Former Vanderbilt chancellor Heard dies

Saturday, July 25, 2009 at 7:27pm
Staff reports

Alexander Heard, an adviser to three U.S. presidents who, as Vanderbilt's fifth chancellor, guided the university smoothly through the stormy period of the 1960s and 1970s without the unrest and violence that afflicted many college campuses, died July 24 at his home after a long illness. He was 92.

"For more than 40 years, Alex Heard was a powerful presence at Vanderbilt University," Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said. "Through his intellect and calm demeanor, he raised Vanderbilt's stature on the national stage during his 20-year administration. And even after he stepped down as chancellor he graciously made himself available to his successors for advice and guidance. I was gratefully one of the beneficiaries of his wisdom, and his loss is one I feel deeply."

Under Heard's leadership, Vanderbilt grew and prospered, adding three schools to the seven it already contained, constructing three dozen new or radically enlarged buildings, conducting two highly successful fund-raising campaigns, doubling its enrollment and increasing its annual budget tenfold. The university also recruited distinguished faculty, who achieved new levels of quality in both teaching and research.

From early in his administration, Heard held quiet, regular meetings with student leaders, including some of the foremost campus radicals. He earned the respect of the student body with his staunch defense of the open forum - the right of students and faculty to invite to the campus speakers of all political persuasions in an effort to better understand their views. With his encouragement students in 1964 began the Impact Symposium, which is now one of the longest-running student-operated speakers series in the nation.

In 1967, the Impact student organizers invited a slate of speakers that included Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, an outspoken advocate of black power and chairman of a declining but increasingly violent Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. A firestorm of controversy erupted over the invitation to Carmichael.

Letters and phone calls poured into the chancellor's office, both before and after the event. Heard stood firm in the midst of an avalanche of both disapproving and supporting mail.

"The university's obligation is not to protect students from ideas, but rather to expose them to ideas, and to help make them capable of handling and, hopefully, having ideas," Heard had said in 1966.

Heard also attributed Vanderbilt's success during this period, in part, to its willingness to alter and adjust its way of doing things, including its system of internal governance, in order to create a harmonious and productive educational community. Still, he never let his guard down.

"I have sometimes said that during the half dozen or so years from 1967 to 1973, I never relaxed once," Heard said. "That's not technically true, of course, but I was constantly aware of the local and national matters that affected Vanderbilt's welfare."

Another segment of the Heard legacy was his successful effort to place the first woman, Mary Jane Werthan, on the Board of Trust. He also convinced the board to create a new class of trustees - four recent graduates - to assure a youthful perspective would be heard by the board. Vanderbilt was one of the first universities in the nation to do so.

During Heard's administration, the Owen Graduate School of Management was established, the Vanderbilt school of education was created through the merger with Peabody College, and the Blair School of Music merged with Vanderbilt.

A giant in his field, Heard was the recipient of 27 honorary degrees from various colleges and universities over the years. Columbia University was one of at least a half dozen universities that tried to hire him away from Vanderbilt.

Further evidence of his national stature was the fact that three U.S. presidents sought his advice on various matters.

In 1961 and 1962, Heard served as chairman of President John F. Kennedy's bipartisan Commission on Presidential Campaign Costs. President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the National Citizens' Committee for Community Relations in 1964, the Task Force on Education in 1966 and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations in 1967.

During the Richard Nixon administration, he served on the Commission on White House Fellows from 1969 to 1971, the Task Force on Priorities in Higher Education in 1969 and as special adviser to the president on campus affairs.

Heard became chairman of the board of the Ford Foundation in 1972. He also served on the board of Time, Inc.

Heard gave his last speech as chancellor of Vanderbilt to the graduating class of May 1982. He left office in July 1, 1982, in order to accept an offer by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to head a major three-year study of the presidential election process in America. The research area was similar to that Heard had conducted during his career as a political scientist.

George Alexander Heard was born in Savannah, Ga., March 14, 1917. His father was an engineer, inventor and businessman and his mother a public school administrator. He earned his B.A. from the University of North Carolina in 1938 and received both his M.A. in 1948 and Ph.D. in 1951 from Columbia University.

Heard met his wife, the former Jean Keller, while in Alabama doing the research work with Key. The university's library system, the Jean and Alexander Heard Library, is named in their honor. Since 1982, Vanderbilt has awarded annually the Alexander Heard Distinguished Service Professor Award to a faculty member for contributions to the understanding of problems of contemporary society.

Heard is survived by his wife and four children: Stephen, a Nashville attorney; Christopher, an acknowledgements coordinator for Vanderbilt's development office; Frank, a Florida businessman; and Cornelia Heard, Valere Blair Potter professor of violin at Vanderbilt's Blair School of Music; and two grandchildren: Alexander Michael Heard of Boca Raton, Fla., and George Alexander Meyer of Nashville.

By arrangement with the university, Heard's ashes will be interred at Benton Chapel on Vanderbilt's campus. Arrangements for a memorial service are incomplete.