Viewan excerpt of President Allen's speech below.
March 22, 2012
Mrs. Cheek and distinguished members of the Platform Party, trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumnae, and special friends of the college, I am enormously touched by your gracious greetings and good wishes for me, and more importantly, for Meredith,
In preparing for today’s festivities, we settled on the theme, “Remembering Our Roots, Extending our Reach” because it not only tells my personal story with Meredith but far more importantly, it tells Meredith’s story.
Whatever other timeless messages this College conveys, we demonstrate none more clearly than the power of connections, most often connections between our roots and our reach.
There are those here today whom we thank for the roots they helped to establish and strengthen: first, our retired faculty and staff, and our alumnae for the difference each of you has made in the life of this College and, second, former presidents, three of whom are with us today. Dr. Bruce Heilman, Dr. John Weems (president during my days here), and Dr. Maureen Hartford—your visions for and commitment to this College set us on a trajectory for achieving great things, and I thank you for the gifts of your talents.
As part of my roots, I also thank my teachers—from my kindergarten teacher, Miss Grace, to my teachers at Parrott Academy, including my mother, and from East Carolina University, from Oklahoma State University, and of course, from Meredith. And I thank my relatives, friends, neighbors, classmates, colleagues, and others who have all helped to shape my life with your many lessons and words of support.
Today, we think of Meredith’s long and glorious history in the context of the important lessons of roots and the inspirations of reach.
I cannot think of roots, of course, without thinking of my childhood in my hometown, La Grange, North Carolina, population fewer than 3,000. On any given summer day and evening in the 1960s—the boys and girls in our neighborhood met in my parents’ front yard to play kickball.
When I visualize those games, what I remember most—besides the taunts of competition and the screams of encouragement—were the bases, almost perfectly spaced. Our front porch’s bottom step was home base.
A small pine tree was first base. An even smaller pine tree was second base.
Third base was a huge, stately cedar. (In my mind it was stately; to my mother, it was an eyesore that blocked her glance out the window to check on us!)
What was particularly important about using trees for bases, of course, is that they are permanent, unchanging, and fixed.
Except, they weren’t.
We found the limbs of those young pines and the soft pliable fronds of the cedar perfect for helping us hold on to one base while tugging and leaning towards the next base.
A time or two we even argued the technicality of taking a cluster of pine needles in hand as we ran to the next base and proclaiming ourselves “safe” if we got caught short. We were nothing, if not clever.
Eventually, our play took a toll on the trees. Second base, the smaller pine, died first and first base died next.
It is tempting to forget that over time, roots may grow deeper, or more shallow—they may sustain or betray. I do not know if our tugging on those poor little pine trees killed them. I do know that we exerted unnatural force on them…that our yanking bowed and distressed them when they were not old enough, not stable enough, to withstand our play.
I think about this simple metaphor today as a tribute and a challenge to Meredith’s development, as well as how we encourage the growth of our students. In both cases, we may tug and distress or we may cultivate and nourish in harmony with natural tendencies and realities. Ultimately, in the case of the College and her students, we seek to build a root system that will sustain us.
Many of you may not know that Meredith College, originally chartered as Baptist Female University, was established right here in the capital in downtown Raleigh—just a few blocks away.
Just as our roots have remained strong, the connections between Meredith, Raleigh, and this state remain strong. We share an affinity for the strong oaks that surround us. Raleigh is, of course, known as the City of Oaks, Meredith’s apartments are named The Oaks, and our Yearbook is called Oak Leaves.
…which reminds me—a special “thanks” to my classmates who have so thoughtfully dragged out the yearbooks from 1976 – 1980 to find—and display—my photos. All in good fun, of course, and I am more than proud of the strong root system our alumnae, and in particular, my classmates represent.
As our statement of institutional values asserts, our roots include our dedication to
Responsible global citizenship…
We take great pride in these values…they are our roots.
But a flourishing life cannot exist on roots alone.
I have had beautiful potted plants and even a tree or two that have, over the course of time, choked on their own roots. Indeed, the term “root-bound” is the perfect description of a root system that has no room to grow—suffocating on its own ‘success.’
