Sheldon Hackney, an educator and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities who organized a series of "national conversations" aimed at restoring civility and civic-mindedness during the culturally fractious 1990s, died Sept. 12 on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. He was 79.
The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, said his wife, Lucy Durr Hackney.
Mr. Hackney had been president of the University of Pennsylvania from 1981 to 1993 when President Bill Clinton appointed him chairman of the endowment. His defining initiative in the job was his first: "A National Conversation on American Pluralism and Identity," a project that helped finance and shape about 1,400 public meetings from 1994 to 1997.
In discussions held in libraries, college auditoriums and town halls in all 50 states -- some televised, most not -- citizens discussed what it meant to be an American at the height of the so-called culture wars, when the idea of "one nation, indivisible" seemed threatened by ideological and religious divisions over issues like abortion, homosexuality, multiculturalism and the separation of church and state, as well as racial tensions as seen in the polarized public reaction to O.J. Simpson's murder trial and acquittal, a response that troubled Mr. Hackney.
Mr. Hackney brought a historian's perspective to the project. His award-winning 1969 book, "Populism to Progressivism in Alabama," established him as one of the foremost historians of the post-Civil War South.
At Penn, he became identified with two highly publicized campus disputes involving alleged racial incidents. Mr. Hackney was portrayed as having sided with the black students in both cases, one involving epithets against women in a black sorority and the other concerning black students who had confiscated copies of a campus newspaper over an article they considered offensive.