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Sheldon Hackney worked throughout his presidency to strengthen Penn’s relationship with West Philadelphia.

Credit: Courtesy of University Archives and Record Center

When Sheldon Hackney took the reins inside College Hall in 1981, he inherited a university that colleagues say was in pressing need of repair.

Penn, coming on the heels of a period in the 1970s of sobering budget cuts and consternation, found itself at the center of many West Philadelphia residents’ ire. In its push to move westward, the residents said, the University had done lasting damage to its relationship with surrounding neighborhoods. The community, some of which had been displaced by Penn’s expansion, had developed a deep sense of mistrust toward the University.

In some regards, the atmosphere on campus was equally bleak. In the early 1980s, much of Locust Walk was dominated by traditionally white, all-male fraternities, creating an environment that some students and professors said was unwelcoming to women and minority communities.

More than a decade later, it was Hackney who began the movement to reintroduce Penn onto the stage of national consciousness, laying much of the groundwork to the model of the modern-day urban institution.

Photos: A look back at Sheldon Hackney’s career

Hackney, Penn’s president from 1981-93, died Thursday afternoon after a nearly two-year battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 79.

Surrounded by his wife, son and daughter, Hackney died at his home on Martha’s Vineyard, an island that he once called his “favorite place on earth.”

“It went a little faster than any of us expected,” said Fain Hackney, Sheldon Hackney’s son. In his father’s final days, Fain said, he had developed serious lung issues because of the disease, making it impossible for him to eat. Hackney’s brain remained untouched by ALS, but he lost the ability to control virtually all of his body, apart from slight movements of his legs, Fain said.

Penn professors and administrators, mourning the loss, are taking Hackney’s death as an opportunity to reflect on the impact that the sixth president of Penn had on the University.

Community response: Remembering Sheldon Hackney

President Amy Gutmann called Hackney “one of the most beloved presidents in the history of our university,” crediting him as a national champion for the humanities and for a broad-based liberal arts education.

“He was an open intellectual,” said Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the University Archives and Records Center. “He had all the right instincts about listening to other people, hearing what they had to say and responding supportively, constructively and productively.”

Related: Closing a chapter in Penn history

After a four-year stint as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities under the Clinton administration, Hackney returned in the late 1990s to the University’s faculty as a history professor. To date, Lloyd said, Hackney is the only former Penn president to return to the faculty.

“He was a very powerful person,” said Steven Hahn, a fellow history professor who was close to Hackney, “and he was able to wear it in a way that did not make him inaccessible, and in fact in a way that humanized him more.”

Hackney was also a polarizing figure. The Hackney years are inextricably linked with the infamous “water buffalo” incident at Penn in 1993 — a free-speech controversy that brought Hackney and the University’s judicial procedures under national scrutiny. The incident, Hackney said in later years, left lasting scars.

Related: In Hackney’s words, the tale of a controversial period

Much of Hackney’s legacy remains a matter of debate on campus today, but those close to him say that one thing was always clear: he found a home at Penn.

“Penn,” he once said in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, “is the place I love.”

Hackney the conciliator

When Hackney was inaugurated as president in 1981, the cards were stacked against him. Months earlier, Hackney’s appointment had been met with strong opposition from some students and faculty, who wanted the University to select then-Provost Vartan Gregorian as president.

Hackney, who served as president of Tulane University and provost of Princeton University before coming to Penn, once called the campus uproar over his selection “a painful period.”

Throughout his presidency, Lloyd said, Hackney was always playing the role of conciliator.

He was a conciliator when he created Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships, now called the Netter Center, said Ira Harkavy, the center’s director. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Penn, as one person once put it, had no community relations when Hackney came on board,” said John Puckett, a Graduate School of Education professor, who has been active in building partnerships with West Philadelphia schools.

More than any president before him, Harkavy said, Hackney understood that an institution like Penn could only thrive if it worked together with West Philadelphia; the University and the city, Hackney believed, were intertwined.

When he first moved to campus, Hackney lived with his wife, Lucy, in a Sansom Street house; past presidents, Puckett said, had generally lived in Center City or in the suburbs. But Hackney considered it important, he said, to be an active member of the community that he was trying to build up.

Later on during his tenure, Hackney became the first Penn president to live in Eisenlohr Hall, now the official home for the University’s president.

Along with Harkavy, Hackney co-taught the University’s first academically-based community service course, which focused on an institution’s relationship with its surrounding community; if Hackney had not taken such an active role in repairing Penn’s relationship with West Philadelphia, Harkavy said, the University would not be where it is today.

“He truly believed,” said William Epstein, a 1987 Wharton MBA recipient who served as Hackney’s assistant for several years after earning his degree, “that the academic role of the institution flourished when relations with the community were good.”

