Ray Lorenzo Heffner, the 13th president of Brown University (1966–69), died Nov. 28, 2012, at Lantern Park Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Coralville, Iowa. He was 87.
“President Heffner led this University with quiet grace during a tumultuous time in American higher education,” said Brown President Christina Paxson. “His tenure saw the development of many elements that define Brown as we know it today, including the signature Brown Curriculum.”
Heffner was born March 7, 1925, in Durham, N.C., and spent his early years in Baltimore and in Seattle. He entered Yale University on a scholarship at the age of 16, served in the U.S. Navy in the Central Pacific during World War II, then returned to Yale, where he earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees.
He began a forty-two year teaching career in the Department of English at Indiana University where he taught from 1954 to 1966. Although he held a number of academic administrative positions during his lifetime — vice president and dean of faculties at Indiana University, provost at The University of Iowa, and president of Brown — he preferred to be remembered as a good teacher.
He arrived at Brown in 1966, addressing the student body at Opening Convocation, little more than a month before his official inauguration. He spoke with optimism about developments that are now a large part of the University: a projected Sciences Library, a new medical education program that is now the Alpert Medical School, the new Graduate Center about to begin construction, and the 75th anniversary of Pembroke College.
The late 1960s was among the most stressful and violent times in U.S. higher education. “It had not been a time to enjoy,” Martha Mitchell wrote in Encyclopedia Brunoniana. “... while Brown had escaped the violence on other troubled campuses, these had been years of stress.” Heffner resigned on May 9, 1969 — the day after the faculty vote that adopted Brown’s “new curriculum” — and returned to the University of Iowa as professor of English and provost. His resignation message to the Corporation was straightforward: “I have simply reached the conclusion that I do not enjoy being a University president.”
After his retirement from the University of Iowa in 1996, Heffner became a volunteer teacher at the Johnson County Senior Center in Iowa City, where he offered three or four courses courses each year — from Greek, Medieval, and Renaissance literature to Nigerian novels and James Joyce’s Ulysses — until last April, when he stopped teaching because of ill health.
Robert A. Reichley, editor of the Brown Alumni Monthly at the time, wrote of Heffner’s resignation:
Ray Heffner, like most presidents, was besieged from many sides. He was criticized by some students and some faculty for moving too slowly; he was assaulted by others for moving too quickly — for ‘giving in on everything,’ as current charges against university presidents seem to go. But what so few people have conceded to Ray Heffner has been his ability to chart a course for Brown in a violent era without violence. The style was not grand, and Ray Heffner was not a phrase-maker. But characteristic of an Elizabethan scholar, which he was, Ray Heffner quietly dogged his way through endless meetings and conferences in pursuit of the things he believed to be right. He had learned somewhere that as long as people were talking rationally, they were not barricading themselves in buildings. It has something to do with one’s ability to listen.