Perkins, James Alfred

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PERKINS, James Alfred

(b. 11 October 1911 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 19 August 1998 in Burlington, Vermont), president of Cornell University (1963–1969) who in 1969 acceded to the demands of armed militant students to increase the admission opportunities for minorities and subsequently resigned amid controversy surrounding his actions.

Perkins, the son of H. Norman Perkins and Emily (Cramp) Taylor, graduated with honors from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania with an A.B. in political science in 1934. He continued his education at Princeton University in New Jersey, earning his M.A. in 1936 and his Ph.D. in 1937, both in political science. As a young man he became a member of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, which may have influenced the decisions he later made as the chief administrator at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. On 20 June 1938 Perkins married Jean Bredin.

From 1937 to 1941 Perkins taught college, but when World War II disrupted American life, Perkins served in the U.S. Office of Price Administration and the Foreign Economic Administration. After the war, Perkins returned to college life as an administrator until 1951, when he left to become an executive associate at Carnegie Corporation, an educational foundation. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Perkins was involved in setting government policies. He served as deputy chairman of the Research and Development Board of the Department of Defense from 1951 to 1952, but returned to Carnegie Corporation.

Perkins was inaugurated as Cornell's seventh president on 4 October 1963. His prospects seemed bright, and he certainly had little inkling that he would be forced to resign only six years later. However, the 1960s were years full of strife in all areas of American society, including the arena of higher education. University campuses were often unsafe as some students demonstrated, rioted, and agitated for change. Activists led protests opposing the Vietnam War, selective service, college curricula, lack of civil rights for minorities, and a host of other issues. Some of the protests, such as teach-ins, were relatively nonviolent, but as the decade wore on, violence increasingly became a tool of some activist groups.

Perkins's life was changed forever by events on the Cornell campus in 1969. Racial turmoil there resulted in the takeover of Willard Straight Hall, Cornell's student union, by 100 militant students in the Afro-American Society. At gunpoint, the activists demanded increased enrollment of minority students. Instead of refusing and attempting to end the takeover peaceably, or forcefully if necessary, for the protection of the entire faculty and student body, Perkins acceded to the students' demands. His decision to give in to the militants set a dangerous precedent for student takeovers; colleagues across the United States viewed Perkins's action as putting professors, administrators, and students everywhere at the mercy of disgruntled students who were willing to resort to violence.

Among the student revolts of the 1960s, the uprising at Cornell was considered pivotal, and Perkins was at the cynosure of public censure for allowing student threats to sway him. Educators asked themselves if they should remain at Cornell, and many questioned whether Perkins was worthy to retain his post. Even though the outcome of the president's actions was considered to be positive years later—minority enrollment increased from 10 students to more than 250 during the years he was president—Perkins lost the respect of his colleagues. His reputation was besmirched on a national level because he had tolerated, if not condoned, student threats. As a result Perkins resigned from Cornell on 31 May 1969.

Although his accomplishments at Cornell were eclipsed by the circumstances surrounding his resignation, Perkins had his successes. He was responsible for creating new departments in biological science and computer science and establishing new programs such as the Laboratory of Plasma Studies, Risley House (a residence hall for the arts), the Society for the Humanities, the Center for International Studies, and the Water Resources Institute. He secured funding for construction of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and oversaw the construction of the Space Sciences Building. Perkins also was responsible for two capital campaigns that raised more than $100 million for the construction of Cornell's Medical College in New York City.

Besides his accomplishments at Cornell, Perkins served in various advisory positions in the presidential administrations of both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He was the chairman of the Negro College Fund (1965–1969) and a member of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education (1967–1973). He also published The University in Transition (1966), a reproduction of three lectures delivered at Princeton in the Stafford Little Series. In the book, Perkins discusses the forces that endanger the halls of education, including internal disorder. He comments, "The modern university is, in one of those strange paradoxes of human affairs, dangerously close to becoming the victim of its own success" and warns that theory and doctrine must be governed by management and direction. Viewed retrospectively, these words seem particularly ironic.

When the 1960s came to a close, Perkins faced a future blighted by his response to the student takeover at Cornell. Many people never forgot that he had put academia at risk by giving in to armed militants. The reverberations were somewhat assuaged in 1995 when Thomas W. Jones, a leader of the students who staged the takeover, established the James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony. Jones said he admired Perkins for his efforts to help African Americans attend Cornell: "He made a courageous decision and he deserves recognition for it."

Perkins's legacy at Cornell also lives on through the James A. Perkins Professorship of Environmental Studies in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Established in 1992, the professorship was first awarded to Eloy Rodriguez, the first Chicano environmental biologist to hold an endowed chair in the United States.

After he left Cornell, Perkins founded the International Council for Educational Development. He also wrote several books, including Higher Education: From Autonomy to Systems (1972), The University in a Restless Decade (1972), and The University as an Organization (1973). Perkins contributed to popular magazines such as the Saturday Review and to scholarly journals, and he was on the editorial boards of both Change and Higher Education. He served as the vice chair of the National Council on Foreign Languages and International Studies and held many other prestigious positions in academe, government, and the private sector. After the death of his first wife in 1970, he married Ruth Begengren Dall on 30 January 1971. He raised nine children.

At age eighty-six Perkins died from complications following a fall. (Sources variously record the date of death as 19 or 20 August 1998.) The Cornell president Hunter Rawlings said in a press release following Perkins's death, "Jim Perkins represented the highest ideals of liberal education, and he left a permanent legacy not only on the Cornell campus but also in the foundation of our nation's dynamic postwar educational and research institutions."

In later years, that third week of April 1969 figured largely in how Perkins's memory lived on. Perkins was alternately remembered as a weak man who capitulated to activists or as a brave man who made a decision that caused political change. Forgotten were his many awards and honors; remembered was the way he responded to a short but critical crisis.

Perkins's papers (1941–1990) are held by the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at the Cornell University Library. There is a biographical article in the Cornell News (21 Aug. 1998). Scenes from the revolt at Cornell can be found in Donald Alexander Downs, Cornell '69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University (1999). An obituary is in the Washington Post (24 Aug. 1998).

A. E. Schulthies