Death of Dr. Sheldon Hackney: Penn's President 1981-1993

Posted September 13, 2013

Sheldon Hackney
President Emeritus Sheldon Hackney died at age 79 on September 12 of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) at his home on Martha’s Vineyard. Dr. Hackney, a noted historian who specialized in the history of the American south, served as Penn’s president from 1981 until 1993. He then served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1993-1997.

Dr. Hackney returned to teaching history at Penn and in 2001 he won as Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching (Almanac April 17, 2001) at which time it was written that he “received his Ph.D. from Yale and came to Penn as professor of History and President in 1981. During his tenure as President, he taught a History seminar each year and there was always a waiting list to get into the course. Students in the course were unanimous in their praise for Dr. Hackney and for how much they had learned in his seminar. He is now working in the new pilot curriculum as a member of the Committee on Undergraduate Education in the College.

Students praise his respect for their ideas and his ability to foster their creativity and independent thought and his skill in fostering open discussions in and out of class. A student writes: "I can honestly say that through my work with Dr. Hackney, I left Penn a better writer, student of history, and creative thinker," while another notes: "I frequently advise current Penn students that, whether or not they are History majors, they must take one of Dr. Hackney's classes before they graduate." Both students and colleagues noted his love for American history, his respect for his students and his challenging approach to historical questions. By his deep commitment to knowledge and to his students, he embodies the ideals of the Lindback Award.”

A full obituary will appear in the September 24 issue.

Statement from Penn President Amy Gutmann

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.