Stephen J. Nelson: John Hennessey, a great academic and a great reformer

  John Hennessey speaking at a Tuck School function.

John Hennessey speaking at a Tuck School function.

 Via the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org)

John W. Hennessey  Jr. lived a remarkable, full life as a professor, as a leader in his field of management and business, and moral, ethical leadership, and as dean at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and provost at the University of Vermont. He was extraordinary on many fronts, a great man who lived in tumultuous times marked by world war as a young man, later as a graduate student and then professor and dean during the massive social and culture changes wrought by the 1960s and ‘70s. He was ahead of his times in ways that were noteworthy then, but now are even more so as we look retrospectively at his life. He died Jan. 11 at 92. 

Hennessey was part of “the greatest generation,” those who were teenagers as a horrific war broke out, served as young men and women, and then came home to continue college careers and get on with their personal and early professional lives. Following his recent death, an article about his life in The Boston Globe captured Hennessey’s early-on bewilderment and criticism of the many discriminations of his time.

Of particular note for him were the barriers  that many institutions, among them our most elite, constructed against women, including his wife. After graduating from the Harvard Business School, Hennessey wondered about whether attending there made him complicit in Harvard’s discrimination policies. After all, his wife who wanted a law degree, could not even apply to Harvard’s Law School. Those personal lessons, coupled with the feminist activism of his mother as a suffragette at Vassar College and a similarly inclined sister at Vasser decades later, were in Hennessey’s gestalt as a young faculty member at the Tuck School.

When in 1968, Dartmouth’s president, John Dickey, approached Hennessey to become the dean of the Tuck School, his response was clear. Hennessey's quid pro quo: He would become Dickey’s dean only if he agreed to permit Hennessey to accept women to the Tuck School, which at the time, like all of Dartmouth College, was an all-male institution. Dickey agreed and the first women came to Tuck three years before Dartmouth decided to admit women undergraduates and four years before their arrival on campus. Hennessey was graduating his first women from Tuck before Dartmouth made the move to co-education in its undergraduate ranks.

But he was by no means done with that stroke. While making those commitments for women in business, he was also actively involved both at Tuck and with business school colleagues across the country to recruit racial minorities and opening doors for them into the business and corporate world. He invented the case-study approach to teaching business ethics, led the Tuck School to growth and expansion, and was an enormous influence in the leadership and wisdom of Dartmouth.

A fellow alumnus from the late 1940s at Princeton, John Kemeny, was Dartmouth’s president, in the 1970s. Kemeny turned to Hennessey repeatedly for advice and counsel. When Kemeny left the presidency, in 1981, many a rumor at Dartmouth had it that Hennessey was on the short list of successors. That did not turn out to be the case, one might say sadly for Dartmouth. Here was maybe the greatest man not to become a college president.

Hennessey then went on to a distinguished career as provost at the University of Vermont and for a short time acting president there.

What are the testimonies from this distinguished life in the halls of the academy? What does his forward-looking leadership and vision for higher education and society say to us today?

First, we need to be ever ahead of the curve. Hennessey did not wait for the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s and '70s, affirmative action, Title IX and all the rest to animate, motivate and move him in the direction of equality and equity. It was in his gut and in his heart, and he had the courage to give voice to those principles. Our colleges and universities today need to witness this legacy and build on it. That includes issues and contentions that Hennessey would have thought  that we had conquered, yet today continue to require revisiting and conquering anew.

Second, and more critically, check your ego and your self-righteousness at the door. It is easy for those who aspire to promote change to do it with their chests out. John Hennessey was as reserved a man, as he was an intelligent and forceful leader. But leadership was not about him, and more importantly even the good that he sought to do was not a testimony to his goodness.

The Globe piece quotes him in words that stand on their own and form a coda about the life of John Hennessey. As the undergraduate wave of women of Dartmouth began to take courses at the Tuck School, Hennessey commented late in his oral history that his upper-level administrative colleagues didn’t realize the ways in which they were “being paternalistic and fatherly.” As said noted, “The idea that it can all be done with good intentions and with ‘good old boys’ simply being gooder, isn’t going to work. And you’re going to have to listen to wise women.”

John Hennessey enriched the halls of academe, the quest for the life of the mind, and for lives well-lived.

Stephen J. Nelson is professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and Senior Scholar with the Leadership Alliance at Brown University. He is the author of the recently released book, The Shape and Shaping of the College and University in America: A Lively Experiment. Nelson served on the student affairs staff at Dartmouth College from 1978-1987. He is currently working on a biography of John G. Kemeny, Dartmouth math  and computer-science professor and president, 1970-81.