In spite of our beliefs otherwise, the truth is that roots DO move—they MUST MOVE—and must have room to move—in order to grow.
Roots for trees and roots for people—both represent stability and critical foundations, but both require the room to expand in order to survive. So we must challenge the inclination to equate our roots with a system that immobilizes us—that keeps us from testing our reach. Just like those trees that served as the bases for our kickball games, the most valuable root systems allow us to lean into the future.
For an English major, it is hard in this context to talk about “reach” without remembering the words of Robert Browning. Forgiving him his sexist language, we are nonetheless inspired by his message:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for”
So what is Meredith’s reach and what might our “heaven” be?
Historically, our reach has been the ability to transform students—even the small-town girl--into a powerful woman, capable of leading a successful corporation, non-profit, school, hospital, and—yes—college. She has also led in community activism, in the mission fields throughout the world, and in her family.
When I reflect on Meredith’s values, mentioned earlier, I see both our roots and our reach.
And I believe they beautifully define the kind of woman leader we seek to educate, inspire, and release into the world:
She is guided by integrity, no better symbolized than by the traditions of the Meredith College Honor Code, which every student pledges to uphold.
She is guided by intellectual freedom, unleashing her curiosity through undergraduate research projects and humanistic scholarship.
She is challenged by her faculty and her own intellect to embrace academic excellence as a personal aspiration of achievement and character.
She is challenged by the calls for responsible global citizenship, working to understand how passion, commitment, and understanding can create powerful changes in our own societies and throughout the world.
She is challenged to attend to her own personal development, reflecting on her own discoveries, as well as on the wisdom of faculty and staff mentors committed to her development.
She sees the realities and the value in religious diversity, understanding the College’s Christian heritage while respecting all faiths and spiritual beliefs.
And, finally, she has learned that the lessons of the past, like our roots, demand relevance for the 21st century.
It is that search for relevance that best challenges what we are…and what we should strive to be.
So, if our values anchor us with an enviable record of success, how do they represent our aspirations—our reach for the future that prompts Meredith’s growth?
We have embarked on an ambitious strategic planning process, bringing together faculty, staff, students, board members, alumnae, employers, and community leaders in a full-day Visioning Conference, designed to encourage clarity for Meredith’s future.
Many messages were clear: a prominent appreciation for Meredith’s history and resounding encouragement for her future. But not just any future: a future in which Meredith more visibly and vocally takes on the role of educating leaders.
At the undergraduate level, that means educating women to develop their strengths and their talents to prepare for leadership. We are discussing what this model will be, but it is already clear that our focus will draw on women’s strengths: collaboration, connection, confidence—and even a bit of defiance.
It builds on what we have learned through research about women’s leadership styles: that unlike the “command and control” style, women are more often inclusive of various viewpoints; encourage growth and development on their teams; challenge themselves to lead with integrity; confront nonsensical rules with advocacy for change; and challenge “can’ts” with a determined “’I’ll show you’ attitude.” (http://womensissues.about.com/od/intheworkplace/a/WomenLeaders.htm)
In short, we seek to build leadership based on women’s strengths, challenging them to become the leaders they are meant to become….and that our world so desperately needs.
What it does not do is perpetuate the hyperfocus on shortcomings and weaknesses. Now we must be clear here: the work ahead of us does not deny our weaknesses, for there is little less attractive than the entitled air of those who have flourished on unmerited praise.
Indeed, one of the greatest attributes of great leaders is their self-awareness, their thorough understanding of themselves, including their weaknesses.
But rather than fixating on what is “broken” about us—we must learn how to discover, capitalize on, and celebrate our strengths. Such educational preparation, inside and outside the classroom, for careers and for leadership and for life, ultimately means the difference between good and great.
Research tell us that the best-run enterprises are those characterized by diversity. And it is tempting in this day of celebrating a history of educating women to cite the plentiful evidence that operations run by women not only succeed but flourish.
