Sheldon Hackney, who led Penn and the National Endowment for the Humanities, dies

September 13, 2013

Sheldon Hackney, a historian of the American South and former University of Pennsylvania president who led the National Endowment for the Humanities during the “culture wars” of the 1990s, died Sept. 12 at his home in Vineyard Haven, Mass. He was 79.

The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, said his wife, Lucy Durr Hackney.

Dr. Hackney was born in Alabama, grew up in the segregated South and entered academia as a chronicler of the region’s complex history. He rose quickly in the field of university administration, becoming provost of Princeton University shortly before his 40th birthday and president of Tulane University in New Orleans three years later.

He came to national attention as president of the University of Pennsylvania, which he led from 1981 until 1993, when President Bill Clinton selected him for the NEH post. An independent federal agency, NEH is a sister organization to the National Endowment for the Arts and funds humanities initiatives across the country.

Dr. Hackney’s tenure at Penn coincided with the start of what became known as the “culture wars” — heated public debates about topics such as abortion, religious freedom and race relations.


Sheldon Hackney died Sept. 12 at 79. (Ray Lustig/The Washington Post)

At Penn, Dr. Hackney was credited with raising undergraduate minority enrollment from 13 to 30 percent and with increasing the endowment from about $160 million to $1 billion. He became better known to the general public, however, for his handling of two campus incidents that made national news.

In January 1993 — months before Dr. Hackney’s nomination to lead NEH — a Penn student grew frustrated with several African American women who were making noise outside his dorm and shouted, “Shut up, you water buffalo!”

Citing the university’s speech code, the women accused him of racial harassment. The student, who was from Israel, insisted that the insult was not a racial epithet but a translation of a Yiddish expression for a bothersome person.

The women ultimately dropped their charges, but the incident attracted widespread attention. Dr. Hackney drew criticism for deciding not to insert himself into the university’s judicial process.

Months later, several African American students trashed 14,000 copies of the campus newspaper in a protest of the publication’s alleged institutional racism.

Dr. Hackney was widely quoted as saying that “two important university values, diversity and open expression, appear to be in conflict” — a comment that fanned the anger of detractors who already considered him excessively politically correct. He insisted that his remarks had been taken out of context and that he had also said that “freedom of expression must take precedence over diversity.”

The incidents were presented during his Senate confirmation proceedings as litmus tests of his commitment to free speech. Critics derided him as the “pope of political correctness.”

“I resent bitterly being slandered by slogan,” Dr. Hackney told the Senate committee. “I am not just a cardboard figure. I am someone who has spent years defending free speech, and I will do that at NEH as well.”

He was easily confirmed, 76 to 23, and assumed the job previously held by Lynne Cheney, wife of future vice president Dick Cheney.

Dr. Hackney said he aimed to cultivate a “national conversation” on American identity and steadfastly defended the government’s role in promoting the humanities.

“Isn’t it insultingly elitist to assume that ordinary Americans are not interested in the humanities?” Time magazine once quoted him as saying. “Isn’t it the ultimate arrogance to believe that ‘culture’ should be the private property of those who can pay for it?”

In 1994, the Republican Party, led by Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), took the House of Representatives after decades of Democratic control. NEH funding shrank during Dr. Hackney’s tenure from $172 million to $110 million. But Dr. Hackney was credited with depoliticizing and sustaining the organization at a time when government funding for the arts was under vigorous attack.

In 1997, Dr. Hackney returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught history until his retirement in 2010. In 2002, he published a memoir, “The Politics of Presidential Appointment: A Memoir of the Culture War.”

Francis Sheldon Hackney was born on Dec. 5, 1933, in Birmingham, Ala. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a newspaper journalist and later a businessman.

Sheldon Hackney became interested in history in high school and studied the subject at Vanderbilt University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1955 before serving in the Navy. He later studied history at Yale University, where he received a master’s degree in 1963 and a PhD in 1966. His book “Populism to Progressivism in Alabama” was recognized by the American Historical Association as the best book of its category published in 1970.

In 1957, he married Lucy Durr, the daughter of prominent Alabama progressives who had helped bail out Rosa Parks when she was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger, setting off the bus boycott that became a seminal moment in the civil rights movement.

The Clintons met Dr. Hackney through his wife, who served with Hillary Rodham Clinton on the board of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Survivors include Dr. Hackney’s wife and two children, Elizabeth McBride and Fain Hackney, all of Vineyard Haven; two brothers; and eight grandchildren. Dr. Hackney’s daughter Virginia Hackney died in 2007.

His books include “One America Indivisible: A National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity,” published after his NEH tenure, and “Magnolias Without Moonlight: The American South From Regional Confederacy to National Integration” (2005).

“I was a true veteran of the multicultural wars on campus,” he once wrote. “If they gave out Purple Hearts for wounds incurred while trapped between the front lines, I would have several.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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