An Openly Gay Dean Sets a Precedent: Perry Halkitis
By Bonnie Eissner
Perry Halkitis (Ph.D. ’95, Educational Psychology), the newly appointed dean of Rutgers School of Public Health and the first openly gay man to hold the position, is accustomed to defying limits.
The son of Greek immigrants of modest means, he has earned three graduate degrees from CUNY. He has also been HIV positive for nearly 30 years, a fact he is open about.
“It is incredibly important that I show the world the face of a healthy and productive [HIV] positive gay man,” Halkitis says. “It is a means of continuing to chip away at the stigma and discrimination in our society that positive individuals face on a daily basis.”
When Halkitis tested positive for AIDS in 1988 at age 25, chances of survival were low; many who were diagnosed were expected to not survive more than two years, as Halkitis discusses in his book The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival (Oxford University Press, 2014). But, by his own admission, he is a fighter. “I wasn’t going to die,” he says in a documentary film, which accompanied the book. He was too ambitious.
After a stint as a science teacher, he realized that his true bent was research. He came to the GC for a doctorate, envisioning a career as an applied statistician or psychometrician.
“My experience at the Graduate Center was phenomenal,” he says. “I attribute much of the success I’ve had in my career to the training and the mentoring that I received from the educational psychology department.”
Two “stellar” faculty members made all the difference — Distinguished Professor David Rindskopf (Educational Psychology, Psychology) and Professor Emeritus Alan Gross (Educational Psychology). Halkitis was familiar with their work even before starting at the GC, and he became their protégé.
They helped him land a position as the chief psychometrician at the National League for Nursing even before he graduated. After a year, he was recruited to be the director of statistics and computer services at the Professional Examination Service.
By 1995, though, he needed a change. With the AIDS epidemic still raging, he was devoting his time outside of work to activism, and he wanted to reconcile his personal interests and his professional ambitions. “So I made a very brave decision,” he says. He became the director of research at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
“I started taking my applied research skills and using them in this new domain,” he says. “And a few years after that, I was recruited by New York University because I had developed a reputation as a stellar HIV researcher.”
In nearly 20 years at NYU, he expanded that reputation and rose through the ranks to become a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the College of Global Public Health.
He is known for research that examines the links between the HIV epidemic, drug abuse, and mental health within the LGBTQ community. He is the founding director of the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior and Prevention Studies at NYU. His 33-page CV enumerates his scores of awards, grants, and publications.
He is most interested in “understanding the roles that society and culture and policies and laws and identities play” in driving risky behaviors. “People don’t just wake up one day and realize that they’re going to be a risktaker, or a smoker, or an overeater,” he says. “I believe that discrimination and homophobia and racism — those inequities in our society that make people feel ‘lesser than’ — are the drivers of health inequities.”
Halkitis begins his appointment at Rutgers in August, and he is looking forward to working with students who, like him, are the first in their families to go to college. “I am dedicated to public education,” he says. “The Graduate Center is the beacon of that.”
He is also keenly aware of the precedent he is setting. “When you look around at higher education administration, there are very few openly gay people who are in leadership roles. I am one of those people, and that message is very important to young, sexual minority students.”
Update: In November 2017, Halkitis was recognized by the GC with its 2017 Alumni of the Year Award.
Submitted on: JUN 20, 2017
Category: Alumni News | Diversity | Educational Psychology | General GC News