The first time Jo Allen was in the Meredith College president’s residence, she was a freshman English major. She wasn’t thinking about the future. Her main thought, she says, was “oh, neat house.”
This Thursday is Allen’s installation ceremony as president of her alma mater – more than 30 years later, that freshman gets that neat house all to herself. She’s the first Meredith alumna to serve as the school’s president.
Staff writer Chelsea Kellner caught up with Allen last week to talk about her hopes for the future, the importance of failure and the advantages of being an all-female college.
Responses have been edited for length.
Q: What drew you to Meredith as a student?
A: Initially, it was the camaraderie among the students. My sister was a student here, and I knew it was known for great academic quality, but I didn’t know if I wanted to go to a women’s college. Then when I came up with her a couple weekends and saw the great connections with each other, it was really clear to me this was the place to get a great education and build lifetime friendships. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened.
Q: What did you get out of the experience of going to an all-girls school?
A: One thing I got out of it is the opportunity to really test your ideas in front of other people and not worry if they’re still going to want to date you over the weekend. For me, it was a place to build real appreciation for the give and take of good debate, of developing processes for thinking things through, knowing how to give and accept feedback.
Q: You have said that Meredith won’t follow Peace College’s decision to go co-ed. Why not?
A: I don’t know the story behind Peace and what led to their decision. Right now, Meredith has a great reputation for academics and leadership development and relationship building. For those reasons, there is no reason to suddenly shift and become co-ed.
Q: What are your goals for Meredith?
A: Meredith is way too good a college not to be better known than it is now. We still have people that have us confused with Peace. One of my goals is to make it that there is no way that a young woman in North Carolina who’s considering college could say, “I’ve never heard of Meredith.” Then you expand it out by region. Quite honestly, I think we’re too quiet. I think you should expect to hear a lot more about Meredith.
Q: These are difficult financial times for everyone – are there any more program cuts expected at Meredith?
A: No. One of the things we’re really looking at is whether we’re going to add programs. We are diligently working on the research for that.
Q: You’ve said that you want to create a self-reflective culture at Meredith, and teach students how to embrace opportunities and learn from their failures. What are your plans to create that kind of culture?
A: One of the things we’ve heard consistently, in every question about where Meredith should be in the future, is about creating opportunities for developing women leaders. If you look at what it is that good leaders know and are able to do, you can focus on particular competencies. Just one example is the emotional competency – leaders are aware of their emotions, how they affect their own work as well as the work of their colleagues.
For instance, with failure, we know we tend to learn more from our failures than our successes. We want to encourage students not to see failure as a zero-sum outcome, but as a way to grow, a way to learn something about themselves. It helps you plan how to learn and develop as a leader.
At the same time, we tend to hyperfocus on our failures, and I think we’ve really got to be more proactive about identifying strengths and what we’re really good at, to create opportunities for ourselves to be working on projects that let us use our strengths and really excel.