But…in the strengths-focused leadership model for Meredith, we recognize the value and power of getting beyond gender as the sole or even primary marker for diversity. Indeed, there is, perhaps, no more universal marker of diversity than that demonstrated by the talents of the individuals who, collectively, create success.
From the procedural disciplinarian to the high-flying visionary to the data-driven analyst to the empathetic team-builder—all contribute to the diversity that undergirds success.
In this sense, I hope that we see that true leadership development is a call to value the individual talents of all.
Meredith has a long history of educating women in just this fashion: in recognizing our students’ individual talents, steering them towards self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses, building their confidence into an expectation of excellence, and following through as they develop into passionately engaged, intellectually astute, and inherently substantive leaders.
A few years ago, as a faculty member teaching graduate courses in technical and scientific communication, I frequently assigned group projects to replicate how professionals in our field actually work. In one particular assignment, four women partnered on a project—one that was characterized by alternatively high and low moments. They were a group that saw things differently but managed to coordinate that difference in perspective into a stunningly well-researched and well-presented product.
At the end of the project, I interviewed each member of the group individually. I was particularly taken by their one-on-one responses to one specific question:
Who was your group leader?
Each woman claimed that she was the leader.
I prodded further—how were you selected? Each responded, “well—we didn’t vote or anything….
I just emerged as the leader.” Then, when I asked each what her particular leadership contribution was, each woman had a different answer.
One claimed ownership of the original idea; another, ownership of the project’s management and scheduling; the third, ownership of the data and analysis; and the fourth, ownership of the design of the final presentation.
It was my first, somewhat startled realization that they were all correct. They were all leaders.
Like geese in flight, they subtly moved into position when others were tired or had exhausted their talents. Their alignment was momentarily interrupted—uncomfortable, perhaps—as they repositioned themselves for the next phase of their journey.
And just like the geese, they arrived at their destination—together—and celebrated their achievement.
I think this is one of the abilities that women leaders possess. We have seen communities of women—locally, nationally, and globally—come together, step in when needed, and flourish.
We succeed when we all work together—and I say that about women and men.
So let’s be clear: for me and for Meredith, it isn’t women instead of men. It isn’t women ahead of men.
And it isn’t women better than men. In short, it simply is not a competition. It is a collaboration….and it is powerful.
From those days playing kickball, I learned that the greatest value in those roots and trees came from those that were pliable…that allowed us to stretch toward our goals. One of our goals now, therefore, must be to work together to create collaborative leadership that engages the talents of all—men, women, visionaries, disciplinarians, analysts, and team-builders.
Meredith’s great gift is the education and preparation of courageous women to offer their talents in ways that are characterized by integrity, intellectual freedom and perseverance, responsible global awareness, personal development, religious appreciation and relevance.
So where do we go from here?
Tremendous challenges have been set before us. The times are hard for our families, for our economy, and for higher education. As a region, as a nation, and as part of the global community, never have we been more uncertain of our leadership as we seek to ensure our future.
There is, of course, no shortcut in learning how to lead. And the best leaders are prepared for their opportunities. One of those opportunities is the chance to lead in a different kind of way—in a way that comes together rather than divides, that builds psychologically, physically, spiritually, socially, culturally, and intellectually.
Meredith is poised to make its mark in a far more visible and vocal way about how it educates and empowers students to take advantage of their strengths to change a troubled world.
As we pursue our aspirations of developing leaders of intelligence, integrity, and strength, we encourage you to engage with us in an ongoing dialogue reflecting on the roots of Meredith’s past and the expanse of her future.
Like our students, Meredith is destined to lead, but can only do so by being flexible enough to grow, evolve, and change. We are building a clearer model of leadership that will result in a clearer future for Meredith, a future that will be constantly shaped by its roots in our strengths and by its reach to extend and refine the best that is in us.
This is a noble challenge….to strengthen Meredith as an institution that will continue to withstand the tests of time, holding true to her roots and leaning into the future in service to all of humanity.
As John F. Kennedy said at his own inauguration over 50 years ago,
“All this will not be finished in the first 100 days.
Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days,
nor in the life of this administration,
nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.
But let us begin.”