Art by Amy Williams and Dave Shanfield
According to Professor of Economics Don Peppard, past Connecticut College presidents have left something to be desired. Since arriving at the College in 1975, Professor Peppard has taught under four different college presidents. “One was a disaster,” he recalled, “the other two were okay. Higdon has been stellar, without any comparisons.”
The “disaster” Peppard refers to began in 1988, when alumna Claire L. Gaudiani ’66 replaced physicist Oakes Ames as president. During her 13 term, Gaudiani spent from the College’s endowment to fund initiatives – important and distinctive initiatives, like the establishment of the first four interdisciplinary centers – that the College couldn’t afford. “We didn’t have the money to fund all of her good ideas, but we tried to do it anyway,” explained Peppard. “But you can’t – shouldn’t – spend the endowment unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
When Gaudiani left in 2001, the state of the school’s finances was so disastrous that the size of the faculty had to be reduced. The next president, Norman Fainstein, was faced with what Peppard calls “the unenviable task of cleaning that up,” but by the time Higdon took office in the summer of 2006, the school had recovered its financial footing and was in need of further economic advancement.
According to Professor Catherine Stock, current acting Chair of the History Department and member of the College community since 1990, Higdon has “advanced the College in many ways, and to an extent that’s hard to imagine given the external economic circumstances.”
“A president’s job is to figure out where to take an institution,” offered Stock. “Institutions are sort of living things. They’re always doing stuff. It’s the job of the president to figure out what the future should be, and to try to advance the college to that place, and meanwhile put out fires along the way that are inevitable.”
Higdon’s long-term achievements have been both highly successful and highly publicized, like the $211 million dollar fundraising campaign and renovations to New London Hall and Shain Library. However, the president’s short-term, less glamorous initiatives have led way to equally vital improvements to the College. Peppard joked there wasn’t a single street sign on the campus for nearly 100 years, and within weeks of Higdon’s arrival every road was prominently labeled.
“Unlike the other presidents, he knows how to manage,” said Peppard. “He never – to my knowledge – ever meddled in the academic stuff here.” Peppard acknowledges that the Economics Department has grown to become the most popular major at Conn under Higdon’s presidency but considers such growth function of the ability of the College to afford a larger faculty rather than the president’s direct involvement with academics. “That’s what has made him so great,” Peppard went on. “He can delegate authority.”
Stock echoed Peppard’s sentiments: “I remember Higdon saying when he first got here that his first year was for listening, and to give people things that they need if he could.” He wanted to learn who everyone was, what the issues here were, which ones could be solved quickly and which ones had to be tackled over time. “He walked around buildings, popped into people’s offices,” said Peppard. “The feeling among the faculty is that he’s been a really good president. He’s created a feeling here that has made it a nicer place to work.”
Higdon’s devotion to the institution has been felt by many. Said Peppard, “He’s visible…you know he’s there, and he cares. And that matters. When you have somebody like that, things improve, and everyone around you is pleased with the present. You begin to see little by little changes on the campus,” changes that aren’t visible to the outside world or maybe even the students. But for faculty who have been here for presidential transitions, these small details can make a big impact.
“He’s always wanted to be here,” Stock said. “He’s always wanted to be at a school like this.”
Higdon has worked at several bigger institutions in the past, where community engagement has not been as much a part of the culture. In contrast, Conn’s intimate setting has afforded him opportunities to host faculty cocktail parties, to attend athletic games and even walk around campus on a Saturday night. From his early morning jogs to his spontaneous Harris visits, President Higdon has made it a personal initiative to be a figure that not only faculty and staff can interact with, but one who students see regularly and can feel comfortable talking to.
“One of the things that I was looking to do [as president] was have a relationship with students in a residential campus setting,” Higdon said. “I can go on this campus, and I feel comfortable striking up a conversation with any student…Students have been very kind to me over my seven-and-a-half years here.”
For many students, the residential aspect of college life is something taken for granted, a seemingly obvious consequence of higher education. For Higdon, though, the living-learning community fostered through residential programs and daily activities is invaluable. “I find it quite remarkable how tuned in he is with the typical undergraduate experience,” said Professor Stock.
Now that his last semester at Conn is wrapping up, Higdon’s trading in the cold New England weather for a warmer climate, and will be heading to Charleston, South Carolina. But he’s not settling down for retirement yet: he will be teaching a leadership seminar at the College of Charleston, as well as co-teaching a class with a colleague at the Darden School of Business at UVA, where he was once dean.
“I’ve been in a classroom here, and at all of the institutions I’ve been at,” Higdon said. “But as far as teaching a formal, for-credit class, this is the first time I’ve done it. This is a new experience for me. I’m always about new experiences.”
Walking into President Higdon’s office is a startling reminder of his upcoming departure at the end of the month. Shelves of Camel paraphernalia have been packed away, his “Big Hig Is My Homeboy” t-shirt, once proudly displayed, is nowhere to be seen. This semester, Higdon has been busy tying up loose ends and securing the continuation and completion of initiatives started during his presidency. “When you transition out of an institution, you want it to be seamless,” Higdon remarked.
But such a tight transition might end up leaving incoming President Katherine Bergeron in somewhat of a bind. Many colleges have regulations in effect that allow new presidents to swiftly make administrative changes that would otherwise be grueling processes; some institutions even require that administrators hand in letters of resignation – which the new president can either process or disregard – with each turnover. However, such measures might become ineffective if Bergeron’s hands are tied by the social and institutional restrictions of assuming the presidency halfway through the academic year.
Higdon, though, has full confidence in Bergeron’s ability to take over in January. Since her selection occurred over the summer, she’s had several months to get acquainted with the institution and its current initiatives and issues. “In this particular period, she’s been able to meet and talk to people, and get a flavor for the issues here. I fully believe that she will be very well-versed in terms of things…I feel very good about my statement that the best days for Connecticut College are in front of it.”
Furthermore, Will Hardy ’14, Chief of Finance of the Student Government Association, believes that students are ready for an administrative transformation. “I think Bergeron will bring a breath of fresh air; an understanding and wanting to hear from all students, not just those considered ‘the best and the brightest.’”
For those that have seen the College change under the guidance of various presidents, it’s more difficult to look beyond Higdon’s success and embrace the uncertainty that coincides with a new president. “He’s leaving really big shoes to fill,” said Peppard. “I don’t envy Bergeron in that respect. You don’t want to be the person who has to follow somebody like that. There is no way to avoid comparisons. Higdon is leaving with a well-deserved sense of accomplishment, but the institution is going to miss him.” •