Former Interim Mississippi University for Women President Allegra Brigham is pictured at Cafe Aromas in Columbus. Photo by: Kelly Tippett
December 23, 2011 9:12:00 PM
It was her time. Mississippi University for Women and its alumni had warred in court, and seemingly ever-present talks of closure and a name change hung over the historic campus like a humid August day by the time Allegra Brigham was asked to take the helm of her beloved alma mater.
"You are the perfect person for this time in MUW's history," the person on the other end of the phone said.
Brigham already had a successful career as CEO of 4-County Electric Power Association; she wasn't planning to retire just then.
But there was the phone call -- made to a woman who had fallen in love with The W and her future husband when she stepped on campus the first time.
Calling her life blessed, Brigham said jobs have found her rather than the other way around.
And in May 2010, the state College Board named her interim president of MUW, a move she never thought of before that call.
Influences on her management style
Brigham, 63, grew up on a family farm in Arcola. Her father is a retired farmer-cum-politician, and her mother shows the characteristics the daughter would take on -- the ability to multitask by working alongside her husband, managing a home and raising a family.
Her personal history influenced her most, said Brigham, clad in a denim jacket, Carhartt jeans and round-toed brown cowgirl boots. From her parents and from the farm, she learned leadership and a hard work ethic.
As a woman working in male-dominated offices, Brigham learned management skills from those around her. But history offered a role model, too.
Abraham Lincoln taught her a great lesson in appointing his political opponents to his cabinet. It's good to have people who think for themselves and can give and take in a team environment, she said.
"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer," she said without blinking. "I like heated discussions. I like arguments."
Healthy discussion puts the variables on the table; better decisions are made, she said, adding, "I like being challenged to think critically."
Moving in and getting started
She took the job and moved into the president's home. It was important to "leave the lights on," she said, and to keep the president's home the center of life on the campus.
Job 1 was mending the relationship between alumni who had been disenfranchised by former President Claudia Limbert.
And Brigham said she started that job in her first public speech as The W's president -- with an apology.
"Somebody had to take that first step," she said.
That step marked what she considers her most frustrating part of the job and what may be her legacy. The alumni groups merged and presented a unified front when Dr. Jim Borsig was named the new president of The W last month.
The alumni are still working through the process of a full merger. That unity, Brigham said, was integral to keeping The W vital and bringing in a man of Borsig's caliber.
And the alumni are key to the university's survival, Brigham said. State funding for the public university that feels like a private one was less than 50 percent of the budget last year.
Her long-term vision for The W is sound financial footing.
"We must raise more private-sector dollars, get more grants," she said. "We've got to create a culture of giving among our alumni."
She pointed to The W's significance to Columbus and the Golden Triangle. It means more than 300 jobs, dedicated students and employees and 23 campus buildings on the National Historic Register.
"We need to take that institution a whole lot more seriously," she said.
And Brigham believes Borsig will do that. He has the legislative, financial and academic needs of the campus in hand, she noted. His challenge, she said, will be learning the people. Brigham said he's already working on that, and her advice to him is to keep the lines of communication open.
Brigham hopes her presidency will be remembered for reunification of the alumni groups and hiring two key Cabinet members.
"I think only time will tell," she said of her legacy at The W. "And I hope time will be kind."
As for this second retirement, Brigham is still trying to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up. For now, she will fish, hunt and catch up on her reading.
Should politics call, she said, that is one phone she will not answer. Her husband, Bill, will take office next month on the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors.
"One in a household is enough," she said.
Brigham has volunteered to help The W in any way she can, but she said nothing is concrete.
As for who had the greatest effect on her at The W, Brigham did not hesitate. It was the students.
She enjoyed working and playing with them. That, she said, was a fun part of the job. She often walked around campus introducing herself to students and chatting them up in the cafeteria.
Occasionally, a student would offer a "Dr. Brigham" when speaking to her.
"Allegra is sufficient," she'd tell them.
Brigham leaves behind a university community whose people think Allegra was more than sufficient.
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