Q & A with Dean Donnie Perkins

Dean Donnie Perkins
What is the goal of affirmative action?

It is a system or process to identify and eliminate all vestiges of past and current discrimination in employment and educational environments.

Is it fair to use race as a criteria for college admission?

According to the William Bowen and Derek Bok Study, students in a diverse learning environment have increased cognitive abilities, greater chances of working in a global society, are more civically engaged, and live in more integrated communities. The opportunity to work and learn with persons who are different from them expands their thinking and understanding of different cultures, thus, better enabling them to work in a diverse society. It’s important to keep in mind that affirmative action includes all participants. Much of the discussion that has taken place over the years has focused on its impact on African-Americans, Latinos and even Asians and Native Americans. Its impact on the larger population of white students who go through institutions with increased equity in diversity does not get a lot of discussion. One has to have a balanced picture to look at affirmative action’s benefits to all students, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Based on the definition of affirmative action, does the policy also include white students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds?

It may involve them as well, but the inclusiveness of affirmative action as it relates to employment looks at the composition of the workforce as it relates to the marketplace. Some organizations may establish goals respective to different job groups, and put into place a recruitment process to diversify the applicant pool, thereby increasing the chances of an underrepresented group to compete for the job. As it relates to the college admission side, universities in this country have a right to determine, as noted in the 2003 Supreme Court ruling, how they will admit students to the university. Universities determine the criteria and how it’s going to be used. Race may be a factor, but not the determining factor.

But race does end up being the determining factor, instead of financial need. Wouldn’t basing preferences on socioeconomic factors make it more equitable to both black and white financially disadvantaged groups?

It’s important to keep in mind that racism, sexism, homophobia and all forms of discrimination and harassment are still alive in society and in our institutions. It would seem that for some reason we want to choose another factor that would pretend to be more equitable. To suggest that we use financial need as the sole criteria in admissions makes me concerned about its impact and the education benefits for all students.

Advocates such as American Civil Rights Union founder Ward Connerly are campaigning to eliminate affirmative action. Is it in danger of becoming extinct?

No. It might become extinct when racism and discrimination and other forms of harassment are eliminated. But the reality is discrimination still exists — even Ward Connerly would agree. I think he is more concerned with how racial preferences are misused. He certainly has a right to his opinion. I don’t share his opinion, but as long as we continue to have discrimination in this country, there will be a need and a process for equity for everyone. Whether it’s called affirmative action or something else. Last year, there were thousands of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The evidence doesn’t say that discrimination is disappearing.

Do you think the Bush administration will be committed to addressing discrimination in this country and creating and amending policies to stop it?

Whether it’s the Bush or any other administration, the government needs to face up to the continuing fact, and I don’t mean in just words, that discrimination still exists and is impacting and limiting the competitive nature of our society. We are not utilizing the full potential of our society because of this, thus causing problems for everyone. So part of it is economics and part of it is equal rights, but it’s also about being a competitive democratic society.

What do racial-preference policies do to the morale of students of color?

I don’t know of any student — white, black, Latino or Asian — who got into an institution because someone said, “Because you’re white, black, Latino or Asian, we’re going to admit you.”

So there is no merit to arguments that lower standards are applied to applicants of color?

That’s just what they are — arguments with no real merit. What is our society about? If you talk to people, listen to people, you’ll learn that it’s about individualism. It’s about providing an opportunity for people to demonstrate that they can do this kind of work. Sometimes there is evidence that demonstrates that one can do the work, such as a GPA or SATs, but maybe there are other factors that can prove one has the fortitude, the commitment and the desire to achieve. All we need to provide is the opportunity.

Donnie Perkins is the dean and director of affirmative action and diversity at Northeastern University. Prior to joining the leadership team at Northeastern, Perkins served as executive assistant to the president for human relations and director of affirmative action at Central Connecticut State University. He has held several equity, policy, and leadership positions in higher education at the Connecticut Board of Governors for Higher Education and served as director of Manpower Training and Education Services for the Community Action Committee of Danbury Inc. in Danbury, Conn. He's worked in education, training, affirmative action, equal opportunity, human relations and diversity for more than twenty-five years. In 1998, Perkins received the Mary Jean Cherry Recognition Awards from the professional association, African Americans in Higher Education in Connecticut (AAHEC) in recognition of his contributions to diversity and the advancement of African Americans in higher education in Connecticut over his eighteen years of service and commitment. Perkins is a graduate of Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio and holds a Masters of Science in executive management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Hartford, Conn. He was a Ford Foundation Fellow, a 1998 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education Management Development Program and 2002 Millennium Leadership Institute.