Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2013

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Corrie Searls '14, an art history major from Minneapolis, at the site of her dream internship last summer, Christie's auction house at New York City's Rockefeller Plaza. Photo by Karsten Moran

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The Mayor of Connecticut College

Lee Higdon's seven-year term of endearment

by Ed Cohen



The walk from Fanning to Cro is not much more than a couple of football fields in length, but it can take 20 minutes or more in certain circumstances.

Maybe just one circumstance.

Walking with Lee Higdon.

Here comes a member of the basketball team whom the president congratulates on a great game last night, which Higdon attended. There's a student who sang at a recital he went to a while back; he stops to tell her how beautiful she sounded. Up ahead is a student with whom he had a conversation once about a topic from history. The conversation picks up where it left off.

On and on it goes, and the amazing thing is that he greets everyone by name.

“It's as if he's not only the president but the mayor because he seems to know everybody in a very warm and personal way,” says Trustee Emerita Sally Susman '84, co-chair of the search committee that recommended Higdon's hiring seven years ago.

Something will be noticeably missing from the campus in 2014, and that something is the ubiquitous, mayoral, college directory in dress shoes named
Lee Higdon.

“Big Hig,” as students affectionately nicknamed their 5-foot-5-inch president, is retiring at the end of the calendar year. He says the timing is right with the completion of the Campaign for Connecticut College, which raised $211 million, by far the most in College history. The development of a new strategic plan would be the logical next step, followed by another capital campaign. That cycle typically takes six to seven years, and Higdon turned 67 in May.

The 10th president in the College's 102 years, Lee Higdon will be, by everyone's estimation, a Sinatra-esque act to follow.

In addition to completing a capital campaign he inherited, he oversaw $85 million in improvements to campus. Building on an initiative of his predecessor, Norman Fainstein, he significantly increased diversity among faculty and students. This year's freshman class is the most diverse ever, consisting of 22 percent students of color (29 percent including internationals). Under his direction the College became a leading graduator of Fulbright scholars and Peace Corps volunteers, and won national awards for both internationalization and local community relations.

“There was nothing he fell short on,” says Trustee Emeritus James S. Berrien '74, who chaired the College's governing board from 2009-12. “I reviewed his goals every year and he crushed them every single time…. On a scale of 1 to 10, he's a 12.”

A 20-year postponement

That Leo Ignatius Higdon, Jr. can be said to have crushed it as head of a private liberal arts college for seven years is a lesson in mid-life possibilities. Twenty years ago, at age 47, he was shoulder deep in IPOs, mergers and acquisitions as head of the global investment banking division of the investment bank Salomon Brothers. This was not his life's ambition. After earning his bachelor's in history from Georgetown and an MBA from the University of Chicago, he had planned to pursue a doctorate in international business at Harvard. Family responsibilities intervened.

After college, he and his wife, Ann, taught high school together in Africa for two years in the Peace Corps. During that time the first of their four children was born. Returning to this country, he earned his MBA and was admitted to the Harvard Ph.D. program. He accepted an offer from Wall Street instead.

“But I never lost the dream,” he would say years later.

The long-awaited U-turn came in 1993, when he landed an unlikely entry-level (for him) job in academia as dean of the University of Virginia's highly regarded Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. Successful presidencies followed at Babson College, a private business school in Wellesley, Mass., and at a 10,000-student public institution, the College of Charleston.

Record-setting fundraising and administrative successes at each stop made him a prime candidate for presidencies at many schools in the early 1990s, but Connecticut College held special appeal. During a visit years earlier to watch Babson play the Camels in a soccer championship, he had walked the campus and fallen in love with the buildings and grounds.

Ann Higdon says her husband was drawn to the small liberal arts college atmosphere, where almost all students live on campus “and it's a real community.”

In his interview with the search committee, Higdon performed “amazingly” throughout, recalls Evan Piekara '07, one of two students on the committee. Each candidate was given exactly one hour to answer an identical list of questions, which were divided up among the committee members. Unfortunately, when it came Piekara's turn to ask one of Higdon, the hour was nearly up.

The question he asked was, “How would you balance the dual presidential responsibilities of being out on the road fundraising and being on campus and visible to students?” The college junior added sheepishly, “We only have 30 seconds left, so you have to answer in 30 seconds or less.”
Piekara says Higdon paused, took off his watch, and set it in front of him. He then calmly articulated his view that a president needed to be present on campus to forge strong connections with students because that's the only way they will become loyal alumni and future donors.

He finished within the 30 seconds.

“At that point I knew he was going to be our next president,” says Piekara, now a management consultant in Washington, D.C.

