Ray Heffner, 87, president of Brown in turbulent ’60s

Brown University Archives/1969

PROVIDENCE — Ray Heffner, who was president of Brown University during the tumultuous late 1960s but who spent his happiest years as a volunteer teaching literature Monday mornings at a ­senior center in Iowa, has died at age 87.

The university said Mr. Heffner died Wednesday in Iowa, where he had lived since leaving Brown. His wife, Ruth, said Monday that he had several forms of cancer.

Mr. Heffner, the Ivy League university’s 13th president, spent most of his career teaching English at institutions including Indiana University and the University of Iowa. He led Brown from 1966 to 1969 and resigned with a straightforward message to the school’s governing board: ‘‘I have simply reached the conclusion that I do not enjoy being a university president.’’


‘‘The main thing about Ray was that he was a learner and a teacher. He did not like paper shuffling and fund-raising, and committees were rather frustrating,’’ Ruth Heffner said. ‘‘He was a lovely person, very humble and completely unimpressed with success. He spent much of his life mainly loving to teach.’’

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Brown president Christina Paxson said Mr. Heffner led the university with ‘‘quiet grace during a ­tumultuous time in American higher education.’’

Mr. Heffner’s father was an English professor, and he grew up near college campuses in North ­Carolina, Maryland and Washington. He won a scholarship to Yale University as an undergraduate, and also earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in English there, specializing in Elizabethan literature.

He was drafted into the US Navy during World War II, serving time as a dynamite man on a construction crew in the Pacific, Ruth Heffner said.

Mr. Heffner began his teaching career at Indiana University in 1954 and held academic and administrative positions there and at the University of Iowa before being hired at Brown. He also won a Guggenheim Fellowship.


In 1966, he was named president at Brown, where he spent three difficult years, Ruth Heffner said. The period coincided with the Vietnam War and protests on many college campuses. Brown was spared such violence, but there were protests and other debates about the university’s future, accord­ing to Encyclopedia Brunoniana, a history of Brown.

Ruth Heffner described her husband as a pacifist who nevertheless thought students should not be allowed to defer military service if drafted because the burden then fell on those who were poor or black. He also opposed a move by the faculty to ban ROTC on campus, arguing that it was better to have military leaders who are broadly educated at high-quality nonmilitary institutions such as Brown, Harvard, and Princeton, she said.

‘‘The faculty disagreed with him, and because he did not have the support of the faculty, he ­resigned,’’ she said.

Brown still does not have an ROTC program, although other Ivy League schools have reinstituted it.

After handing in his resignation, Mr. Heffner returned to the University of Iowa and taught there until retiring in 1996. For the past 16 years, he taught literature classes at the Johnson County Senior Center in Iowa City. He taught three to four classes a year on topics ranging from Shakespeare to the literature of South Africa, Ruth Heffner said. His classes were so popular that some students took every course he taught for 16 years, she said.


‘‘One of his students here said that knowing Ray had made him a better person. I remember that as a great tribute to Ray. He was very much loved by his students,’’ she said.

Mr. Heffner stopped teaching in April when cancer made it impossible to continue, Ruth Heffner said. In the final months of his life, he became so frail that he could no longer lift a book to read it, a ­disaster for a man whose life was so enriched by books, she said.

His students got together and bought him a Kindle.