President Jo Allen, ’80, who is heading into her tenth year of presidency, sat down for an interview with Meredith Magazine at the beginning of the new academic year to share her greatest challenges, her proudest moments, and her hopes for the future of Meredith.
Meredith Magazine: What is your most lasting memory from your time as a Meredith College student?
President Jo Allen: My relationships with faculty and friends are what stand out to me the most. When I look back, I’m able to acknowledge now that some of those relationships were complicated with faculty because they pushed me hard. There were so many kind faculty who really nudged me along because they believed in me and saw something in me that I couldn’t.
I’ll also never forget how it felt being introduced to differences in philosophies and teaching styles for the first time – it was extremely eye opening for me.
MM: What is your favorite memory as president of Meredith College?
Allen: My favorite memory as president was just two summers ago, when we surpassed our fundraising goal for the Beyond Strong campaign in August. We set the goal for $75 million and at the State of the College address, I was able to announce that we had already raised over $86 million. That was great fun.
The first raid on the President’s House was also quite memorable. As the students approached my home, they looked like an angry mob of villagers coming through the woods. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but when they started serenading me, it was the sweetest thing.
And honestly, every move-in day, every commencement, those are all so special. The great uncertainty moving in, the great confidence moving out – I’ll never forget that feeling each year.
MM: What has changed since you were a student and what has remained the same?
Allen: Most traditions have remained the same since I was a student, but Cornhuskin’ looks very different. I love some of the new traditions. Fire and Water is one of my favorites. Ring Dinner is also one of my favorite new ones. Back in my day, we just slipped the Onyx on our finger. I love that there’s a celebration surrounding it now.
MM: What is your favorite spot on campus?
Allen: My favorite place on campus both as a student and as president is Johnson Hall. Interestingly enough, it looked very different when I was a student. I like it even more now because it still has the same dramatic look but it’s refreshed and serves as a much more functional space.
MM: What do you do when you’re not busy being the president?
Allen: You know, this is something many don’t understand about the presidency. It’s a 24/7 job. Even when you’re on vacation, you’re still answering emails, texts, taking care of things that need to be done. It’s certainly a job where you sleep with one eye open.
But, I do get some down time. I’m a big reader. I’ve particularly enjoyed this time working from home because it’s allowed me to do more reading on topics in higher education, virtual learning, and race relations. I usually have two or three books going at the same time, which would drive some people crazy, but it works for me.
Recently, I finished some great books. Where the Crawdads Sing was one of them – I found it to be one of the most beautifully detailed books. When We Were Yours was another wonderful book from this summer. And I can’t forget White Fragility – that was a hard one to read but so important. One I’m working on finishing now is called Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. It’s been another important and timely read.
MM: What’s something the Meredith community would be surprised to know about you?
Allen: I think they might be surprised to learn how profoundly they’ve affected me. Or how fortunate I feel to be back home, doing important work with thoughtful, important people. To do this job, you do have to love the work, but you really have to love the people. And I do.
Some might also be surprised to know how close I am to my family. My sister has always been my best friend. My mom and I talk every day. In fact, she’s here visiting with me as we speak.
MM: What did you gain from Meredith as a student that helps you in your role today?
Allen: As a student, I gained an ability to communicate. I am reminded of that all the time in my current role as president. Being able to write, speak, and most importantly: the confidence it takes to do so.
The confidence piece wasn’t something I realized in undergrad. But once I got to graduate school, I became aware of the incredible confidence I gained at Meredith when I found myself being one of the only women to speak up during class discussions. The professor would ask a question and I would look around to find that I was the only woman raising my hand.
It’s been really important to have that confidence to raise my hand when I want something or when I have something to say. Anytime I wanted to do something – be on a committee, take on a special project – I’ve raised my hand.
So when people ask me, “How do you land a leadership role?” I always turn it around and ask them, “Have you tried raising your hand?”