Group psychology

Higdon soon demonstrated political savvy equal to his speed of thought. Pamela D. Zilly '75, the current board chair, remembers him calling her and all other trustees he hadn't met during the search process. He wanted to introduce himself and ask what they liked about the school.

For many months afterward he continued to introduce himself to faculty, staff, students and alumni. In his first 11 days in office he visited 22 student residences. Determined to listen before making any plans, he had the same question for everyone: How do you want Connecticut College to be thought of five or 10 years from now?

The wine connoisseur and art collector even managed to dispel suspicions that he would expect to be pampered in New London. The president's residence at the College of Charleston is a National Historic Landmark, built in 1770 and much grander than the modest colonial on Williams Street that serves as Connecticut College's presidential residence.

Berrien, the former chair of the board, remembers traveling to see Higdon in Charleston when Higdon was still considering whether to take the Connecticut job. Berrien brought up the issue of the president's house and said the College would be open to “alternative arrangements.”

“He said, 'The house is fine, that's not why I'm going.'”

The reason he was going, Higdon wanted everyone to understand, was that he genuinely wanted to be president of a traditional residential liberal arts college with a superb academic reputation. This college in particular.

If any doubts remained about whether the former investment banker believed in the value of a liberal arts education, he swept them away at his inaugural, declaring, “The liberal arts are the most practical preparation for a life that is meaningful, purposeful and well-lived.”

In the speech Higdon also lauded the College's history and his predecessors and vowed, “[T]ogether we will raise our sights even higher. We are on a path to greater recognition as one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country,” and, “We will earn for Connecticut College the standing and influence it so richly deserves.”

In Higdon, the College had found a leader with a heartfelt commitment to academia and a business person's determination and task-oriented approach to achieving results.

“A notorious list-maker” is one way the College's former fundraiser-in-chief, Greg Waldron, now with Providence College, described his boss. A former Connecticut College trustee referred to him as “the Energizer Bunny” because as far as she could tell he never slept.

Near the top of Higdon's initial list of concerns was the condition of campus. Years of deferred maintenance had left the grounds in a less-than-pristine condition. Higdon, who typically runs around or through the campus for an hour five mornings a week, recognized the importance of prospective students and parents getting a positive first impression.

“He walked the course of the campus (admissions office) tour and pointed out every single crack in the sidewalk,” recalls Benjamin Panciera, the library's director of special collections.

At the north end of campus, a collection of dilapidated two-room structures represented another eyesore. The buildings were no longer in use, but removing them entailed expensive asbestos containment. Until Higdon's arrival, the expense had kept their removal low on the College's list of priorities. Higdon decided they had to go.

“The campus was in rough shape and he had a plan to fix it,” says Deborah MacDonnell, the College's director of public relations. “He brought a lot of logic here, and that logical, straightforward approach worked well. He would see a problem, come up with a solution, and then make sure it was done and done well.”

The campus renewal, which continues, included a $25 million transformation of New London Hall into a Science Center and construction of an $8 million fitness facility that tripled workout space. Three miles of campus roads were rebuilt, and a mile's worth of sidewalks was replaced. The campus gained three new plazas and an outdoor classroom on Tempel Green with a semicircular granite border wall. Classrooms, commons rooms and student social spaces were renovated.

The burst of activity brought new energy to campus and contributed to what Higdon admirers say may be his greatest accomplishment and lasting legacy: getting the College to believe in itself more strongly. As the youngest of the elite private New England liberal arts colleges and the one with the smallest endowment, the College has sometimes suffered from an inferiority complex, longtime observers say. By getting things done, he showed that greater aspirations weren't just possible but realistic.

Responsive steering

A second priority early on for Higdon was building trust with the faculty. A falling out with faculty can doom any college presidency. To prove his commitment to transparency and shared governance, Higdon retained a system whereby the chair of the Faculty Steering and Conference Committee (the College's equivalent of a faculty senate) and the chair of the Priorities, Planning and Budget Committee attend weekly meetings of the senior administrators.

“Few colleges and universities have such a large degree of faculty input at the highest level of decision making,” says Slavic studies department Chair Andrea Lanoux, who chaired the Steering and Conference Committee last year.

Lanoux says she came away from every meeting feeling that Higdon genuinely cared about people and listened carefully to everyone around the table, as well as to what he was hearing from faculty, staff and students on campus.

She says, “Lee exhibits a beautiful synthesis of qualities that makes him able to steer the institution with just the right amount of pressure on the tiller.”

When he wasn't meeting with his administrative team or trustees, or out on the road closing the deal on major gifts, or publishing op-eds on issues in higher education to raise the College's visibility, Higdon could usually be found at campus events. Demonstrating he wasn't kidding in his answer to Piekara, the president attended countless games, concerts, shows and other gatherings. He regularly met with and offered advice to student government. He held no-holds-barred question-and-answer sessions over pizza in the student residences.

