Lisa Greene can recall sitting on Sheldon Hackney’s living room couch in the spring of 1987, listening to the then-Penn president talk about the history of the 1960s as she and her classmates made their way through a plate of freshly baked Pepperidge Farm cookies.
Dick Polman remembers auditing a course of Hackney’s in the spring of 1999. Then a national political writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Polman would often approach Hackney at the lectern after class, speaking with the former Penn president about journalism and history.
Steven Hahn still thinks back on how it was Hackney who, in the early 2000s, persuaded him to come teach at Penn; by the time that Hackney left Penn in 2010, he had made a profound impact on Hahn’s own scholarship.
Today, Hackney remains the only Penn president who has returned to the University’s faculty after serving in College Hall. Following a brief stint as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Hackney came back to campus from 1997 to 2010 to teach in the history department.
“Teaching was in his DNA,” Hackney’s wife, Lucy, said of her husband, who died on Sept. 12. “Even when he was president, I think teaching was always what he loved most.”
Hackney, who served as president from 1981-93, also kept up a regular teaching schedule throughout his presidency. In addition to teaching a seminar on the history of the 1960s at Eisenlohr Hall, the president’s home, he co-taught the University’s first-ever academically-based community service course.
It is almost unheard-of, professors and administrators say, for university presidents today to be as active in faculty life as Hackney was — both during and after his presidency.
“I certainly can’t think of any other president who’s done what Sheldon did,” Thomas Childers, a history professor who has taught at Penn since 1976, said. Unlike later presidents, Childers said, “Sheldon cared about more than fundraising. He wasn’t the CEO of Penn. He was a professor first.”
Much of Hackney’s scholarship, family members say, was born out of his past.
Hackney grew up in segregated Alabama in the 1930s and 40s, in a household that preached conservative values. When he was a teenager, Lucy said, he began to form a relationship with a local Methodist minister, who first helped him develop his liberal views.
One time, Lucy said, she remembers her husband sitting down for lunch with Rosa Parks, a friend of Lucy’s parents. That was likely her husband’s first time having a meal with a black person, Lucy said.
“In Alabama back then, you just didn’t have a black person sitting next to you for lunch,” she said. “It was a new world to him.”
Hackney would later go on to become a noted historian of the American South, as well as a vocal advocate of the civil rights movement. Throughout his academic career, colleagues say, he never lost sight of his past.
“Everybody is a product of their own background and experience, and he was too,” history professor Mary Frances Berry, who has served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said. “You could see his past all over his scholarship.”
Students who studied with Hackney described the former president as down to earth and accessible outside of class, especially for someone who once led the University. Years after Greene took Hackney’s seminar on the history of the 1960s, she wrote him a letter, telling him how much she had enjoyed the course. Hackney promptly wrote back thanking Greene, a 1987 Wharton graduate.
“You wouldn’t think that southern history would be a big crowd pleaser at Penn,” Childers said, “but Sheldon’s teaching style and personality made it one.”
A ‘meteoric’ rise
Hackney’s rise through the ranks of southern history scholars was “meteoric,” Hahn, a history professor at Penn, said.
Hackney completed his master’s degree and Ph.D. in history at Yale University, where he worked under C. Vann Woodward, widely considered to be one of the most influential historians in academe. In the late 1960s, Hackney pioneered the use of quantitative research methods in history with his book, “Populism to Progressivism in Alabama,” which examined changing political coalitions in the South.
One of the most striking things about Hackney, Hahn said, was that he was able to keep up with his discipline’s rapidly changing scholarship throughout his presidency.
“The literature comes out a mile a minute, and if you blink twice you can fall behind very quickly,” Hahn, who co-taught a graduate history seminar with Hackney, said. “He managed in ways that one would not expect to keep abreast of important developments in his discipline, at a time when he had a lot else going on.”
Hackney’s presidency, Childers said, also came at a time when the discipline experienced several seismic shifts. For example, in the years after Hackney’s presidency — when he served as chair of the NEH — the field began to place more of an emphasis on women’s issues and social history than it had before.
One of Hackney’s proudest moments came in 2001, when he was given the University’s Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching — one of Penn’s top faculty honors.
“That was a wonderful moment,” said Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, who became close to Hackney when she was on Penn’s faculty, “and I know it meant a great deal to him.”
Hackney always taught with a sense of “erudite civility,” said Polman, the Inquirer political writer who audited Hackney’s spring 1999 course, which focused on the American character. Near the end of the spring 1999 semester, Hackney gave Polman, now a writing instructor at Penn, a copy of his new book, “One America Indivisible.” The former president signed the book, leaving a short inscription inside the cover.
“He wrote, ‘Hope this book can further the civility in your own writing,’” Polman said, “which I took to mean that he found me civil already. I certainly saw him that way.”
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