Vanderbilt loses a revered leader with the passing of Chancellor Emeritus Alexander Heard
by Joan Brasher
images courtesy of Vanderbilt University Special Collections & University Archives
"He was, in all respects, an extraordinary man, and the area of parenting was no exception,” said Stephen Heard of his father, Alexander Heard, Vanderbilt’s fifth chancellor, who died July 24 at the age of 92. “He was always a person we could go to with homework or problems. Even if we had disobeyed him or did something he didn’t approve of, we could go to him and he was always gentle, reassuring and supportive.”
As Vanderbilt’s chancellor from 1963 to 1982, Heard’s greatest challenge – and achievement – was maintaining campus stability during the political, social and economic turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. He was known to meet regularly with student leaders, including some of the campus’s foremost radicals. The Rev. Roderic L. Murray III of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral in Nashville, who delivered the homily at a memorial service for Heard at Vanderbilt’s Benton Chapel on July 29, counts himself among those student radicals of the time.
“I may have been – no, I was – one of those student activists who was a burr in his side,” Murray said.
Heard earned the respect of the student body with his staunch defense of the open forum – the right of students and faculty to invite to campus speakers of all political persuasions in an effort to better understand their views.
With his encouragement, students founded the Impact Symposium in 1964, which is now one of the longest-running student-operated speakers series in the nation. Though he received a great deal of criticism for it, Heard supported student organizers when they invited Stokely Carmichael, an outspoken advocate of black power, to speak on campus. Though his visit to Vanderbilt occurred without incident, Carmichael’s subsequent speech across town at Fisk University was followed by riots, which local media blamed squarely on Heard.
But Heard did not waver, and his open-mindedness strengthened his credibility with students and helped Vanderbilt’s campus remain relatively calm while protests turned violent elsewhere.
“I have sometimes said that during the half dozen or so years from 1967 to 1973 I never relaxed once,” Heard wrote in Speaking of the University: Two Decades at Vanderbilt, his 1995 collection of past speeches. “Not technically true, of course, but I was constantly on the alert for local and national matters that someone might make relevant to Vanderbilt’s welfare.”
While many remember the “Impact crisis,” said John Seigenthaler, former Tennessean editor and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt, few realize that Heard also publicly opposed the building of Interstate 40 in North Nashville, a plan that would – and ultimately did – rupture the thriving African American business community as well as negatively impact Fisk University and Meharry Medical College.
“I’m sure he took an awful lot of heat for that from leaders in the business community, but he knew it was the right stand to take,” Seigenthaler said. “I admired him for that.”
During Heard’s two decades at Vanderbilt the university prospered, with the addition of three schools to the seven it already claimed, the construction of three dozen new or radically renovated buildings, the completion of two highly successful fundraising campaigns, the doubling of enrollment and a tenfold increase of its annual budget. The university also recruited distinguished faculty, who achieved new levels of quality in both teaching and research.
Heard was a highly sought-after speaker who delivered hundreds of lectures and commencement addresses on campuses across the country. In addition, he was called upon to advise presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon on higher education. Despite his popularity and the university’s rapid growth, Heard remained accessible to the Vanderbilt community, according to Centennial Professor of Philosophy John Lachs.
“Alexander Heard knew every faculty member’s name, history and family,” Lachs said. “My class once invited him, to learn what made him tick. He said that his pleasure came from doing his duty. His service at Vanderbilt conferred distinction on all of us. He was a deeply humane person.”
During Heard’s administration, the Owen Graduate School of Management was established, Vanderbilt’s school of education was created through a merger with Peabody College, and Blair School of Music came into the Vanderbilt fold.
“He was the ultimate academic who was blessed with common sense,” Seigenthaler said. “He was an educator who was sought nationally by institutions of higher learning, but his loyalty and love for Vanderbilt kept him in Nashville, and all of us benefited from that.”
Another Heard accomplishment was the promotion and development of Vanderbilt’s libraries, said Associate Professor of Economics Malcolm Getz, who served as director of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library in the 1980s.
“In the 1960s, Alexander Heard helped add the Flowers Wing on the 21st Avenue side of the original 1941 library,” Getz said. “The Flowers Wing doubled the size of the physical facility to support the growth of collections needed by a research university.
“He also attracted significant philanthropy to support the development of the collections. With the merger with Peabody, the independent Joint University Libraries merged with Vanderbilt, allowing the library to be more closely aligned with Vanderbilt’s programs. His influence on the library was transformational.”
Heard also was instrumental in placing the first woman, Mary Jane Werthan, on the Board of Trust, and convinced the board to create a new class of trustees – four recent graduates – to insure that a youthful perspective would be heard. Vanderbilt was one of the first universities in the nation to do so.
Heard was honored with more than two dozen honorary degrees in his lifetime. He wrote several books, his last being Speaking of the University. The book contains a selection from the nearly 1,000 speeches he delivered over the course of his two decades as chancellor.
Heard gave his last speech as chancellor to the graduating class in May 1982. Not resting on his laurels, Heard spoke of his desire to see Vanderbilt continue to grow and build upon his legacy.
“Universities are ironically suspicious of proposals to change themselves. … But universities, too, must change – not their primary values, but their ways of living. … The only limits on Vanderbilt’s true greatness will be imposed by Vanderbilt itself.” He went on to admonish students to “love Vanderbilt,” as he did.
After retirement, Heard frequently lunched with faculty members at the University Club on campus. He worked from his office at Kirkland Hall until he was well into his 80s.
Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos spoke at Heard’s memorial, recalling his own fond memories of lunches with his predecessor, which always ended with Heard’s favorite dessert: vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.
“No one feels more deeply than I do a sense of gratitude to Alexander Heard, who defined and set the standard for the office of chancellor of Vanderbilt University,” Zeppos said. “I cannot put into words the majesty of his charm, his grace, his presence, his erudition. He used it all like a farmer uses a pocket knife – to repair, to improve, to tune and on occasion … to cut something out.”
John Poindexter, a Vanderbilt historian, offered a litany of adjectives to describe Heard.
“He always spoke in his dignified Southern way. He was courteous, considerate, formal, even courtly – courageous under attack, steely in resolution … calm under pressure and demanding but not overbearing. He was, in sum, an activist, not in the militant sense, but in the sense of moving to do what society required and what a university could offer,” Poindexter said.
Heard’s nephew Edwin MacKethan spoke eloquently of his uncle as “a mentor, friend and kindred spirit,” telling of their shared love of genealogy. He addressed Heard’s widow, Jean Keller Heard, as he finished, saying, “My mother adored him. So did I.”
“My father set a very high bar,” said Steven Heard. “Measuring up to him was something we all strived to achieve. But, ultimately, I think the key thing he imparted to me was his example of his unwavering integrity. He was the single greatest influence of my life.”
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, the 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.
Heard’s ashes will be interred at Benton Chapel.