Dr. James Hefner, former president of Tennessee State University dies

Dr. James A. Hefner

Dr. James A. Hefner

Former president for Tennessee State University Dr. James Hefner has died. Dr. Hefner served as university president for 14 years from 1991 to 2005.

According to the TSU website, Hefner oversaw the implementation of a $112 million capital improvement plan.

Under his leadership, enrollment reached an all-time high of 9,100 students.

Dr. James A. Hefner came to Tennessee State University in April, 1991. He was president of Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss. when he accepted the Tennessee State University presidency.

One of his mentors is former Morehouse College president, Hugh Gloster. When Hefner was professor of economics at Morehouse, Gloster encouraged him “to look at higher education administration.” Another person who was equally influential in Dr. Hefner’s early growth and development was President Benjamin Payton of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

He became president of Jackson State after 22 months at Tuskegee and remained there for seven years.

Hefner was raised in a reactively poor family in North Carolina. He attended elementary school in Brevard, in the western part of the state. Since his family did not have any books in their home, Hefner was befriended by the principal who encouraged him to come by her home and read her encyclopedias.

“For eight years,” recalls Dr. Hefner, “while I was in elementary school, I would stop at her house on the way home, and I would read the encyclopedia.”

He graduated valedictorian of his elementary class and salutatorian of his high school. He had scholarship offers to several institutions of higher education, including Duke University in North Carolina. In the end, he was recruited by North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, N. C. The same year that Hefner became a student at North Carolina A.&T. State, Jesse Jackson transferred from Illinois. He and Jackson were schoolmates and were influenced by the same professor, Dr. Janieta Tate, professor of economics.

Upon graduation he received a fellowship to Duke University, but was encouraged by Dr. Tate to go to Atlanta University in Georgia to study under Dr. Sam Westerfield. Unfortunately, when Hefner arrived at Atlanta University, Dr. Westerfield had been called by President John F. Kennedy to work with his new administration as Ambassador to Liberia.

Hefner received his master’s degree in economics from Atlanta University, where he held a teaching position. After a couple of years of teaching, Dr. Tate called and encouraged him to continue his graduate education.

Hefner received his Ph.D. in economics in 1971, the year Dr. Tate retired. He was her first P.H.D.

Long after he left TSU, Dr. Hefner was still singing of its virtues whenever he got a chance. After retiring from his TSU post, he made Nashville his home. He made civic and social circle rounds around Nashville to maintain a presence in the TSU community, despite having a part-time residence in recent years in Atlanta where he served until recently as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Clark-Atlanta University.

Dr. Hefner died at his Nashville home August 27, 2015, of cancer.