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Lee Higdon knows how to work a room.
At a recent dinner where students shared stories from the summer they spent in Jordan, Higdon, the president of Connecticut College in New London, glided from table to table, chatting and joking with attendees.
Zach Balomenos, a senior, told Higdon he wants to go back to Jordan, so Higdon suggested he apply to be a Fulbright scholar.
"Max, I haven't seen you all semester," Higdon said as he reached the next table where Max Nichols, another senior, sat.
Higdon recognizes faces and remembers the names of people he's met and details of conversations he has had from months, or even years before, which endears him to the students, faculty and staff.
In his last days in office, Higdon said in an interview with The Day, he has tried to create a richer and more vibrant intellectual community at Connecticut College by making sure students feel welcome and accepted, spending more than $90 million to transform virtually every corner of the campus, and building a stronger partnership between the college and the greater New London community.
Higdon said he was acting on an aspiration held by faculty, students and staff when he first arrived 7½ years ago - they wanted to be viewed as one of the best residential liberal arts colleges in the country.
"There was a desire to be associated with excellence and to have a student experience that would be without equal," Higdon said. "… It took resources and it took a very focused plan."
Higdon steered the college through the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression and, in the midst of it, launched the school's most ambitious fundraising effort. The $200 million campaign ended in June after surpassing its goal by $11 million.
At the end of the month, Higdon, who is 67, will retire. Professor Christopher Steiner compared Higdon's departure to Jerry Seinfeld's decision to stop producing "Seinfeld" at its peak.
"Some of us regret he's leaving now," Steiner said. "I think he still has a lot of good work he could do. But I understand he wants to leave on a high note."
Armando I. Bengochea, dean of the college and senior diversity officer from 2006 to 2012, said Higdon transformed the landscape of Connecticut College.
"He was the right guy at the right time to run the institution," Bengochea said. "He made the right kind of investments to bring it to a new kind of national prominence."
Optimistic, calming figure
A wine connoisseur, Higdon once attended a reception after a faculty meeting and told the group the wine they were serving was "really lousy," Steiner said.
Higdon told them about better quality wines they could order for the same price.
While it is a small example, Steiner said, Higdon's ability to see something that could be improved and to find a way to do it "seems to be a theme of his presidency."
When Higdon saw plans for a new science center early in his tenure, he asked why the college would build a new building instead of gutting the oldest academic building on campus and adding to it, Ulysses Hammond, vice president for administration, said. The idea made perfect sense, Hammond said - it would save $10 million to $15 million - but no one had thought of it.
"He doesn't sleep," Hammond said. "He is thinking about this institution all the time, and it never leaves him."
Higdon publicly announced the comprehensive fundraising campaign and decided to move forward with building the science center and a new fitness center, which combined would cost about $33 million, during the fiscal crisis of 2008, as other colleges were scaling back and postponing construction projects.
Steiner, who has worked as a professor for three presidents in 17 years, said the college could not have picked a better time to have a president who understands Wall Street.
"He was optimistic when he came, even though we had challenges ahead of us, and he remained optimistic through the financial crises in 2008 and 2009," said Steiner, the chairman of art history and architectural studies. "From my perspective as a faculty member, he was just a very calming figure that provided a real anchor in a difficult time."
Higdon worked at Salomon Brothers for 20 years before becoming 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.
Using his experience in higher education and his business acumen, Higdon convincingly articulated his vision to donors. Pamela Zilly, chairwoman of the college's Board of Trustees, said Higdon "hit on a story" about what a great school Connecticut College was, how much better it could be, and how it epitomized the strength of a liberal arts education.
"He took that story on the road and was so successful, I think, because he felt so strongly about it and it was so obvious when you talked to him," she said.
The board is honoring Higdon by naming the fitness center after him and his wife, Ann.
Along with the new science and fitness centers, the college used the influx of donations to renovate student residences, classrooms and campus infrastructure, increase its endowment, offer more financial aid, hire professors and launch new programs, including one that takes faculty members into the residence halls to present informal talks and host events.
The class that entered this fall was the most diverse ever, with 22 percent minorities. With the new hires, the diversity of the faculty increased from 15.3 percent minorities in Higdon's first year to 23.5 percent this year. The college won the Sen. Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization in 2009 for its efforts to incorporate international content into courses, increase student proficiency in foreign languages and offer new study abroad opportunities and international experiences on campus.
Catherine McNicol Stock, acting chairwoman of the history department, said she cannot imagine "any president being able to make a bigger change than he has made in seven years here."
"I don't think we knew how much we needed him when we hired him," she said. "He's an excellent fiscal manager who knows how to raise money and prioritize projects. And he took on the larger, very complex issue of diversity."
Bengochea, the former dean, said Higdon "was driven by innovation and new ideas," and he always kept the senior administrators "on their toes."
"I used to joke with him that after a while, I didn't want to come to him with too many new ideas because I knew the next day he would say to me, 'Where are we on that?' And I would say, 'I don't know, we were just talking yesterday afternoon.' And the thing we were talking about would take on a life of its own. There was no rest for the weary."
