He was a year into retirement, with a new set of golf clubs and a country club membership, when the call came.

Claude G. Perkins had spent 35 years in higher education and public school administration. An elementary school in Las Vegas bears his name for the work he did in Nevada.

But with the sudden resignation of Virginia Union University's president, the then-chairman of the board of trustees, Frank Royal, asked Perkins to return to Richmond, where he had twice served as an administrator in the city school system.

The wife of his late mentor encouraged him to accept, seeing something spiritual in the call from the historically black university.

"My mentor's wife said, 'You don't know who's calling you,' " he said. "She said, 'Perkins' — that's what she called me — 'if they need you, you need to go.' "

So Perkins, who had retired from Albany State University in Georgia, became VUU president in January 2009. He anticipated a short tenure and quick return to his clubs.

"I thought I'd be here 18 months," he said.

But the university's accreditation and financial problems were "a lot worse than I thought, so that 18 months ended up being nearly seven years" — and counting.

Perkins has overseen the resurgence of a university that this past academic year celebrated its 150th anniversary. 

The yearlong commemoration was entwined with the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War, which made possible the school's founding in the old Lumpkin's slave jail in Shockoe Bottom.

Throughout its history, VUU has been "a turnaround school," Perkins said.

"We're a school that can turn your life around. We're a school that can open doors for you and your family," he said. "Once we open the doors, they remain open for people coming after you. There's a kind of spirituality to that."

But Perkins is credited with helping turn the fortunes of the university as well.

"Success breeds success," said Lucille Brown, an alumna and member of the board. 

The community has "respect for the handle he has on the economic affairs of the university," she said, noting his master's degree in economics. 

As a result, alumni and corporate giving has increased because "he is such an excellent steward of the funds that come into the university," Brown said. The university last summer completed a $30 million comprehensive fundraising campaign.

But Perkins is also strong on academics, Brown said, and has expanded academic programs and leadership opportunities for students.

She worked with Perkins during his two stints at Richmond Public Schools, bringing him back as her deputy in the early 1990s when she was superintendent.

"He's a person who knows how to work with people," Brown said. "Education is a people business. If you're going to be successful in serving children, in serving young people, you have to know how to relate meaningfully."

Perkins is friends with both the past president of the University of Richmond, Edward Ayers, with whom he worked on the 150th commemorations, and UR's new president, Ronald Crutcher. 

They "share a strong belief in the power of education to transform lives," Crutcher said. "I have great respect for President Perkins’ commitment and dedication to VUU and to the powerful role that higher education can play in lives and communities."

Perkins served in the Nevada governor's Cabinet as director of commerce. He was the first African-American school superintendent for Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, and also was superintendent in Kansas City, Mo. His higher-ed stops before VUU included Marshall University in West Virginia and Clarion University in Pennsylvania, in addition to Albany State.

At VUU, he said, his first goals were to resolve accreditation issues and reverse the enrollment slide that had weakened the finances of the tuition-dependent university. Enrollment this semester is about 1,750.

The university began offering scholarships without application, even to B-students, and reducing the upfront charges to bring more students to campus. With accreditation sanctions removed, the university could seek national accreditation for individual programs. More than half of programs now have such recognition, Perkins said.

He also reinstituted the fine-arts degree program and eliminated co-ed residence halls.

As for the latter, some might say he's old-school.

"A board member told me I was taking us back to the future," Perkins said.

Last fall, the university opened its first new residence hall in 40 years, a living-learning center with a conference center between separate residence wings for men and women.

He said he has encountered little resistance to that decision, but when he is asked, he simply tells students: "We don't do co-ed here." 

Separate housing is more convenient, he said, but also is in keeping with the philosophy of a Baptist institution.

Perkins grew up Baptist in the Delta region of Mississippi. He remembers being removed from his Sunday school class and "put in class with adults because I was asking too many questions."

He quotes Scripture so much that he is frequently asked whether the next time he retires, he might return as a preacher, said Vanessa Coombs, his chief of staff.

Perkins shakes his head at that suggestion.

"No, no, no," he says.  "I'm an economist. I always figure out how you can be saved."


Favorite book

Certainly Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" is one of my favorites.

Alternate profession or course of study

It would probably be civil rights law or international law dealing with social justice.

Something you'd like to do

I would really like to play the Pebble Beach golf course in California.

Something that might surprise others

Others may be surprised to learn that I am a shy person, except when the situation dictates otherwise.

A small moment in life with a big impact

Over the years, I have been very blessed to have had people in my life who saw potential in me that I did not realize or see in myself at the time. My values have been influenced by those persons, and some of the best advice I received was to pass it on.

Role model

I have had the good fortune to have had many great role models, from the pastor of my church to great teachers and a governor with whom I worked. They all demonstrated to me the essence of purpose-driven leadership and the value of inquiry and learning.

Proudest accomplishment

I am most proud when I help others to succeed.

Favorite thing about Richmond region

The people with whom I have become acquainted during the 30 years my wife and I have lived in and out of Richmond.


Position: president, Virginia Union University

Hometown: Moorhead, Miss. 

Education: Mississippi Valley State University (bachelor's degree), Purdue University (master's in economic education), Ohio University (doctorate in curriculum and supervision)

Family: wife Cheryl, two sons, one daughter

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