Former Penn President Sheldon Hackney dies

A file photo of former Penn President Sheldon Hackney at White Dog Cafe on Sansom Street in West Philadelphia. Hackney died at age 79. ( Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer )

Sheldon Hackney, a former president of the University of Pennsylvania and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has died.

He was 79.

An obituary for Hackney in the Vineyard Gazette said he died Thursday in Martha's Vineyard of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Hackney was Penn's president from 1981 to 1993, and later taught history at the university. During his time at Penn, Hackney was put into the national spotlight for the "water buffalo" incident, in which a student yelling at several black sorority sisters used that term, bringing scrutiny to race relations at Penn and the university's actions. Hackney's handling of the incident was a point of contention during his NEH confirmation hearings.

While leading the university, Hackney oversaw a $1.33-billion fundraising campaign, and worked to increase Penn's selectivity and reputation.

President Bill Clinton appointed him as chairman of the NEH, a role he held from 1993 to 1997.

Hackney, an expert on the American South, then returned to Penn as a history professor, and retired in 2010.  

Penn's current president, Amy Gutmann, called Hackney "an exceptional leader and renowned scholar who was a national champion for the humanities."

In a statement, she said Hackney'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."

Before his tenure as Penn's president, Hackney led Tulane University in New Orleans and was provost at Princeton University.

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