Executive assistant Pat Allen-Jackson ushers a visitor into a large, comfortable office with a maroon Morehouse blazer hanging on the back of the door. Large windows reveal a commanding corner view, overlooking Morehouse’s football stadium, the new Ray Charles Performing Arts Center, and, in the distance, the other colleges in this nexus of historically black educational institutions: Clark-Atlanta, Morris Brown, and Spelman, the latter the female “sister” college to Morehouse’s male student body, the two long considered among the HBCU elite, an African-American Ivy League.
This is the domain of Cheryl Allen, the first female dean of her department, the “interim” part of the title a nod to her willingness to come back to work with the proviso that her health — she recently suffered a collapsed lung — comes first. So far, she says, the only problem has been the fact that she is literally tethered to her desk by an oxygen tank. Soon, however, she’s talking excitedly about more portable options available as she’s weaned off the device, including one that “looks just like a backpack.” She becomes so animated that you can easily imagine that device as a jetpack, simultaneously oxygenating and propelling her over the neighboring campuses, as she points out the places where she has spent most of her adult life: 16 years at Morehouse, with a BA from Clark and an MBA from Atlanta University, before the two colleges merged.
Allen never expected to find herself working in academia, much less in a key leadership role at Morehouse. “Education wasn’t on my radar,” she says. She and her sisters all found themselves inspired by a female accountant’s visit to Cheryl’s Chattanooga high school bookkeeping class, and eventually they all entered the field. At first, she thought only of becoming a CPA. “I like processes,” she says. “I like the way you can connect this part and that part and get the outcome. You can backtrack, figuring out what you did wrong along the way. I like the mystery there. It’s like telling a story.”
Still, she found herself vaguely dissatisfied after being recruited for what some might consider a dream job, with Ernst & Whinney (now Ernst & Young). After five years, uninterested in joining the firm as a partner (“I didn’t want the responsibility of others making a mistake. But I had a warped sense of what it was to be a partner”), she decided to talk over her options with a former professor. At the time, Dr. Willis Sheftall occupied the same post she currently holds at Morehouse. The assistant who ushered Allen into his office was the same Pat Allen-Jackson who sits outside her office today.
After hearing her career quandary, Sheftall leaned back into his chair. “I know where you should be,” he told her. “Here.” Nonplussed, she said she wasn’t interested. “At least fill out the application,” he insisted, thinking she would be perfect for a Morehouse teaching post that had just opened.
Though others seemed impressed when she became a professor at the prestigious college (particularly her math teacher father, who was “beside himself” with pride), she says her background at Clark and Atlanta left her well prepared and unintimidated. When she first started at Morehouse, she would pile on duties and ask for more. “I had four classes, and at least 250 students,” she says. “I was just crazy.” But soon she found herself facing another challenge: Sheftall had warned that despite her CPA at the time being considered a terminal degree for teaching, “You will need a Ph.D. for where we’re going to be.” That proved prescient. Recruited again, this time she chose UGA. At 32, however, she felt a little out of place among her Terry Ph.D. colleagues. Especially after her first econometrics class.
“I remember I walked straight over to one of those little pubs in downtown Athens,” she says, “and I sat in a booth. I felt like my eyes were still glazed over. I thought, What have I gotten myself into? I have quit my job, and I have no idea what this man is talking about. So I had a beer,” she says, laughing, “and had to make myself a plan.”
She had to forget some courses that would get her back on track. “If you let your ego get in the way,” she says, “it will stop you.” Allen became known as the “five to 5” person, breezing in at the last minute just as professors were about to dismiss class, with questions to ask or copies to make. “They were the kind of professors who wouldn’t disown you,” she says. She recalls the first people she met on campus, including a pair of Terry professor couples — Ken and Jennifer Gaver, and Michael and Linda Bamber — who made a big difference in her academic life.
Michael Bamber, her dissertation chair “helped me through my whole process,” she says. Linda Bamber often read her work, and sometimes administered tough love. Allen recalls, chuckling, that Linda Bamber once wrote only one sentence on one of her more labored papers: “Have you ever seen anything like this?” Allen shakes her head. “I had to say, um, no. But I learned. This is growth.” Michael Bamber, she said, kept countering her offbeat paper topics with “Tell me where the accounting tie is.” Eventually, she found that tie: “Telling the story about what happened in management.”
Today, she is in a position to impart not only knowledge, but wisdom. For Allen, it’s still all about the ghost in the machine. “It’s the intangibles that make the difference in accounting,” she says. “I have students who can do accounting in their sleep. But it won’t help them if they can’t be on time . . . if they cut corners . . . if they don’t have integrity. The intangibles tell the story more than anything.”
She also strongly endorses a liberal arts environment: “We need to continue being well-rounded, and support creativity.” In a meeting that morning, she says she encouraged her staff not to embrace a new technology for its own sake, but to first consider, “How does this affect their learning?”
Morehouse just celebrated its 145th anniversary. With that kind of history, “You think you have the solutions to make it all work,” says Allen. “That’s not all there is to it. You can have all the credentials in the world, and not move one student.”