From the archives: Former U. president Ray Heffner dies at 87

“The president has shown himself to be an administrator careful in his choice of words and slow in his choice of actions,” The Herald wrote May 9, 1969, the day RayHeffner, the University’s 13th president, announced his resignation. Heffner, who died last week at the age of 87, presided over three of the most dynamic years in University history, but despite the turbulence of the era, he is remembered as a cautious and accommodating scholar – not a bold visionary.
“He struck everybody initially as a very, very nice guy,” said Professor of Biology Ken Miller ’70 P’02. At the time, first-years were given “Class of 1970″ beanies to wear, Miller said. Heffner wore a class of ’70 beanie during his first year as well to cultivate a relationship with the student body.
“His initial impression during my freshman year was highly positive,” Miller said.
In his 1966 inaugural address, Heffner said, “We must learn to think first, rather than last, of what we as free citizens of individual academic communities want, in our sober best judgment, for our own universities.”
But as the anti-war and Civil Rights movements prompted students and faculty to chart a new direction for the University, Heffner largely “withdrew into University Hall,” Miller said.
“When major events occur, Dr. Heffner is more likely to retire to his office to evaluate the situation than to stalk out of University Hall and do something about it,” The Herald wrote in 1969.
“He probably felt caught between a conservative Corporation and an increasingly radicalized student body,” said David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98, former provost and an activist on campus as an undergraduate. “I’m sure his heart was in the right place, but I think he was just overwhelmed by what was going on on campus at the time.”
When Heffner resigned in 1969, two days after the faculty voted to approve the New Curriculum, Heffner said, “I have simply reached the conclusion that I do not enjoy being a university president and do not feel that in the long run I can make my most effective contribution to higher education in that role.”
Heffner arrived at Brown in the fall of 1966, replacing Barnaby Keeney, who resigned after leading the University for 11 years. Heffner earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale and then began teaching English at Indiana University in 1954, according to a University press release. He eventually became vice president and dean of faculties at Indiana University, as well as provost at the University of Iowa, before coming to Brown.
Heffner’s tenure occurred during the most dramatic few years in the University’s history. Under his leadership, the University increased its commitment to diversify the student body’s racial composition, adopted a student proposal to end the presence of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps on campus and approved the New Curriculum that still defines its distinct academic character. Heffner also encouraged the development of what is now the Alpert Medical School.
Protesting for change
During Heffner’s time in office, students at college campuses across the country staged protests against the Vietnam War. Miller said all male students had registered for the draft, and students knew that if they chose to take a semester off, they would be drafted.
Students at Brown protested to prevent the Central Intelligence Agency from recruiting on campus. When the campus’ two ROTC chapters practiced in Meehan Auditorium, students who opposed the war would often show up to drills with picket signs, Miller said.
Kertzer said though Heffner responded to the events around him, “he certainly didn’t play any leadership role.”
When he attended Brown, Kertzer was one of two students appointed by the student government to the faculty committee on the future of ROTC. The committee was chaired by Lyman Kirkpatrick, a former professor of political science who had served as the executive director of the CIA. Though Kirkpatrick recommended continuing the campus ROTC program, Kertzer wrote a report that recommended removing ROTC from campus, he said.
After reviewing both reports, the faculty voted to approve Kertzer’s proposal. An ad hoc committee established to advise the president on ROTC matters also came to a similar conclusion, The Herald reported at the time. Heffner accepted the proposal of the committee and the faculty members and ROTC was phased out over a four-year period.
In 1969, Heffner told The Herald, “We have no desire to freeze a program that might be improved. There must be some way in which the desires of the faculty and the military can be met at Brown.”
Heffner’s tenure was also marked by student pressure to increase the number of black students enrolled at the University.
There was a total of four black male students in the 1970 graduating class, Miller said.
One year before his resignation, Heffner agreed with the University’s African-American Society about the importance of recruiting more black students, The Herald reported in 1969. But he remained inactive for seven months, which prompted black students to stage a walk-off, during which they left campus for several days and slept at a church downtown.
In the year following the walk-off, the admission office did intensify its commitment to enroll black students, but Heffner “didn’t really last long enough to fully deal with the black student issues,” Kertzer said.
A new curriculum
Many university presidents in the late 1960s faced similar challenges, as concerns about the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement swept the nation. But Heffner was also called upon to lead the University as students began to demand a complete overhaul of Brown’s traditional curriculum.
During the 1968-69 academic year, Ira Magaziner ’69 began to lobby the faculty to win approval for a new curriculum that he and Elliot Maxwell ’68 had been designing since the fall of 1966, Miller said.
Magaziner and Maxwell wanted to implement a curriculum that would make “the student be the center of the educational experience,” they wrote in a Herald guest column last year.
In the spring of 1968, Magaziner and Maxwell formed a group to focus on curricular reform, which 80 students and 15 professors joined, The Herald reported in 2009.
Upon seeing the demand for evaluation of the curriculum, Heffner created a committee to formally recommend curricular changes to the faculty.
Many aspects of their curricular plan, which included the option to take all courses on a Satisfactory/No Credit basis with no formal distribution requirements, were approved by the faculty on May 7, 1969 after a seven-hour meeting, The Herald reported at the time. Five hundred students rallied on the Main Green in support of the report.
Though Heffner presided over these debates, he never voiced strong approval or disapproval of the curricular changes. His resignation came directly after the faculty adopted the New Curriculum, but Heffner said the timing was coincidental.
In 1969, The Herald noted Heffner’s commitment to establishing committees for all controversial issues, including curricular reform. “Dr. Heffner’s attraction to the committee system of dealing with problems is part of his general concern for hearing all sides of an issue,” The Herald reported.
Miller said unlike presidents like Vartan Gregorian, Ruth Simmons and Christina Paxson, if Heffner had walked into a large class while he was president, he would not have inspired applause. But he left a legacy of relative peace in a turbulent era.
“We avoided the violent clashes that occurred at other places,” Miller said. “We avoided the very sharp and prolonged hostility – in part, that’s because Heffner was so accommodating to student concerns.”

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