DOVER — Throughout his life, Tony Allen has had many careers: counselor, activist, speechwriter, finance executive, college provost and most recently, president of Delaware’s only historically Black university. That last […]
[caption id="attachment_223149" align="alignright" width="367"] Delaware State University President Tony Allen, center, has worked to raise the profile of Delaware's only HBCU. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DSU[/caption]
DOVER — Throughout his life, Tony Allen has had many careers: counselor, activist, speechwriter, finance executive, college provost and most recently, president of Delaware’s only historically Black university.That last position is one he put down on an actual list of his top 10 goals in 1995. Before that, he thought maybe he would be an attorney — only for a friend to give him some sage advice.“I was a paid copy boy at a law firm, and a young lawyer, [future Attorney General] Matt Denn started talking. He told me to go do what is in my heart. Law will always be there,” Allen said. “I never forgot those words, because two days later, I started working at a community center for substance abuse prevention for young teens.”
[caption id="attachment_223146" align="alignleft" width="300"] Tony Allen's late mother, R. Leatha Allen, was an inspiration to him through his life. | PHOTO COURTESY OF TONY ALLEN[/caption]
In a sense, that was the first step that led Allen on a path of decades of work to empower Delaware’s Black community. But before that, he said he was inspired by his mother R. Leatha Allen, who became pregnant as a teen and was forced to drop out of school. His father never finished the 11th grade. The family moved to Delaware when Allen was 3.“For me, even to go another step beyond high school was important to her, and the specific challenge was laid out: give back. Don’t just try to go to college and be successful, bring others along with you,” he said.While he was studying at University of Delaware, Allen became an self-described average student, but an impassioned student activist. During his time at UD, he worked as a counselor at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University’s Upward Bound, a pre-college program for low-income high school students.Lincoln University was Allen’s first experience at a HBCU, and it left him feeling proud to be standing on the campus.“I thought, ‘All these folks look like me, and they’re holding me to high expectations.’ Wouldn’t it be great to have an opportunity in my own hometown?,” he recalled. “Delaware State didn’t really recruit me, and I thought there was a real opportunity for students like me to take a second look at this great university that has this extraordinary history of Blackness.”A year or so after working as a counselor at the substance abuse center, his friend Suzann Sysko was starting Public Allies, a leadership and social justice program, and asked Allen to sign on. In Allen’s two years, he helped match 20 young adults with organizations for apprenticeships and formed partnerships with three area colleges. Shortly afterward, he started writing speeches for future President Joe Biden while pursuing a master’s degree and doctorate in public policy. One of his last assignments was working with civil rights leader Jim Gilliam to start the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League. When the task was complete, Gilliam asked Allen to run it.“That was amazing, because I was 29. I thought I knew a ton, but really didn’t, and I was guided by a man who was one of the elder statesmen of the community,” Allen said. “That really brought me into my professional self.”After four years at the city Urban League, Allen considered running for public office but figured he’d “need to make some money first.” That was when finance titan MBNA came calling, where he was inspired by the company culture. When Bank of America bought out the company, his ties to many executives helped bring him over to run its corporate communications.But in the meantime, Allen never gave up on DSU. He applied back in 2008 to be the president, only for the university to scrap the search when he made the final round. Fast forward to 2017, former DSU President Harry Williams pushed him to make a change — and if he wanted to be at DSU, he would need to get in at the highest level with his executive background.
[caption id="attachment_223147" align="alignright" width="300"] Tony Allen's career in community service and finance eventually led him back to education to lead Delaware State University. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DSU[/caption]
While on its face value communications may not line up with running a university, Allen said that a key piece of leadership is having a clear vision of the future of what the organization will look like for those working in it and those looking at it from the outside.“You can’t just have a plan of where you want to go and everyone needs to follow. How do you see yourselves in it? Can we all go together?” he said. “You may laugh, but one of our senior members who was there a decade before me did not know we had an aviation program. That showed that we were comfortable with our heads down. To me, that’s not what a growing university should be about.”In the short-term future, Allen is doing all he can to raise DSU’s profile so that it is no longer a “well-kept secret.” In particular, he’s been working with corporate and government sectors, including evaluating partnerships to support students for the next phase of their lives.“Authenticity in a leader is important, so when I’m vetting those partnerships, I’m trying to have those conversations with senior leaders. But we want these partnerships to be comprehensive, engaging our great students, our growing profile and a statewide campus,” he said. “Quite frankly, I think there’s a lot for us as a university to learn as well, and it has to be both ways.”