Ray Lorenzo Heffner, thirteenth president of Brown University, was born in Durham, North Carolina, on May 7, 1925. His father, at that time a graduate student at Chapel Hill, was later a Spenser scholar at Johns Hopkins and the University of Washington. His mother taught high school Latin and English. Ray, Jr. went to Broadway High School in Seattle where a respected physics teacher encouraged him to be a physicist and a teacher unofficially involved in student guidance directed him to Yale. Although his aptitude was shown to be in the humanities, he was determined to become a physicist, leading his advisor, Professor Maynard Mack, to say, “I’ll pray for you,” and to draw him into the experimental English seminar for freshmen which Mack conducted. It was not, however, Mack’s influence which made Heffner change his concentration to English. He came to that conclusion during his three years of World War II Navy service, which involved building coral airstrips at Eniwetok and Tinian with the 110th Naval Construction Battalion, and later studying Japanese at Stillwater and Oklahoma A & M before being discharged as an Ensign in naval intelligence.
Back at Yale, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the Elizabethan Club, and Scroll and Key, and was on the Board of Deacons of Yale’s Battell Chapel and Secretary of the Labor Party in the Political Union. He graduated in 1948. He earned his master’s at degree at Yale in 1950. Advised to take a year off before committing himself to study for his Ph.D. degree, Heffner found a position teaching English at the University of Kentucky and also found Ruth Adele Kline, who was teaching a special English course for athletes. He even started a magazine for freshman writing, called The Green Pen, and required Miss Kline’s help in supervising its publication. They were married before his return to Yale. With the help of a Yale College Fellowship and later a Sterling Fellowship, he received his Ph.D. degree in 1953. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton (and acquired a dog named Michael Drayton Heffner). His occupation during the following summer was assembling inner tubes for Armstrong Rubber Company. In the fall he went to Indiana University as instructor in English on the advice of Dean William C. DeVane, who had recommended that he “get away from the Ivy atmosphere” to gain wider experience. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1956 and associate professor in 1960. He resigned in January 1963 to become Vice-President for Instruction and Dean of the Faculties at the State University of Iowa. In June 1964 he returned to Indiana as full professor and Vice-President and Dean of the Faculties.
In 1966 he accepted the presidency of Brown University, and when he was inaugurated on October 15, he had already greeted the students at the opening convocation with words of optimism about the new medical program, the Graduate Center about to be constructed, Pembroke College’s approaching 75th anniversary, and the projected Sciences Library. He praised the dynamic spirit of Brown and the quality of its faculty. He announced his intention to meet with student leaders, to make increasing use of students as members of or consultants to University committees, and to hold regular office hours when any student was invited to come and talk to him. One of Heffner’s first acts was the appointment of Merton Stoltz as provost. On May 9, 1969 Heffner presented his resignation, stating, “I have simply reached the conclusion that I do not enjoy being a university president.” It had not been a time to enjoy. His three years had been marked by wrangling over the future of ROTC and the first major revision of the curriculum in 25 years. There had been a new code of student conduct and a black students’ walkout which brought forth a commitment to admit more blacks and, while Brown had escaped the violence on other troubled campuses, these had been years of stress. Heffner left in August to return to the University of Iowa as professor of English and provost. Editor Robert Reichley wrote of Heffner’s resignation in the Brown Alumni Monthly:
“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.”