MM: What has been your greatest challenge as president? And how did you overcome it?
Allen: What we’re going through right now has been my greatest challenge to date. COVID-19, race relations, uncertainties surrounding the remainder of the year, our nation, the election – these are difficult times for everyone, myself included.
By nature, I’m a fixer. When something is wrong, it’s my first instinct to step in and try to solve the issue. Unfortunately, everything is just so uncertain right now in regards to the virus. So living with the uncertainty is the hardest part of all this – which is nothing different than what everyone else is experiencing. The only difference is, as the president, I’m someone who has to make decisions.
This is the toughest time of anyone’s presidency at colleges and universities. It’s not just about being a leader, it’s about being a human being. We will all look back on things we said, the things we did, and we’ll be held accountable.
This time has offered us perspective that I don’t know we would have otherwise gained. Taking care of ourselves, taking care of each other, this time has called us to ask: how can we do this every day? And there’s a call to be bigger, do better, do more. That’s our challenge.
MM: How has this role shaped you as a leader? As a person?
Allen: The presidency has changed me as a person in multiple ways. When you’re in a role like this, people will look at the things you say and do in a different way than they would if you weren’t in leadership.
Some people are always willing to look at me with grace, and others, not so much. Some are always suspicious and skeptical, some are unrelentingly accepting, and then there are those really valuable people in the middle. Those people who are willing to tell you hard things you need to hear, but also willing to let you know when you get it right. Those are the ones who have shaped my leadership the most.
I’ve learned that while leadership does require good morals, judgment, and general ability to do the job, it’s also about thoughtfully making a gazillion good decisions each day – small ones and big ones – both on and off the job. I’m extremely mindful that every decision I make is an important one – the things I say, who I associate with, the pictures I’m in. It all matters.
MM: What are you most proud of in your ten years as president?
Allen: That’s easy: the students. I have loved the opportunity to watch students flourish. I can’t help but think about our students in the last seven months in particular; their willingness to change, willingness to understand. These are not normal times and we may not return to normal, but our students are adaptable and resilient. For that, I’m proud.
I’m also proud of the Beyond Strong campaign and how we raised $15 million more than our goal. The money raised from that campaign has funded scholarships, buildings, curriculum advancement, faculty and staff development, and more. That makes me feel good.
In the campaign before Beyond Strong, we had three gifts of a million dollars or more. In this one, we had 32 gifts of a million or more. The success of Beyond Strong has proven to me that others believe in the importance of Meredith and see the impact it has on students as something worth investing in.
Lastly, I’m proud of the Going Strong brand. After all these years, it seems we finally found the right message to resonate with the Meredith community. Our marketing team has done a phenomenal job.
MM: If we were to conduct this same interview ten years from now, what do you hope to look back on with pride?
Allen: I hope we look back and say we are proud of how we handled the pandemic. I hope we are proud of the results of the tough conversations we had on racism. I hope we are proud of the actions we’ve taken to make sure everyone feels treated well.
I hope in ten years from now, that whatever we went through, we did it right and stabilized ourselves, and maybe even came out better on the other end. I’m in education because I believe in growth and change. I don’t ever want to be static.
MM: What does strong mean to you?
Allen: I think about my strengths a lot from the StrengthsFinder quiz, both in my job and in my personal life. I can take just about any problem and look at it through the lens of each of my strengths, and then decide which one I need to call on to solve the problem at hand. I love that I have a toolkit of strengths I can play with. I’m not one dimensional. And the outcome from being able to call on your different strengths is resilience.
Just knowing your strengths isn’t enough, and being able to apply them is satisfying, but the outcome of using your strengths to solve a problem is the true reward
MM: What are your strengths? Which one is your favorite?
Allen: My strengths are relator, ideation, maximizer, strategic, and futuristic. Maximizer is my favorite – it’s all about going from good to great. Always getting stronger, getting more from education, that’s my hope for Meredith.