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Former University of Pennsylvania president Sheldon Hackney retires

 
The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
June 8, 2010
 
With the laudatory farewell dinner behind him, his last papers graded, commencement over, and much of the packing done, Sheldon Hackney poured black coffee from a thermos and savored one of his last days in his frumpily elegant office in College Hall.

Seated at the long wood table where he has taught seminars for 15 years, surrounded by awards, honors, and books, the long, lanky, professorial Hackney seemed to fit comfortably and timelessly.

But his gig is up. The former University of Pennsylvania president and history professor retired at the end of the spring semester and is leaving Philadelphia this month, selling his condominium at 42d and Pine Streets and moving to his home on Martha's Vineyard. "It's time," he said. "My powers are receding a bit."

His wavy hair has gone silver and the skin has slackened above his hooded blue eyes, but if he's lost any of his intellectual acumen, it would be hard to tell. During an hour-long interview, Hackney spoke at length and in detail about his family, his career, his appointment as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Bill Clinton, the civil rights movement, the evolution of Penn's relationship with West Philadelphia, and his mother-in-law's close friendship with Rosa Parks.

He laughed, remembering how he once opposed the university's decision to do away with its mandatory retirement policy. Forcing professors to make a graceful, if involuntary, exit at 70 seemed eminently reasonable to him when he was in his 50s.

"I thought it was terrible that we could no longer require faculty to retire, even when their teaching skills and interests were declining," Hackney said. "Now, I've violated my own rules."

In December, he turned 76.

Since Hackney arrived at Penn in 1981, the campus has been his adoptive home with all the attendant warmth, conflict, loyalty, rivalry, pride, disappointment, and love of any family. Especially one with more than 40,000 members.

His very appointment as president was not without drama. "I knew the provost, Vartan Gregorian, from educational meetings around the country. He was telling people he was going to be president of Penn, so when I got the call from the search committee, I thought, 'Why waste my time?' There was already an inside candidate."

Hackney, then president of Tulane University, allowed his wife, Lucy, to persuade him to talk to Penn anyway.

The interview took place late one August morning in his hotel room at the Bellevue. "Penn had lost a lot of money in the 1970s when Penn Central stock declined," Hackney recalled. In March 1978, students held a four-day sit-in protesting budget cuts that would have removed the men's ice hockey team from varsity status and closed the Annenberg Center's professional theater.
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