Higdon, however, gives the credit for the campaign's success to the college as a whole, because everyone came together to advance the school. But he also said the work is far from over.
"I tend to think a vision, as we set for ourselves, is one that you never truly attain, one you're always aspiring to, particularly when you have the notion you want to be one of very best liberal arts colleges. That's the North Star that guides your decision-making, your plans and resource allocation. But there is no question that we are closer to that goal and we've made major progress," he said.
A jog around campus
Higdon's full name is Leo I. Higdon Jr., but to the students, he is better known as "Big Hig."
The nickname is a play on his small stature and large personality. When asked, Higdon says he is 5-foot-5, if he is "being generous."
"It is said very endearingly," said Maura Hallisey, who graduated in May and serves on the college's board of trustees as a young alumni trustee. "He has a very good sense of humor. He always jokes with students and laughs, and people feel like they are able to approach him with questions. That created a great dynamic between students and the president, so they feel like they can do these things and have that nickname for him."
In a small community, Higdon said, it is "really critical for our students to know the president and to have some interaction with the president."
He often wanders around the grounds and through the dining hall, asking students about their experiences at the college. He jogs around the campus in the morning with members of the cross country and track teams, talking about family, challenges and everyday life, said Meredith Byrne, an alumna who ran with Higdon.
"I haven't yet, nor do I ever anticipate encountering a leader who invests so much of his or her time forming relationships with those around them," she said.
Like many students, senior Evert Fowle remembers meeting Higdon for the first time and being surprised that the president of the college was interested in what he had to say.
"It felt pretty cool to be a freshman at the college and have the president value my opinion at that point," he said.
The student body loves Higdon, said Fowle, who is now president of the Student Government Association, not only for the tangible changes to the campus but also for the intangible sense of community he has created.
Professor Stock said she has attended countless athletic events with Higdon, and also has watched as he used his experience as an art collector to teach students how to negotiate the price of their work at senior art expositions.
"He has made a commitment to the institution that is absolutely without question," she said. "How could you possibly question the commitment of a president who knows half of the student body by their first names? He is there, doing the things that matter to the students, faculty and community. That kind of leader, you'll follow and accept his ideas and be enthusiastic of his ideas. You want to row the boat in that direction."
Oct. 28 was a day dedicated to Higdon. A group of students organized a tribute with songs, speeches and gifts, and hundreds attended.
"We had 400 to 500 students show up for the tribute," Fowle said. "More than what I can say, it's telling how many people were willing to come out and support President Higdon and give him this one really special day."
They unveiled the "Higdon cookie," a sugar cookie with Higdon's photo on it. Creative students have put Higdon's face on Frisbees, T-shirts, and a host of other objects in the past. Higdon keeps the "Higdon is my homeboy" shirt in his office, along with pictures of him with students and memorabilia from the college's sports teams.
"When someone comes in the office," Higdon said, "I want them to see really what is important to me."
More than 500 students regularly volunteer in the city's schools or local nonprofit organizations. Freshmen now learn about New London during their orientation. The college's centennial events in 2011 celebrated the school's ties to New London.
Bringing the college and city closer together is one of the accomplishments of which Higdon says he is most proud.
"Here, we are providing life lessons for 18- to 22-year-olds, and part of those lessons is the notion of their engagement and involvement in their communities," he said.
Alice Fitzpatrick, the former president of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, said Higdon asked her if the college could host a fundraiser to support the arts in New London because he wanted to make "a very visible sign of the connection between the college and the community."
The concert raised about $12,000 last year.
"This combination of financial acumen and a social conscience, I think, fit very well in a college presidency," she said.
Higdon said he would have liked to have been more involved in the city personally, but was constrained because of his duties on campus and the time he spent on the fundraising campaign.
He characterizes this era in the college's history as one of momentum and great progress.
"I think there is a feeling that with the success we've achieved, that aspiring to attain our vision is achievable," he said.
Any departing college president wants to leave the institution in better shape than it was, Higdon said, and not just in terms of new programs or facilities.
"It goes a lot to just how one has impacted the psyche, the character, and how people feel, the sense of themselves and the institution," he said. "If I have created, working with a great group of people, a feeling on the part of Connecticut College that it is now a far better, far stronger institution, and it is able to compete more successfully for the very best students, faculty and staff, then I will consider my tenure here to be successful. And I would hope that people would say that."
Zilly said Higdon's legacy is that he invigorated the college "with a sense of escalation and empowerment."
Katherine Bergeron, the dean of the college at Brown University and a native of Old Lyme, will become the college's 11th president on Jan. 1.
Higdon is moving to Charleston, S.C. He serves on a number of boards for public companies and said he might like to do more of that, as well as teach seminars on leadership, travel, and spend time with his grandchildren. The College of Charleston's leadership center is named after him and his wife.
"He is leaving having accomplished what he set out to do with the institution," Hammond said. "He has decided that he is ready to retire and we're very, very fortunate that he chose Connecticut College, really, as his last hurrah."