James A. Perkins was widely recognized as one of the nation's most innovative educators and an effective statesman for higher education. He was born and raised in Philadelphia and attended Swarthmore College, graduating with honors in 1934. He then earned his doctorate in political science from Princeton University in 1937. He taught at Princeton in the School of Public and International Affairs from 1937 to 1941. During World War II, Mr. Perkins served in the United States Office of Price Administration and the Foreign Economic Administration. After the war he returned to Swarthmore, serving as vice president of the college from 1945 to 1950. He then became vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, a leading educational foundation, from 1950 to 1963.
In 1963 James Perkins became the seventh president of Cornell University. During his six-year tenure, twenty-three professorships were endowed, and new programs and academic organizations were initiated. Those included the Society for the Humanities, the Andrew D. White Professors-at-Large program, the Division of Biological Sciences, the Center for International Studies, the Department of Computer Science, the Water Resources Institute, the Laboratory of Plasma Studies, and the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research. President Perkins created the position of vice president for academic affairs. He also made arts education a priority, establishing the Residential Colleges Committee, which led to the creation of Risley House, a special-interest student housing facility devoted to the arts.
President Perkins was responsible for the development and initial funding for the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and for securing I. M. Pei as the architect for the project. In addition, the campus physical plant grew with the construction of the Space Sciences Building, Wilson Synchrotron, Noyes Student Center, and the Campus Store, as well as Uris, Clark, Emerson, and Bradfield halls.
President Perkins spearheaded a successful effort to improve minority recruitment and education. He established the Committee on Special Educational Projects (COSEP), a recruiting effort and ongoing support group for minorities on campus. That effort was a significant success. The number of black students enrolled increased from under 10 to over 250 during his presidency. In 1969 the Black Studies Program was established, and his vision contributed to the creation of the Africana Studies and Research Center, founded later that year.
President Perkins oversaw the successful completion of two capital campaigns—one for the Medical College and one for the Ithaca campus. Together the campaigns raised over $100 million for Cornell. In 1965 Dr. Perkins presided over a year-long celebration of the university's centennial, including orations by Sir Eric Ashby and the Hon. Adlai E. Stevenson. During his presidential tenure, Dr. Perkins authored two books: The University in Transition and The University as an Organization.
James Perkins resigned from Cornell's presidency in June 1969. Announcing his resignation, the members of the university's Board of Trustees called Perkins "a statesman of higher education in the Cornell community and the world at large."
In 1970 James Perkins became the founding chairman and CEO of the International Council for Educational Development, an organization that identifies and analyzes key problems facing education around the world. He held this position for twenty years and in 1990 was named chairman emeritus.
Dr. Perkins's role as an educational innovator extended far beyond Cornell. In 1965 he was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the gold medal of the National Institute of Social Sciences. He was also chairman of the New York State Advisory Committee on Educational Leadership from 1963 to 1967, chairman of the Presidential General Advisory Committee on Foreign Assistance from 1965 to 1969, and chairman of the board of trustees of the Educational Testing Service from 1967 to 1968. President Lyndon B. Johnson named him co-chair of the International Conference on the World Crisis in Education in 1967. Dr. Perkins received 35 honorary degrees.
In June 1992 the Cornell Board of Trustees bestowed the title President Emeritus on James Perkins. Earlier in that year an endowed professorship in environmental studies was established in his name.
President Emeritus James A. Perkins passed away in August 1998.