Birney Imes: Allegra's next balancing act

June 26, 2010 7:18:00 PM

Birney Imes - birney@cdispatch.com

 

Thursday Allegra Brigham stopped by to talk about her new gig as interim president of Mississippi University for Women. Her interview with our editorial staff interrupted an all-day lovefest put on by her soon-to-be-former employer, 4-County Electric. 

 

Wednesday will be Brigham''s last day as CEO and Claudia Limbert''s last day as MUW''s president. 

 

There had been a morning good-bye celebration -- Brigham arrived at work to find a present hanging in her parking space -- and after our early afternoon session, she had a public reception to attend. That evening her coworkers were going to take her out to eat. She''s been with 4-County since 1988; for the past seven years she''s been its CEO. 

 

Unaccompanied and facing four interrogators, Brigham seemed as comfortable as anyone I''ve seen in that position. As well she should -- she worked here at The Dispatch two different times, once as lifestyles editor and then as managing editor; at The W she earned an undergraduate degree in journalism, a masters in history; she headed up public information for the school and for a year ran the journalism department. 

 

"It pays not to burn your bridges," she laughed after a recitation of her résumé. 

 

I worked with Brigham in the mid-70s when she was The Dispatch''s lifestyles editor and I was a just-starting-out photographer. For many of the stories we collaborated on, she had her two girls in tow, Audrey and Lee Margaret, who were both grade-school age -- Audrey''s just had her third child; Lee Margaret has two. 

 

How she managed as a mother of two with a demanding job was simple. She lived on four hours sleep. That regimen surely made what came afterward easier. Rare is the person who will out work or out hustle Allegra. 

 

Brigham, in a black suit, dark blouse and red metal eyeglasses, laughed when asked how this came about. The offer caught her by surprise. 

 

"(IHL President) Hank Bounds just called and asked if I would consider being president." 

 

To which Brigham replied, "You''re kidding." 

 

Brigham asked Bounds about her lack of a Ph.D. He told her it''s not required for an interim. 

 

Brigham is an inspired choice; she is a tireless worker with a deep attachment to the school. If anyone can restore harmony to The W''s fragmented, disaffected and, in some cases, embattled community, it is this former student, faculty member and administrator. And equally important, Brigham, simply by who she is, will reverse what has been a widening divide between tower and town. 

 

"There are so many publics, so many stakeholders you''ve really got to be a juggler. ... It''s a very delicate balancing act. Every single alum is important to the future of that university," she said about her next challenge. 

 

Ever the pragmatist, Brigham says, she supports name change for The W, but that''s one tar baby she''s not going to grab. 

 

"The Legislature has indicated that it has no appetite, no interest in addressing that matter .... My marketing and P.R. background tells me it would be beneficial, but it is not on my agenda at all." 

 

Though talks are continuing about consolidation of programs and administrative services between Mississippi State University and The W, Brigham doesn''t think a merger will ever happen. The 25 miles separating the two schools is too much, she says. 

 

A natural cheerleader, Brigham wants to inspire more of the same. 

 

"We need to encourage and support this institution. Don''t criticize; make suggestions for improvement. I learned a long a long time ago it''s so much easier to sit on the bench and criticize. It''s so easy to be a spectator. 

 

"I think we just have to tell our story and tell it more effectively and tell it over and over." 

 

As for the value of a W education, Brigham has one example always handy, hers: 

 

"I know for sure I would not be where I am today were it not for the lessons I learned when I was a student there. Being in a small campus environment gives you more opportunity for leadership development, if you want to be engaged and involved. 

 

"My children didn''t go to MUW," she continued. "But they went to schools very much like it -- this was too close to home; they had been virtually raised on the campus. But they saw the value in the qualities of the education in that kind of institution." 

 

Brigham could be in the president''s chair for as long as a year. In addition to MUW, Jackson State and Alcorn State are without presidents. The IHL Board is interviewing seven firms to conduct the searches. 

 

In the meantime, Allegra Brigham will be doing everything within her power to get her alma mater ready for the day she will pass the baton. 

 

"I hope I can rally my friends and acquaintances and all the people who have been e-mailing me from all over the United States to support a thing they love," she said. 

 

If the past is any guide, I expect she will.

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.