Alexander Heard, chancellor of Vanderbilt University during the tumultuous years from 1963 to 1972, was committed to pluralism, freedom of expression, and self-government. His views helped to open up the staid campus, which avoided many of the painful and divisive confrontations that occurred at colleges across the nation. Born in Savannah, Georgia, the son of Richard and Virginia Heard, he received a degree in political science from the University of North Carolina. Heard became involved in public policy issues by chairing the Carolina Political Union, a student forum that brought speakers from across the political spectrum to the campus. After a year of graduate school at Columbia University, Heard spent six years in government service before returning to graduate school and receiving his Ph.D. He worked as a research assistant to V. O. Key Jr., the leading political scientist at the Bureau of Public Administration at the University of Alabama, on Key's pathbreaking work, Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949). Thereafter Heard married Laura Jean Keller and returned to the University of North Carolina as an associate professor of political science. In 1952 he published A Two Party South? a revised version of his dissertation. In 1960 Heard completed The Costs of Democracy, one of the earliest studies of campaign financing. His work brought professional prominence: the presidency of the Southern Political Science Association and an appointment by President John F. Kennedy to the chair of the Commission on Campaign Costs.
When Vanderbilt University sought a new chancellor in 1963, Heard, then dean of the graduate school at the University of North Carolina, had abundant qualifications as well as a noncombative and compromise-building leadership style that made him acceptable to Vanderbilt's various constituencies–Board of Trust, alumni, faculty, and students. Heard's leadership emphasized unity and the recognition of common interests, anticipation of problems, and building of consensus.
Once on campus, Heard fostered freedom of expression through his open forum policy, self-government by enlarging the responsibilities of the university and the then-renamed faculty senate, and pluralism through the diversification of the makeup of the university from the board and faculty down to the student body. During his years as chancellor, Heard oversaw the expansion of the academic programs (eventually absorbing Peabody College for Teachers and the Blair School of Music), the raising of admission standards, the doubling of the campus area, and the launching of a building boom. Whether confronting the challenges of fund-raising, demands for more rights and better treatment for women and African Americans on campus, or demonstrations for and against the Vietnam War, Heard embraced an administrative style of encouraging input and making decisions after careful deliberation, thereby defusing potential conflicts.
In 1982 Heard retired to head the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's study of presidential elections in America. Heard retained his professorship in political science and worked from the Vanderbilt Institute of Public Policy Studies. The board honored Heard by renaming the library the Jean and Alexander Heard Library.
Paul K. Conkin, Gone With the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University (1985)