‘My sexual identity is vitally important to my leadership role,’ says university dean | Top Universities

‘My sexual identity is vitally important to my leadership role,’ says university dean

By Laura Lightfinch

Updated May 25, 2023 Updated May 25, 2023

Dr Perry N. Halkitis is dean of Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey. His research lies in epidemiology, biostatistics, and urban-global health, where he focuses on infectious diseases and the factors that predispose conditions like HIV, HPV, COVID-19 and other pathogens.  

During his time at Rutgers University, Dean Halkitis has dedicated himself to enhancing LGBTQ+ public health provision through his research, and shattering perceptions of the LGBTQ+ community, empowering people to bring their full selves to the table.  

TopUniversities.com spoke to Dean Halkitis about the importance of bringing his authentic self to his work, and about normalising LGBTQ+ existence in higher education. 

How have you enjoyed your time at Rutgers School of Public Health?  

“It has been a time of challenge, growth and inspiration for me,” Dean Halkitis said. “I entered this role after many years in various associate dean positions, but to be the leader of a school as the decision maker – that was a new experience.  

“I felt like I was well prepared for the role and in the last six years, we've been able to create a school – or continue to create a school – that is forward thinking and modern. I think that in part has to do with who I am as a person and how I think about my place in the world. 

“When people say: ‘we can’t do that, it hasn’t been done in a school of public health before,’ my response is always ‘well, LGBTQ+ people couldn't be married until a decade ago, right?’  

“We’ve also transformed HIV into a chronic controllable disease while developing COVID-19 vaccines using new technologies. I always rely on my own personal experiences and the troubles and tribulations that I have felt in my life as a gay man.” 

He sees his personal challenges as experiences that have provided him with a fortitude, strength, bravery and resilience in his life. “These elements of my being help me and inspire our team to develop programmes of research, teaching, and community engagement that are modern and innovative, and speak to a new generation of scholars,” he said.  

How important is it to be open about your sexuality as a leader in higher education?  

Dean Halkitis feels it is 100 percent important to be open about his identity. He said: “If I'm going to lead an organisation, all of me has to be present, not just the pen and paper version of me; the public health me; the PhD me. It can’t just be the Greek me. It can’t just be the almost 60-year-old me. It must be all of me and that includes my sexual identity and my gender identity as a cis man.  

“I bring it all to the table because I think that the work that I do and the way I lead with everything I am works better. 

“I don't hide it and I speak openly about my sexual identity and it's very important, because I know that it normalises LGBTQ+ life for those who are not LGBTQ+. When somebody like myself is able to be themselves in a position of power, it empowers the younger generation to believe they can do it too.” 

Dean Halkitis feels that it has to become part of the normal conversation, not just for students but for institutions overall.  

“I see that I have to manage up to leaders in academia who are often a generation older than me and who are not used to speaking of LGBTQ+ people given their heteronormative orientation. They need to be made comfortable, even in their discomfort, to acknowledge that there are LGBTQ+ people and other marginalised groups in their mix.” 

How do you hope to influence the experiences of LGBTQ+ and curious staff and students across the institution and beyond?  

Rutgers School of Public Health has the first master of public health in the world that's fully focused on LGBTQ+ health. While other institutions provide modules or certificates in this area, Rutgers is the first to offer a full programme. “That’s enormous, right?” Dean Halkitis asked.  

“In my educational research, what I’m trying to influence is that LGBTQ+ health and public health issues are not niche issues about marginalised people. They have to be on the same playing field as every other health issue, women’s issue, LGBTQ+ issue, and immigration issue. “LGBTQ+ health is public health” he said. 

“I’ve been pushing really hard in the state of New Jersey for data to be collected on sexual orientation and gender identity on the intake forms at doctors' surgeries. As of 2024, that is going to become part of the intake forms across the state. That's huge and I think I played a significant part in making that happen.” 

What challenges or barriers do the LGBTQ+ community face within higher education?  

In moving from a progressive private institution to a state university, Dean Halkitis was surprised to find that he’s now part of an institution that’s more open to people leading with their full identities. He said: “Rutgers is a school that I feel really honours diversity, equity and inclusion, and lives by those values.  

“To feel like my institution wants me to live my full authentic self and to be free and comfortable in my sexual identity is great, especially at this moment in culture.  

“It’s worth mentioning that I work in higher education in the United States, where in places like Texas and Florida, having a queer or Black identity, or advocating for trans rights or critical race theory, means you’ll be ostracised in some way. For me, it’s important that in states like New Jersey, we can feel empowered to shout even louder about these injustices and let people in those states know that we’re fighting for them.” 

How can people with the privilege of living our lives authentically help to support LGBTQ+ students and faculty to overcome the challenges they face? 

Dean Halkitis frequently talks to academic friends in other states where people are ostracised for their sexual and gender identity and asks ‘what do you need? How can we help?’  

“I think we must be outspoken. We must push back and consider who we’re working with and how they feel about supporting people within marginalised communities,” he said. “It’s about standing up for the things that you believe in and being a role model in that way. 

“I recognise that I have privilege as a white, cis man and a platform to make change, but I also recognise that I’m gay and I’m also the child of immigrants. I saw my parents face marginalisation, perhaps not as much as refugees these days, but I saw what they faced and those things inform me too.” 

How do you manage your position as a leader and a role model with your important work in public health? 

One of the things Dean Halkitis was insistent about when he started working in leadership roles was that his research had to still exist. He said: “At the end of the day, my dedication is fighting on structural inequities and social determinants of the health of people. So that had to continue to be part of the work I do. If I couldn’t do that work, I wasn’t interested in the job.  

“So, I balance it. I carve out as much time as possible to give lectures, talks and to do my research. I’ve learned to surround myself with inspiring people and to delegate responsibilities to help my students grow. I expand the circle of people around me who I can help to lead.” 

In his research, people’s voices are always front and centre. “When I started working on ageing HIV research around 20 years ago, I didn’t know what to work on or what questions to ask. So, I talked to older adults living with HIV and they told me what they know.  

“They understand their experiences better than we claim we do, so if we are creating work to better understand the experiences they face, we empower those people and we ask them.” 

In his own life, he will never give up his role. “There’s too much to do. I have to keep pushing the button every single day on public health and LGBTQ+ issues.” 

You stand up for a lot in your professional life. How do you manage that and find time to decompress? 

“I have very recently had to learn to step away from it. While my identity is always a part of who I am and I don’t necessarily switch off from it completely, I can do it differently in my own time. 

“I work out and make sure I look after myself but honestly, I never feel like doing the LGBTQ+ work is a burden. I saw too many people die at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, who lost their lives at a very young age. I’ve been fortunate enough to live a full life and to have the career I have, so it doesn’t feel like a burden to me.” 

How important is it to bring your whole identity into the professional world? 

Dean Halkitis feels that “if we continue to hide who we are and reject our authentic selves, we're never going to advance any further. It's always going to be checking boxes and remaining where we are. 

“When you look at the arts, it’s always ahead of the sciences and business world because they have integrated living authentically and unapologetically into the DNA of being an artist. The rest of society must catch up now and normalise our full identities. 

“If I have a work meeting or a media interview and I’m asked about my personal life, I will mention my partner and include his name. I just talk about it. The more I engage that way, the more I try to normalise the lives of LGBTQ+ people while not diluting who we are.”  

This article was originally published in February 2023 . It was last updated in May 2023

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