A steady hand and a sense of humor served Provost Ken Perkins— and Longwood—well over the last 5 years. Now a new challenge lies ahead.
BY RICHARD FOSTER
On a broiling hot morning in August 2010, Dr. Ken Perkins had barely settled into his chair as Longwood’s new chief academic officer when the phone rang.
A beloved faculty member for more than 25 years who had also filled several administrative roles, Perkins had recently been appointed the university’s vice president for academic affairs. It was the first day of classes, and he felt ready for the challenge.
His introduction to the new position was a brisk one. The caller on the line informed him the air conditioning in Ruffner Hall was out. A short while later came news that a State Police bomb squad was en route to campus because a suspicious parcel had been found on a golf cart outside Lankford Student Union. (It later turned out the box belonged to Perkins himself.)
Then, moments later, Perkins’ assistant stepped in with a Post-it note, matter-of-factly reporting a fire in Bedford Hall.
“I thought, ‘Wow, is it going to be like this every day?’” said Perkins, whose job title was expanded to include provost in 2012. “It wasn’t, but it’s quite a show around here sometimes. In this job things happen pretty fast. You don’t have a lot of leisure time to just ponder and muse about.”
Through it all—working under four presidents and even serving a 45-day stint as acting president himself in 2012—Perkins has remained a calm, steadying and widely admired captain of Longwood’s academic ship. Some of the sources of his wisdom and tranquility are on display in his book-lined Ruffner office: a Stratocaster electric guitar he sometimes strums and a copy of the book Chicken Little that reminds him, no matter what the challenge, the sky is not falling.
Commanding an authority that stemmed from his status as one of Longwood’s best and most admired classroom teachers, Perkins “was really the adhesive that helped keep Longwood together” during turbulent stretches, said Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Pierson. Everybody loves Ken. We all work together—we’re a strong team here, but I think Ken’s easy style of leadership was just warmly embraced by everybody.”
Now, after five years heading academic affairs, Perkins is transitioning to a new role, directing fundraising for academic initiatives. His new title: director of advancement for academic priorities and provost emeritus. Dr. Joan Neff, formerly associate provost at the University of Richmond, is succeeding Perkins as Longwood’s provost.
Perkins’ love for Longwood gives this next step in his career special meaning. “Longwood is, for me, my alma mater. It’s not technically true, but it’s true in my heart,” he said. “After 31 years here, it’s the only school I give to, and, if I can help Longwood in this way, I am excited to do it.”
Longwood President W. Taylor Reveley IV describes Perkins as one of the “few really seminal figures” in the university’s 176-year history. He knows Longwood as well as anybody possibly could. He’s been here for three decades.
There are thousands and thousands of alumni who have very high regard for Ken and are eager to work with him. It’s hard to think of a better ambassador to have out there talking to alumni and friends of Longwood who are interested in supporting the academic enterprise.”
“I’ve had a wonderful career at Longwood,” Perkins said. “I’m lucky to be able to continue that in another area and to use my age and experience and the wonderful relationships I’ve had with so many students over the years to continue to have an impact at Longwood.”
With characteristic modesty, he added, “My view is you have to know when to move on, and you kind of leave when people want you to stay or at least are not anxious for you to leave.”
Certainly, some of his former students were saddened when he left teaching to become an administrator. A sociologist who is known for his research and books on the structure of volunteer fire departments, Perkins joined Longwood in 1984. He taught classes including quantitative data analysis, research methods and statistics and the sociology of death and dying. (He researched the latter in part by interning for a local funeral home.)
Perkins, who calls the classroom “sacred space,” was a dynamic and unorthodox professor. He’d toss silver half-dollars to students with top grades; he’d have students go out and conduct their own surveys; he’d read aloud help wanted ads for prestigious jobs seeking people with the exact skills his students were learning.
Once students realize they can do things they don’t think they can do, it’s a lot of fun for them to discover sometimes that they’re a lot smarter than they think they are,” he said.
One of his former students, Dr. Brian Bates ’92, professor of anthropology at Longwood, said Perkins “cares about Longwood deeply. He cares about the students. He cares about the faculty and staff. He’s done a lot of different things, but, if you were to ask Ken the thing that would be most important about his career, I don’t think he’d point to himself. I don’t think he’d point to a book or a research project. I think he would point to making a difference through shaping his students’ lives. His students are his legacy, I think.”
Another former student is Sue Vilic Carter ’06, M.A. ’10, a senior child protective services investigator at Prince Edward County Social Services, where she works alongside Perkins’ wife, Marie Hoge-Perkins, a social worker.
Perkins “inspired students to pursue goals they didn’t think they could reach,” said Carter, who earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in sociology. An immigrant from Bosnia, she remembers Perkins’ taking her under his wing when she was a freshman, helping her get a job at the campus post office and land her first internship. He also encouraged her to pursue her first government job.
“He was quirky and always joking and always had a smile on his face. He was able to make statistics interesting, which tells you what a great professor he was,” said Carter.
Faculty give him similar high marks as an administrator. “What I appreciate most about Ken is his sense of humanity and his deep empathy with people. He makes decisions based not on what’s best for himself but what’s best for others,” said Dr. Larissa Fergeson, professor of history and acting associate vice president for academic affairs, who first worked closely with Perkins during her three years as chair of the Longwood Faculty Senate. “I think his willingness to listen, to consider other people’s points of view and to factor those views into his decision making has really been valuable.”
Raised on a farm in rural Cochran, Ga., Perkins is still “kind of a country boy but a sophisticated one,” said his friend Dr. Chuck Ross, professor of physics and former dean of the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences.
A dapper dresser with a neatly trimmed professorial beard, Perkins’ hobbies include fly-fishing at nearby Briery Creek Lake and target shooting. He owns an array of handguns and rifles and likes to customize triggers and hand load ammo. “On a good day, I’m an average shot,” he allows. (In high school, he had an unconventional physics professor who taught lessons via fly-fishing and firearms practice.)
Perkins considers himself annoyingly enthusiastic about grilling and smoking on his twin Big Green Egg barbecue cookers, and he’s also an ardent proponent of the stress-relieving benefits of CrossFit, working out a few times a week at Farmville’s CrossFit 1st Due box.
(He jokes that between them, he and Neff, a martial-arts enthusiast, should be able to fend off any student or faculty complaints.)
Perkins and his wife live in a 110-year-old home in Prospect, just outside Farmville, where he was an active member of the volunteer fire department for more than 20 years. A motorcyclist who currently owns a Kawasaki dual-sport bike, Perkins enjoys off-roading and, in 2005, he drove his motorcycle to Texas in an unsuccessful attempt to meet his favorite novelist, Larry McMurtry.
This eclectic bundle of interests and attributes somehow melds together to form a person others trust, respect and just plain like—and having Perkins in a key leadership role has made some of Longwood’s challenges in recent years easier to face.
“The presidential transition was a huge event, just in the atmosphere of the campus,” said Marianne Radcliff ’92, rector of the Board of Visitors when Perkins was appointed provost. “I don’t know even now if he is aware of the effect he had by being a trustworthy, steady guide. No one has ever doubted his true affection for Longwood and his desire to do what’s best for the university.”
Professor Fergeson agrees. “He clearly brings his skills as a sociologist to the job in his keen observations of people and deep understanding of social relationships on this campus. As a result, he worked hard to ensure we weathered this period of transition successfully.”
Perkins himself simply says, “I have tried to do this job with as much gracefulness and humor as possible and not create any more drama for people than necessary.”