Young alumni say they were sometimes surprised by the president's accessibility. They were always amazed by his memory. He could seemingly remember the name of every student he met, and frequently their majors, hometowns and interests, too.

“There developed this myth that Ann (Higdon) had a set of flashcards with everybody's information on them and she would quiz him on them at night,” says Harris Rosenheim '09, who served as a Young Alumni Trustee for three years after graduation.

The president often said his No. 1 priority was to make sure students had the best possible experience. This translated into support for an array of student-focused initiatives. Funds were made available to foster more student-faculty interaction — through conversation over free lunches, for example, or sponsored research collaborations.

A big sports fan, Higdon also pushed for improvement in both the campus's athletic facilities and teams' competitiveness. The Camels had long been the whipping boy of the New England Small College Athletic Conference's older, more affluent members, Amherst, Williams, Middlebury and Bowdoin. Those four still dominate the 11-member NESCAC. But in recent years the College has sometimes surpassed Wesleyan, Hamilton, Colby and Bates in terms of combined winning percentage for all teams.

“He gets it, he knows how important it is to a community to have winning teams,” says Cathy Stock, Kohn Professor of History and a fellow sports enthusiast. “At the same time he knows it can't be the only thing. He didn't want Conn to be a jock school.”

Stock says Higdon turned up at Camel athletic events every weekend he was in town, but he also made it a point to attend the annual senior art exposition and purchase items for display on campus. Ever the dealmaker (and educator), the former investment banker would require art students to negotiate on the price of their works so they would have the experience of doing that.

Probably the most frustrating part of Higdon's presidency was dealing with the national financial crisis that struck in 2008, two years into his tenure. The stock market collapse came just two weeks before the long-planned public launch of the Campaign for Connecticut College. Former board chair Barbara Shattuck Kohn '72, who also chaired the campaign steering committee, says she, Higdon and Waldron, then vice president for advancement, ultimately decided to go ahead with the launch but keep the fundraising low key with so many people facing serious financial reversals.

The financial crisis actually yielded a pride point for the Higdon administration. Many colleges, including the College's peers in New England, had to abandon construction projects or lay off employees. But thanks to prudent financial planning by Higdon and Paul Maroni, vice president for finance, the College was able to weather the storm with no layoffs, only a one-year salary freeze.
“I think it's been a very strong presidency,” Maroni said earlier this year. “In a lot of ways the college is in its strongest position ever.”

His own assessment

Barry Mills, president of Bowdoin College since 2001, says Higdon was “the perfect leader for his time.” He also says his friend (they know each other from meetings of the NESCAC presidents) accomplished his goal of having Connecticut College be regarded as one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the land.

Higdon himself isn't ready to declare that mission accomplished.

The College is “unquestionably” in a better position than it was seven years ago, he says. “I feel pretty good about that.” And he says it has made “steady progress” during turbulent economic times toward the goal of greater recognition. But he acknowledges that it takes longer than seven years to change perceptions of a college or university significantly. One sign of progress is that the College has averaged about 5,000 admission applications a year (for fewer than 500 slots) for the past five years. That's up significantly from previous years.

When asked to rate, on a scale of 1-10, the degree to which he completed his list of goals, the president says he can't. “Because I'm the kind of person who always has a new list.”

In retirement, the lists figure to be shorter.

The president says he hopes to teach at two of his previous stops, the College of Charleston, where he still has a home, and the University of Virginia. He'll likely continue to serve on corporate and not-for-profit boards. He's looking forward to spending more time with his children and five grandchildren.

He vows to fulfill the No. 1 obligation of any ex-president — staying out of his successor's way — but says he'd like to find an appropriate way to remain involved with the College. He keeps in touch with Piekara and many other former students. There's a good chance alumni who graduated during his years will find a smiling Big Hig visiting their tables at the lobster bake on Tempel Green during Reunions.

In the meantime, work remains. Zilly, the current board chair, said this past summer that she was still talking to him regularly and he hadn't let up on his focus or begun sidestepping decisions, leaving them for his successor to deal with.

It's been almost a year since he stood up before the board, meeting in executive session, and announced his decision to step down at the end of 2013. Zilly says he choked up trying to get the words out.

“I don't think people would expect that of Lee because he is very focused and driven,” she says. “It was great to have a president who loves the College that much and feels such a loss for leaving.”

The feeling is understandable. When you get what you've dreamed of for most of your life, and the experience turns out to be all you hoped, withdrawal can be a tough thing to contemplate.

Every successful mayor can relate to that.

Ed Cohen is editor of CC:Connecticut College Magazine


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