MUW's interim president ready to step in

COLUMBUS — Allegra Brigham isn’t interested in simply holding the door open for Mississippi University for Women’s next president. Nor will she be safely sheltered in her office contentedly crunching numbers while the faculty deals with students.

Instead, the former 4-County Electric Power Association chief executive officer intends to immerse herself in every aspect of life and operations at MUW when she takes over as interim president on Thursday.

Brigham’s passion for the school is understandable. The two-time MUW graduate — bachelor’s in journalism and education in 1969 and master’s in history in 1972 — will be returning for her fourth stint as an employee.

She was a student worker while earning her bachelor’s degree, an instructor and head of the journalism department and later the school’s director of public relations. Brigham also twice worked for The Dispatch during that period, as lifestyles editor and later as the managing editor.

She began at 4-County in 1988 as communications coordinator before being promoted to a management position in marketing and economic development. In 2003 she was named CEO.

During her seven years at the helm of 4-County, Brigham oversaw the implementation of many projects she hoped to see through to their fruition.

When higher education Commissioner Hank Bounds called her “out of the blue” to offer her the interim president’s position, her loyalty wouldn’t allow her to turn him down.

That same sense of duty to her alma mater has her anxious to take the reins at MUW when current President Claudia Limbert retires on Wednesday.

Since accepting the position, Brigham and Limbert have shared phone calls and e-mails and just a couple of short meetings to bring Brigham up to speed. She was largely tied up at 4-County, which completes its budget and discusses rate options each June. She knew she was official when she attended the June 16 IHL board meeting as a spectator, a day before she signed her contract, only to find a nameplate bearing her name at the presidents’ table.

“I gave my first report (to the board) that morning,” said Brigham.

The board gave her a packet with some information to look over in preparation for the job, but Brigham already knows the scope of her task.

“If everything was perfect in every way except the budget, it would still be a challenge,” she said.

In the face of a potential 25 percent budget cut to state universities by 2012, Brigham says the budget is front and center. She won’t allow the budget to hijack the school’s academic identity.

“We’ve got to keep students and academic quality front and center along with budget concerns,” she said. “While we’re juggling budget matters we have to keep critical issues like quality of academics, student involvement and staff development front and center. If we don’t keep those things going in the interim we will have lost ground.”

Brigham has seen hard times before at MUW. When she was the school’s public relations director in the 1980s, the Mississippi Legislature at one point considered closing the school altogether, a far cry from mandating the merging of back-office duties with Mississippi State University as is the case now.

She says everyone, including the community and the fractured alumni associations, still need to pull together to maintain the university’s standards.

“I look at this place as one of our gems we’ve got to protect. That involves the community as a whole getting more involved, more engagement from the alumni associations, community leaders and foundations with the wherewithal for financial support.”

For her part, Brigham plans to do some serious legwork for MUW.

“The first thing I plan to do is get to know the cabinet, the people who report directly to the president. I intend to find out what they’re planning and help them accomplish those things.

“Based on the economy and the budget, more than likely there’s lots of opportunities to improve morale on campus. Students need encouragement all the time, so from the first week I hope to work with admissions, make phone calls at night to students who are considering coming and encourage their enrollment in the fall.”

Since the College Board has yet to hire a search firm to seek out candidates for president openings at MUW, Alcorn State University and Jackson State University, Brigham estimates she could be at MUW as short as seven months or as long as 14. In either case, she says MUW needs a decisive leader who’s focused on progress during that time and not maintaining the status quo.

However, one campaign she wants no part of is Limbert’s failed attempt to change the university’s name.

“The Legislature has indicated that it has no appetite for addressing that, so it’s not an item that’s on my agenda,” said Brigham. “That’s a matter to be determined by the new president and the board of the IHL.”

From the perspective of a veteran marketer, Brigham says the name change is essential to make MUW attractive to a broader range of students. Unfortunately, she says whatever headway Limbert may have made was outweighed by the widening rift between the school and its disaffiliated alumni association.

Brigham hopes to begin healing the rift.

“That’s all got to be put to bed and we’ve got to move on. We’ve got to move on whether there’s unity or not. We’ll build on those things everyone agrees upon and let that be the nucleus that pulls people into engagement. Once you get people engaged, their frustrations disappear,” said Brigham.

Besides creating more effective fundraising opportunities, Brigham says reuniting the school with its disaffiliated alums will opened the door for greater involvement by local officials who are wary of jumping in the middle of a fight. That could lead to more collaboration between MUW and the community, which would serve as an effective marketing tool to attract more students.

Brigham says the academic quality of MUW is well documented, having been recognized in several national publications. But the strength of the degree is often overshadowed by distractions.

“We just have to tell our story more effectively,” she said. “Our own community doesn’t appreciate The W. We take it for granted.

“It’s time to come together and rally to support it and don’t wait until the challenges are too difficult to overcome.”

Jason Browne/The Commercial Dispatch