04/22/11 — LaGrange native is Meredith president

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LaGrange native is Meredith president

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 22, 2011 1:46 PM

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Photo courtesy of Meredith College

Dr. Jo Allen poses for a portrait. The LaGrange native will be the new Meredith College president.

After an "exhaustive, deliberate and inclusive" nationwide search for the next president of Meredith College, the choice came down to a LaGrange native and alumna of the college.

Officials earlier this week named Dr. Jo Allen, 53, the eighth president in the college's 120-year history. She will succeed Dr. Maureen Hartford, who became the first female president of the women's college 12 years ago and who retires June 30.

According to the Meredith website, Ms. Allen's qualifications overshadowed the fact that she graduated from there in 1980.

"On all accounts, Dr. Allen emerged as the ideal candidate for this position," Sam Ewell Jr., chairman of the board of trustees, was quoted as saying. "In addition to her distinguished record of intellectual achievements, proven success as a senior administrator and inspiring visionary leadership talents, Dr. Allen possesses one of the most powerful attributes we sought: an abiding belief in Meredith College and its unique role in establishing and empowering women leaders."

After obtaining her bachelor's degree from Meredith, Ms. Allen obtained a master's degree from ECU in 1983 and her Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University in 1986.

Since 2004, she has been at Widener University in Pennsylvania, where she is currently senior vice president, provost and a professor of English. Prior to that, she was at N.C. State University, as interim vice provost and tenured associate professor of English.

But it was Meredith that essentially changed her life and started her on the path to education, she said.

"I started developing some confidence and more of a can-do attitude," she said Wednesday. "I think Meredith gave me some focus. I knew I wanted to do something that mattered."

Initially, she didn't realize what that would be, or what it might entail. She said she had an interest in English and writing -- even working briefly at the Weekly Gazette in LaGrange while she pursued her master's degree -- but still had to cultivate the leadership piece.

"Where did all that start? I think, for me, it started at Meredith and it's given me tremendous ways to take control of my life and shape a foundation for myself that I could always feel passionate about," Ms. Allen said. "I'm such a firm believer that you do the best you can to be mindful about your choices and leave your options open to get as many experiences as you can."

That Ms. Allen aspired to become president of her alma mater did not come as a surprise to her mother, Lorraine Allen, who still lives in LaGrange.

"This has been a goal of hers ever since she graduated from Meredith," she said. "She has worked through the ranks up to this."

Mrs. Allen is herself a retired educator -- spending several years at Campbell College before it became a university and 22 years at Parrott Academy in Kinston, where she taught both of her daughters. Her eldest, Kay Allen Blizzard, is now principal of Contentnea Savannah, a K-8 school in Kinston.

"(Both their) work ethics are very good and therefore I think they have accomplished what they have tried to attain," she said. "The one thing you owe your children is an education, and then they're on their own, but they have got to work at it, too."

Jo Allen said she looks forward to stepping into the role as president July 1. She said she has already met with the senior management team and been impressed by what is in place.

She also has a few goals of her own, including raising the visibility of Meredith.

"In many ways it's a best-kept secret," she said. "Everybody ought to know about Meredith. Its graduates go on to do fabulous things, which may or may not be a college presidency ....

"The other thing that's important is to let people know that there's still a great need for women's colleges, for this particular model of learning."

It's a wonderful era, Ms. Allen said, with the potential it affords as a leader and administrator especially exciting.

"In this day and age where we're more connected than ever but not talking to each other, we're running harder than we have ever run and not getting anywhere," she said. "One of the things that I see and one of the ways that Meredith is really a strong contributor to this, is actually the struggles that women have that make us better leaders."

Also impressive is the history that Meredith College boasts in a relatively brief amount of time.

"One-hundred twenty years and I'm only the eighth president," she said. "There's not been a lot of turnover in presidents at Meredith."

But beyond the goals and potential to impact future generations of young women in the state, she admitted she is also looking forward to returning to North Carolina, giving a nod to her local ties.

"LaGrange continues to be a very special part of my life," she said. "I don't forget or take for granted my roots. They're very important people."

Likewise, her mother is not complaining about having her youngest daughter closer by.

"She's coming back to barbecue and collard country," Mrs. Allen said with a smile.