Hackney also played the role of conciliator on campus, Lloyd said. In the 1980s, he was a driving force behind the push to diversify Locust Walk, which had long been overrun by fraternities.

In April of 1990, he called on a University task force to look into ways in which Penn could diversify Locust Walk. As the physical nucleus of campus, Hackney thought, Locust Walk held a great deal of significance. The task force — on which Drew Gilpin Faust, now the president of Harvard University, served while she was at Penn — recommended a series of changes that laid the foundation for the modern-day Locust Walk.

“He was a man of consummate decency who really began the University’s investment in West Philadelphia,” said Thomas Ehrlich, who served as provost under Hackney and is now a visiting professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “He was a remarkable president during a turbulent time.”

A polarizing figure

The later years of Hackney’s time at the University, however, were ridden with controversy.

In the spring of 1993, a group of students who identified as members of the “black community” stole an entire press run of 14,000 Daily Pennsylvanians. The students had been upset over the work of one columnist in the DP; they said in a statement then that they had stolen the newspapers because of “the blatant and voluntary perpetuation of institutional racism against the black community by the DP.”

DP editors, as well as First Amendment advocates nationwide, came down hard on Hackney following the theft. At the time, Hackney said the incident showed that “two important university values, diversity and open expression, seem to be in conflict.”

His attempts to appease both communities fell on deaf ears, as the DP decried the president’s statements as an underwhelming response that purposefully sidestepped the illegality of the theft.

Related: Nearly 14,000 ‘DP’s stolen from racks

That same semester, Hackney came under fire for his handling of the water buffalo affair — an incident in which the University pursued a racial harassment case against then-College freshman Eden Jacobowitz after he had yelled, “Shut up, you water buffalo,” at a group of black sorority sisters outside of his high rise apartment. As the University pressed forward with its case against Jacobowitz, Hackney was relentlessly criticized by the national media and free-speech advocates.

Both the DP theft and the water buffalo incident came at a time when Hackney was particularly vulnerable to national criticism. He had just received then-President Bill Clinton’s nomination for the National Endowment for the Humanities chairmanship, and some who took part in Hackney’s 1993 Senate confirmation hearings used his handling of the water buffalo affair against him.

Related: Hackney to get top job at NEH

He reflected on the water buffalo experience in his book, “The Politics of Presidential Appointment: A Memoir of the Culture War,” an illuminating tell-all of some of the most tense moments from his presidency.

“It was a teachable moment that was squandered by Penn and also by the mainstream press,” he wrote in the book. “It was also a moment that was hijacked for ideological purposes.”

In the grand scheme of the University’s history, said Lloyd, the University Archives director, both incidents were relatively insignificant.

Related: From ‘water buffalo’ to BDS, Penn faces free speech questions

“The water buffalo incident was a product of its times,” he said. “Yes, it got national media attention, it was the subject of ridicule and could have been handled better, but in the long run, it didn’t really affect the future, or the fortunes, of the institution. It should not be seen as some kind of weight tied around Sheldon Hackney’s ankles, pulling him down.”

Hackney the man

Overall, colleagues described Hackney as an intellectually gifted and caring man, whose southern wit and charm could command the attention of a crowded room.

He was born in Alabama in 1933, and his experiences in the segregated South, said Hahn, the history professor, deeply influenced his scholarship. Hackney taught a course on the history of the post-Civil War South after he returned to the faculty, one of the department’s most popular courses today.

Hackney’s mother-in-law was close to Rosa Parks, and he often spoke passionately about the history of civil rights.

For somebody who had a personal relationship with celebrities and politicians among the likes of Bill Clinton, Hahn said, Hackney was remarkably down to earth.

“The fact that he didn’t need to get up on a high horse shows what sort of person he was,” Hahn said. “He was really at ease with himself, very self-confident in a quiet way.”

Colleagues say that Hackney, who guided the University through its first billion-dollar fundraising campaign and played a central role in creating several new undergraduate degree programs, laid the groundwork for many of the accomplishments that Judith Rodin and Gutmann, his successors, went on to achieve.

He was also a strong supporter of athletics at Penn, Lloyd said. Hackney played a key role in expanding women’s athletics at the University, an area in which Penn had lagged for years.

In his final months, Hackney kept his condition relatively quiet, though his family says they knew that he only had a limited amount of time left. Two of Hackney’s brothers were supposed to visit him on Martha’s Vineyard this weekend, said Fain Hackney, also a 1987 Law School graduate, although they arrived too late to say goodbye.

Hackney is survived by his wife of more than 55 years, Lucy, as well as his son, daughter and eight grandchildren. One of his granddaughters, Annabelle Hackney, is currently a freshman in the College.

The family is currently preparing funeral arrangements; there is no word yet on whether the University will host a memorial for Hackney.

“In addition to everything he did at Penn, he was a great father, a great grandfather and a great husband,” Fain said. “We’ll all miss him.”

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