Sanford S. Atwood, 89, the former president of Emory University in Atlanta who stood firm behind a professor who espoused a theory that “God is dead,” died Dec. 2 of a brain hemorrhage in Asheville, N.C.
Atwood, a Wisconsin native who was the first non-Methodist president of Emory, served from 1963-77. In 1965, Atwood threw his support behind religion professor Thomas J.J. Altizer, who was espousing the theory that “God is dead.” Atwood said that if Altizer felt he had an idea worth considering, “he has the right to do so.”
Atwood’s firm stance supporting Altizer came amid calls for the professor’s ouster and threats from alumni and church bishops to cut off funds for the university. Ultimately, Atwood’s stance raised the prestige of the school and increased fund-raising.
During his tenure, Atwood had the first black and the first woman commencement speakers. He brought in a series of diverse speakers, including black power advocate Stokely Carmichael and conservative Gov. Lester Maddox.