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New London — The president of Connecticut College said Monday that deciding to retire at the end of 2013 was one of the most difficult decisions he has ever had to make.
At a meeting on campus Monday, Leo I. Higdon Jr. announced his plans to the students, faculty and staff.
“If I had to just rely on my heart, I wouldn’t make the announcement. It’s very emotional,” Higdon said in an interview after the meeting. “But I have to put aside my own personal feelings and really think about the college. And when I think about the college, it was very clear to me and, I think, to the board, that there just comes a point in time when transitions like this are appropriate and necessary.”
By the end of 2013, Connecticut College will have completed its campaign to raise $200 million and will begin working on a new strategic plan.
“The president should put his or her stamp on that plan and should be prepared to execute that plan. That kind of time frame doesn’t work for me, as much as I’d like it to work,” said Higdon, who is 66.
Higdon led the effort to transform the selective private liberal arts college by investing millions in its facilities, strengthening the core academic program, spending more on financial aid and attracting record numbers of highly-qualified applicants.
More than 15,000 students applied in the last three years, with a record high of 5,301 in 2010. The previous record, set in 2007, was 4,742. Currently 1,900 students are enrolled.
The college has a new science center and fitness center and renovated student residences, classrooms, athletics’ facilities and campus infrastructure. It launched a program to increase the number of women and minority students graduating in the sciences and was nationally recognized as a top producer of Fulbright Award winners and Peace Corps volunteers. The new Academic Resource Center will soon open.
“This is an institution that has had advancement on every single front under Lee Higdon’s leadership,” said Roger Brooks, dean of the faculty and a professor of religious studies.
Andrea Lanoux, an associate professor of Slavic Studies, said Higdon hired many new faculty and committed significant resources to strengthening academics at a time when few other colleges could do so.
“You can feel his accomplishments when you walk across campus and talk to people — the science center, the fitness center, the Academic Resource Center to come,” said Lanoux, who also heads the Faculty Steering and Conference Committee. “He has tremendous financial acumen and unbounded energy and he cares deeply about people and the well-being of the college. He will leave an incredible legacy.”
Taylor Gould, a senior and president of the Student Government Association, said Higdon was also popular among the students. The president visited dining halls and dormitories, hosted events for students and had a “tremendous ability” to remember students’ names, Gould said.
“He’s the type of president you need at a small liberal arts school,” he said. “We want to see somebody we connect with.”
Board of Trustees Chairwoman Pamela Zilly, who will lead the presidential search committee, said Higdon “will leave the college well-positioned for even more great things to come.”
A strong advocate of liberal arts and sciences education, Higdon has 35 years of experience in higher education and business. He became the 10th president of the college on July 1, 2006.
Mary Ellen Jukoski, president of Mitchell College, said Higdon has been an “ardent spokesman” for the value of a liberal arts education and a proponent of strong relations between the local colleges and the community.
“As a fellow college president, I have found him to be a caring and supportive colleague,” she said. “His legacy at Connecticut College is self-evident through the growth of the campus during the years of his presidency.”
Higdon worked at Salomon Brothers for 20 years before accepting a position as dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration of the University of Virginia. He left Darden to become president of Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and then served as president of the College of Charleston from 2001 to 2006.
Higdon said he still has plenty of work to do in the next 14 months before he retires, from completing the fundraising campaign to solidifying the progress that has been made. Any departing college president wants to leave the institution in a better place than it was when he or she arrived, he added.
“I think we clearly have done that,” he said. “It’s a collective ‘we.’ This community has come together to achieve this program of success and I feel really good about it.”