by Leslie Maxwell
Kristen Rivera, from Johns Creek, Ga., wasn’t considering applying to a women’s college. But after visiting the largest women’s college in the Southeast, she changed her mind.
At Meredith College, she says, “I just felt really comfortable.” Now a senior, Rivera says that the college’s dedication to the education of women is essential.
It always has been.
Since 1899, when Meredith opened its doors to 180 women at the corner of Edenton and Blount streets in downtown Raleigh, its central purpose has been the higher education of women. The school’s 1891 charter set a course that continues today, despite seismic societal, economic, and educational shifts along the way. This year, with nearly 2,000 students at the Hillsborough Street campus where the school has stood since 1926, Meredith will celebrate its 125th anniversary.
The college gave women a higher education when not everyone understood the value or purpose of such a thing, says Jo Allen, Meredith’s president and a 1980 alumna. Its founders, she said, had to answer to those who asked if it was “worthwhile to educate a woman.” Today, that argument is moot. But Meredith’s pride and focus at the undergraduate level on the liberal arts education of women is as relevant as ever, Allen says.
In fact, Meredith students often have a distinct advantage when they enter the workforce, says Harvey Schmitt, who served as CEO of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce for more than 20 years until his retirement in 2015. Meredith graduates, Schmitt says, “have had an experience like few others, and that can be a very important experience in developing talent and leadership.”
Nurturing its students as leaders has long been a central purpose. To do that effectively, the school has had to be not only nimble but also forward-looking. The college has long “paralleled what was happening in society, but also drove those changes,” Allen says. Its business program, for instance, was “essentially a secretarial program” when it was created, but as early as 1954 it became a department of “business management and leadership” under department head Dr. Lois Frazier. Today, Meredith’s graduate programs are co-ed.
Meredith has always embraced change, says Elizabeth Triplett Beam, a member of Meredith’s board of trustees and 1972 graduate. “The school has been innovative and progressive in acknowledging that the world changes,” Beam says, “in seeking ways to prepare students for lives that will … evolve as the world does.”
That kind of preparation – plus a commitment to community – makes the students particularly attractive job candidates, says Alex Holmes, chair of Meredith’s board of trustees. In fact, “people want to hire Meredith students for internships, so they have a better chance of hiring them upon graduation,” said Allen, who also serves on the board of the Raleigh Chamber. “I hear all the time from employers that they’d like to hire more Meredith graduates.”
Strong city, strong school
The success of the city and the success of the school are closely linked, says Schmitt. “It’s hard to separate the growth and maturity of Meredith and the growth and maturity of Raleigh,” he says.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Meredith has not faced changes and challenges over its 125 years.
First named Baptist Female University, Meredith became Baptist University for Women in 1904 and in 1909 became Meredith College, named for Thomas Meredith, editor of the Biblical Recorder and a champion of higher education for women in the Baptist State Convention.
Meredith’s relationship with the Baptist State Convention, too, has changed. Though the convention established the institution, Meredith’s board of trustees broke the school’s close ties with the Convention in 1997.
John Weems, then-president of Meredith, said at the time that “Meredith was founded on, and remains committed to, the principle of preparing women to lead in, and contribute to, society. This position regarding the role of women as leaders is becoming increasingly incompatible with that of some groups within the Convention.”
More recently, Allen says, the school’s challenge has been “the perception that women’s colleges are going under.”
“In looking at our situation,” she says, “we realized that was not true,” but that the school needed to address the misperception. “That’s what led to the research that we did that led to Going Strong.” The campaign, launched in 2013, has delivered that message with portraits of Meredith students in ads on television and in newspapers, magazines, and billboards.
“I’m always proud to tell people that Meredith is ‘doing very well,’” said Lisa Robie Poole, owner of Quail Ridge Books & Music, member of the Meredith board of trustees, and a 1986 graduate.
“You can’t point to one reason why Meredith has been so successful,” Holmes says, though he cites “financial discipline” and “management of the endowment,” which is now at more than $90 million. He also cites Allen’s leadership. Meredith’s eighth president, Allen took the helm in 2011. She’s a big part of the reason “Meredith is as strong as it is now,” he says.
More broadly, Schmitt notes that “given all of the challenges that you see in higher education today,” Meredith’s “surviving and thriving in a highly dynamic market is worth celebration.”
The school’s 125-year celebration will begin this month with events on campus, including the unveiling of a new historical marker. There will also be community commemorations, including an exhibit at the City of Raleigh Museum in February and March.
The museum’s assistant director, Kimberly Floyd, is herself a 2006 Meredith graduate. She worked with Dan Fountain, associate professor of history at Meredith, and Meredith Haynes, archives assistant at Meredith, to develop the exhibit, which uses artifacts from the college archives to explore the college’s past and present.
“I think the story of Meredith shows something about Raleigh then, Raleigh now, Raleigh next,” Floyd says.
That’s a message that Jean Jackson, a Meredith vice president and 1975 graduate of the college, is eager to point out: That the college itself contributes to Raleigh in a variety of ways. “It’s important for any college to be a good community partner,” she says, citing Meredith’s theater productions, dance and music performances, and sports teams as draws to campus.
More importantly, “I think about all the lives that have been changed by the education women received coming here,” Jackson says. “We were founded 125 years ago, before women had the right to vote, before women had many opportunities. Now we are one of the ways to help broaden the opportunities and … vision of the people who come here.”
Amid the reflection and celebration, though, the work of educating women won’t stop, President Allen says. “I think there is certainly power just in lasting. But I think even more is the power that comes from a lasting reputation for excellence, and that’s something that we work at every single day.”