served as director of the Penn Fund during his years and cannot express what an engaging man he was. He was a true gentleman and along with trustees Paul Miller and Reg Jones did much to move Penn up several rungs of the academic ladder. He was one of Penn’s all time greats. -Sandy Luckenbill, G. Ed ’78

A boost for WXPN
A little-known but revealing anecdote can be added to the Sheldon Hackney tributes appearing in the September 16 Daily Pennsylvanian, namely his role in the drama concerning the survival of WXPN-FM. Having overcome and reversed the FCC’s denial of its license renewal in the 1970s, the station nevertheless encountered numerous obstacles to a sustainable future. Although it had several narrow segments of very dedicated supporters, it had experienced an overall decline in listeners and audience support, such that by the mid 1980s a cumulative financial deficit combined with deterioration of its technical facilities threatened its very ability to transmit a reliable signal. When I joined the WXPN Governing Board in 1984 as Chair, we determined a strategic overhaul was the only hope.

President Hackney quietly responded to the Board’s proposals, first with funding to develop a comprehensive turnaround plan and programming strategy, and subsequently with endorsement for an internal University loan to implement the plan (a loan which was repaid, well ahead of schedule). These developments were not without vocal opposition from groups of listeners who felt their priorities were being ignored, as well as from faculty, students and others in the University who felt differently about the role of WXPN as a college radio station. But without President Hackney’s quiet but unwavering support during this critical period, WXPN could not have survived, much less thrived and become the self-sustaining cultural voice of Penn treasured today by hundreds of thousands of listeners — in the Delaware Valley, in the broader coverage region, and through its syndicated programs and internet distribution, across the nation and beyond. -Michael Eleey, ASC ’69, WG ’77

A lunch companion

In the fall of 2007, I arrived at Penn. It was one of my first trips outside the Southeast. Like most freshmen, I was nervous about making friends and getting decent grades. Unlike most freshmen, I had had a malignant tumor removed from my face and neck a few days earlier.

Starting college under those circumstances was not easy. Fortunately, I already had made one friend on campus: Sheldon Hackney.

I reached out to Dr. Hackney when I was a high school junior because we were both Alabama natives interested in the civil rights movement. I had produced a 15-minute (and quite amateur) film about the Freedom Rides; Dr. Hackney was one of the country’s foremost scholars on the history of the South. Nonetheless, he not only responded to my email, but also requested a copy of the documentary and urged me to attend Penn — a place he called “paradise on Earth.” How could I resist? During my four years at Penn, Dr. Hackney was my mentor, friend and frequent lunch companion. I pined for tales about the Clintons, but he was more interested in hearing about my dreams for the future. One might expect a historian to be obsessed with the past. Dr. Hackney — always concluding with emails with “Onward” — was instead focused on how the next generation of leaders could carry the baton of progress.

Our lunches stopped upon his retirement in the spring of 2010, but his counsel did not. “Retirement is bringing many changes,” he wrote, “Nevertheless, I will be there for you.” Indeed, he was always there — whether it was inviting me to lectures in our home state or penning a letter of recommendation for my law school applications. I am sorry that future students will not benefit from Dr. Hackney’s guidance, kindness and wit. In his wake, I remain optimistic that for the South, for Penn, and for our country, the best is yet to come. Onward. -Vaughn Stewart, C’11

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