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Pushing to No Longer Keep Meredith College a ‘Best-Kept Secret’

Dr. Jo Allen, the retiring president of Meredith College, enjoys the administrative part of higher ed. She enjoys being able to see how budgets function, how admissions and financial aid operate, and how campus security is run. She enjoys being able to understand how higher ed works beyond just the academic parts.

“I like the problem-solving,” Allen says. “I like being able to work with students, faculty, and colleagues in a different kind of way [that] made me more aware of the community of higher education and not just a department, class, or advising relationship with a student. To me, it felt bigger.”

Dr. Jo AllenDr. Jo AllenThe North Carolina native got her start in a place that, by now, seems very familiar to her, Meredith College.

Allen earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Meredith before going on to attain a master’s degree from East Carolina University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University, both in English literature.

Then, after more than a decade of faculty work at East Carolina University, where she served as a tenured associate professor of English, she got her first taste of being a full-time administrator by becoming an American Council on Education Fellow at the University of Virginia.

Spurred on by this interest in universities’ inner workings, Allen went on to eventually lead in an administrative capacity as senior vice president and provost at Widener University before returning to Meredith as its leader in July 2011. This return etched Allen all the more into the history of Meredith. It made her the first alumna to be president of the private women’s liberal arts college in its 130-year history.

Under her watch, Meredith has blossomed. From the creation of advising and professional development programs to the construction and renovation of several campus facilities, Allen’s tenure has proven fruitful.

From 2012 to 2018, Meredith also carried out its largest fundraising campaign yet, raising more than $90 million. Much of this work has stemmed from a decision she made in the early years of her leadership to lead the development of Meredith Forever, a 2012 strategic plan centered around six pillars: student success, enrollment, facilities, financial stability, quality of life, and visibility. It’s this plan that Allen is most proud of.

“A lot of people like to say Meredith is a best-kept secret and stuff like that. That’s sort of like fingernails on a blackboard to me,” Allen says. “No great institution should be a best-kept secret.”

She’s been lauded for her work and her 44-year career in higher ed, 31 of which were in North Carolina. Just this year, she was awarded the state’s highest honor for service, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. Now, at age 66, and after almost 13 years of being one of the topmost administrators of her school, she’s ready to pass the leadership role along to incoming president Dr. Aimee Sapp. She’s ready to spend time with family, reconnect with friends who have supported her, and “read something that’s not about higher education.”

“Knowing that the average tenure of a president is about five to six years, and having done it for 13 years, I feel like I’ve provided the service I can provide,” Allen says. “It’s really time for somebody else to step in and lead. I want to be the great cheerleader on the side for [Sapp].”

One of the things Allen wishes she could’ve done differently was make more time to spend with the general student body, a task contingent on the amount of time she has in a day.

“I’ll always say any time you get to spend with students is valuable centering time, because it keeps you from focusing just on the high performers or just on the discipline problems or just on the athletes or the musicians or something like that,” Allen says. “The more time that I could’ve spent with all of the students I think would be one of the things that I wish I had carved out more time to do.”

Dr. Matthew Poslusny, senior vice president and provost at Meredith, commended Allen’s ingenuity and compassionate leadership, calling her “great to work with and to work for.”

“You get to know someone quite well after 17 years,” Poslusny says.  “And the fact [that] I wanted to work with her again should speak volumes.”

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