New leader, new focus at Conn College

If one of the keys to success is picking the right leader for the right time, Connecticut College is doing a good job of it.

In Leo I. Higdon Jr., who left at the end of 2013 after serving seven years as president, Conn College had in charge a pragmatic businessman. Higdon worked at Salomon Brothers for 20 years before moving to higher education administration, becoming dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration of the University of Virginia. That journey would eventually lead him to Conn College and New London.

Higdon's experience, his acumen for setting goals and steering an institution toward them, were instrumental in a $200 million fundraising campaign that ended last summer after surpassing its goal by $11 million, much of it taking place during the Great Recession.

Now in his successor, President Katherine Bergeron, who began Jan. 1 and will formally be inaugurated in April, the college has found a new leader well suited for a different challenge facing the college; making the case for the relevance of a traditional liberal arts education during a time when it is being questioned.

In a period of high tuition costs and cumbrous post-graduation loans, students (and their parents) increasingly seek assurances of a return on investment, more gravitating to focused pre-professional programs with a clearer certainty of jobs and income. Some question the traditional well-rounded college education itself as being too costly and impractical in a specialized world.

In Bergeron, Conn College has selected a product of a liberal arts education and a passionate advocate for it. A native of Old Lyme, Bergeron earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in music, going on to obtain master's and doctoral degrees in musicology. Before her arrival at Conn College, she was Dean of the College at Brown University.

"It's really important that we (liberal arts colleges), collectively, help to inform this national conversation about the value of a college degree," said Bergeron during a meeting last week with the Editorial Board. "I think that the value proposition has been framed a little bit too much in terms of immediate job placement."

Society needs thinkers, innovators and contributors, said the new Conn College president, and liberal arts colleges produce them. The 21st century world, she correctly pointed out, will be a world of constant change in which career success will mean the ability to adapt.

"What you really want are students who are educated to be able to manage within that kind of flexible environment and I really believe the liberal arts help provide exactly that. There are certain kinds of ways of thinking, but also the activity of learning to learn is perhaps the most important aspect of that adult kind of relationship to education that a college liberal arts degree gives you," she said.

"I feel like the larger principle is educating students who have the ability of mind, not just to have many jobs, but to be able to understand many different kinds of people, to be able to enter into the world and make a contribution and give back in important ways. We need to preserve that kind of education system in our country," Bergeron said.

Moving forward, she said, the college could do a better job of promoting itself by using a mirror that reflects on the students.

"Connecticut College students on the whole see their education as being an opportunity to give back afterwards to a greater degree than students at other institutions," said Bergeron, referencing student surveys. "I think that's a very positive asset and something that helps explain the wonderful quality of students we have on this campus and something we should shine more of a light on because it is something to be proud of."

In meeting Bergeron, the board found a leader far different from her predecessor, but equally engaging in her own right.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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