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Sheldon Hackney, 79, of Vineyard Haven; former head of Tulane, Penn

Dr. Hackney became chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a post he held from 1993 to 1997.

Paul Hosefros/New York Times/File 1997

Dr. Hackney became chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a post he held from 1993 to 1997.

VINEYARD HAVEN — Sheldon Hackney, an educator and historian who served as president of Tulane University and the University of Pennsylvania before becoming chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has died at 79.

Dr. Hackney died Thursday in his home on Martha’s Vineyard of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, officials from Penn and Tulane confirmed Friday.

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Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1933, Dr. Hackney received a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University on a Navy ROTC scholarship in 1955. He served in the US Navy from 1956 to 1959 and attended the US Naval Academy from 1959 to 1961.

Dr. Hackney earned a master’s degree and doctorate in American history from Yale, where he was provost from 1972 to 1975.

He was president of Tulane from 1975 to 1980 and president of Penn from 1981 to 1993. He was appointed by President Clinton to serve as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a post he held from 1993 to 1997.

Penn president Amy Gutmann called Dr. Hackney ‘‘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,’’ she said in a statement released by the university. ‘‘I was honored to be able to count him as a dear friend.’’

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