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Joseph P. Allen; Admissions Dean Helped Diversify USC

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Joseph P. Allen, USC’s popular admissions dean whose tireless recruiting efforts helped transform the campus into a destination for smart students of all races, has died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 53.

Allen died Wednesday at New York City Presbyterian Hospital after suffering a stroke 12 days earlier at a reception for 150 newly admitted students in Manhattan.

“One of the luckiest things we ever did was to attract him to USC,” said former USC Dean Morton Owen Schapiro, now president of Williams College. “He had a certain kind of spark, unbelievable charisma and a striking vision of what admissions could be like at SC.”

Lloyd Armstrong, the university’s provost, called Allen “a crucial force behind USC’s spectacular climb to the upper tier of American research universities over the past 10 years.”

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Always working, seemingly always on the road, the boyish Allen was USC’s premier ambassador. The part of his job he loved the most was talking to students.

“I don’t think he ever turned down a college night or other event,” said Bob Laird, UC Berkeley’s former admissions director. “He connected emotionally with all of his audiences. Joe was the best ambassador for higher education in the Western states.”

Allen scoured the country for the brightest students, particularly African Americans and Latinos. He made sure they received generous financial aid packages so they could afford the private university in South-Central Los Angeles.

His eight years at USC had a remarkable effect on the complexion of the campus.

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The once largely white student body has evolved into one of the most racially diverse in the nation. Average SAT scores, which were barely above the average 1,000 score, soared to 1,309 for this year’s freshman class, eclipsing UCLA freshmen for the first time.

Allen loved recounting how he was first greeted at USC in 1993 by a crusty former Ivy League professor. The curmudgeon complained bitterly about needing to dumb down his course syllabus for USC students. Last year, the same man sought the admissions chief out again. This time, he thanked Allen and told him he had returned to his old syllabus.

Yet Allen’s consuming passion was to help students--particularly from underprivileged families--get a good college education so they could make more out of their lives.

Known for Tapping Students’ Potential

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At any one time, Allen was personally tracking 100 or more students seeking admittance to USC. He took particular interest in those he thought had untapped potential--students who were extremely bright but fell short on grades and academic preparation.

For those who couldn’t make the cut as freshmen, he offered an oral contract: Go to community college, take these classes and get certain grades, and he would find them a spot.

Such students often stayed in close touch. Karl Reid was one of those students that Allen picked out. They first met when Reid was working full time to support himself while a high school student in Oakland.

“Joe was a friend and a mentor,” said Reid, who went on to become a successful USC film student. “Any time I was faced with a big decision, I called Joe. He was always there for me. He was a one-of-a-kind person.”

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In 1996, Allen wrote a slender paperback, “10-Minute Guide to Choosing a College,” for Arco Alpha Books. He designated all proceeds to help students at Crenshaw High School in southwest Los Angeles.

Born and raised in San Carlos, Calif., Allen got a bachelor’s degree in sociology from San Jose State University and a master’s of education at UC Berkeley.

He began his career in higher education at UC Santa Cruz, helping direct a project that brought poor high school students to campus for the summer to inspire their interest in college. He spent the final eight years of his 20 years at Santa Cruz as director of admissions.

Allen was passionate in his beliefs, sticking to his principles no matter what. A turning point in his life came in 1971, when he found himself in federal court as a draft resister during the Vietnam War.

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“He felt the war was totally immoral,” said his twin sister, Paula Allen. He refused to flee the country. He rejected his lawyer’s advice that he seek conscientious objector status.

“He wasn’t there to take an out; he thought he needed to take a stand,” she said. “He knew that going to prison was his only course of action.”

Indeed, he spent about a year in federal prison in Safford, Ariz.

Three decades later, he was continually amused that this radical-thinking draft resister--once a red-bearded rabble rouser, now wearing a suit and tie--was being honored by conservatives on the USC Board of Trustees.

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“It always cracked him up,” said his son, Brooks Allen, a law student at Yale, “because everyone who really knew him was so shocked he went to USC.”

Allen’s death has unleashed a blizzard of e-mail circulating among admissions officials and high school counselors. He was a member of several national boards and panels, including a trustee of the College Board.

“I’m literally getting 100 cards a day from all around the country, a few from outside of the country,” Brooks Allen said. “A lot of people that I don’t even know, whose lives he touched. People are calling, saying, ‘He helped me get into college and helped me through.’ ”

Besides his son and sister, Allen is survived by his brother, Bill. USC is planning a celebration of the dean’s life in May.

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