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Hal Higdon is Missouri’s longest-serving community college president, heading Ozarks Technical Community College since 2006. The college plays a large role in providing a clear path to a two-year associate degree and workforce development in the Ozarks.
He is a son of the South, courtly and mannered and devoted to Ozarks Technical Community College, as well as Alabama football.
Hal Higdon, head of OTC since 2006, says the college he leads should forever maintain the word “community” in its name in a time when many schools have dropped it.
For example, five of the 12 two-year public colleges in Missouri do not have “community” as part of their name.
“We should lean into what we are and not what we are not,” Higdon says.
He was 44 when OTC hired him as president. At the time, he was the youngest president of Missouri’s 12 community colleges.
Now 60, he is Missouri’s longest-serving community college president.
Today, his title is president of the main Springfield campus and chancellor of OTC’s multi-site system.
Those interviewed for this story — including sources never associated with OTC and those no longer associated with the college — consistently praise Higdon’s stable presence, transparency in decision-making, frugal management of college funds and visionary leadership.
The Springfield Daily Citizen interviewed 10 sources, not including multiple interviews with Higdon.
“Without a vision, we perish,” says Shirley Lawler, a former OTC provost who retired from the college in 2012. “We have had a vision and we have thrived and we have grown.”
Higdon is the rare educator who understands business, says Larry Snyder, a longtime board member who was on the board when OTC hired Higdon.
Under Higdon’s leadership, the school has steadfastly kept its eye on the prize: it is a vital part of the Ozarks through job training, and it offers a clear and supportive path to a two-year associate degree.
Higdon and his predecessor as president, Norman Myers, have kept OTC focused on what it does well, Lawler says.
“We have always tried as an institution to stay in our lane. We provide two solid years of general education and we do workforce development. Community colleges are the engine for workforce development.”
If it’s possible for an institution to have a heart, OTC has gone about its business with not only commitment but compassion.
The school started a free hot breakfast program for students on the Springfield campus in early 2021 and expanded it in the fall (cold breakfast only) to other college sites.
It was the idea of Joan Barrett, vice chancellor for student affairs, and implemented in large part by Sarah Bargo, director of communications and marketing.
Higdon says the school will find the $250,000 it will cost to continue the program when federal COVID-19 funds expire.
“We try to be data driven,” he says, and the numbers show that students who take advantage of the free breakfast have higher grades and higher retention rates.
The free breakfast is not based on need, as the federal free-and-reduced lunch program is in grades K-12.
“I did not want the stigma of free-and-reduced lunch,” Higdon says.
In other words, he did not want students to have to reveal to peers that they need help purchasing meals.
“If we give a kid who can afford it a sausage biscuit, is that the end of the world?”
In the spring of 2020, OTC closed its various sites because of COVID and switched to online-only classes.
School administrators, as well as faculty and staff and the chancellor, voluntarily divvied up the names of the thousands of OTC students and contacted them to ask: How are you doing? Is there anything we can do to help?
Higdon made about 60 of those calls.
“The main thing was that people were grateful we called,” he says. “I think it probably did us as much good as it did for the students.”
Loss, grief and grace
In 2016, Higdon lost his wife Nancy to cancer. They were married 22 years. It was a loss known throughout the OTC community of faculty and staff.
“It is just something we all went through together with him,” says Tracy McGrady, an OTC employee since 2001 and provost since 2016.
Nancy Higdon was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer in April 2007. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy and was considered cancer-free in 2008.
The cancer returned with ravaging force in 2015; it had spread to her liver, lungs and intestines. This time, nothing helped.
Higdon was transparent with the college’s faculty and staff.
“Even going through that experience with him, he was so open to the college as a whole,” McGrady says. “He was very upfront. During a college development day, he just stepped up and said, ‘Here is what is happening and this is not a battle my wife is going to win.'”
For Higdon, work was therapy while his wife grew sicker.
“It is probably one of those things where work is your outlet,” he says. “We lived on Walnut Street at the time. I could be home in two minutes.
“I would go home for lunch every day. Work was the least stressful part of my life.”
OTC Trustee J. Howard Fisk says Higdon kept his focus.
“I don’t think I saw him miss a step,” Fisk says. “He just motored on. He also didn’t have a life.”
Higdon established a memorial scholarship in his wife’s name for students pursuing an accounting degree at OTC. Even after moving to Springfield, she had continued to teach accounting online at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
Two years after she died, Higdon was able to help counsel Mark Miller, OTC’s chief media relations officer, who lost his son Luke, a collegiate distance runner at Western Colorado University.
Luke Miller had been a standout runner at Glendale High. He was 20 when he died of complications from epilepsy.
Mark’s wife, Kelly Miller, also teaches at OTC.
“He and Kelly were just broken,” Higdon says.
“Mark came back to work. There were days when he just needed to talk to someone. He just sort of sought me out. He would ask me questions, which I thought was better than me being intrusive.
“I told him more than once: ‘Don’t think what you are going through is anything like I went through. Losing a wife is terrible. Losing a child is the worst.”
Mark Miller says he and Higdon talked several times about grief.
“I asked him how he coped after Nancy died. He said that people would take him out to dinner but that he really didn’t remember the month after her death very well.”
Miller says that months after Luke died he and Higdon were both expected to attend a farewell dinner for a retiring colleague in June 2019. But the dinner happened to fall on Father’s Day.
“I texted him and told him I was having a rough time,” Miller says.
Higdon responded that it was OK not to attend.
“It helped me just knowing that we had shared that experience,” Miller says. “He showed a lot of grace to me and my wife.”
Best thing since cashew chicken
Higdon originally thought his destiny was to graduate from the University of Alabama and return to his hometown of Decatur, Alabama. His parents owned an engraving business. Higdon had worked there as a boy and as a teen.
Instead, Higdon’s calling has been leading the college through a period of growth and expansion that has strengthened the Ozarks through workforce development.
Higdon, 60, has no plans to retire from OTC and no notion to leave Springfield once he does. He has become a son of the Ozarks, too.
Steve Koehler was the Springfield News-Leader reporter who covered Higdon’s hiring as OTC’s second president.
In fact, Koehler met all six finalists back in 2006. It was an open process where candidates were introduced to the public, the press and the OTC board, staff and faculty.
Koehler later retired from the paper and for several years worked with Higdon in OTC’s public information department. Koehler still teaches one journalism class online at OTC.
“I like Hal Higdon. I respect him,” Koehler says. “They had (Norman) Myers as the first and only president. I think they really — and I know this sounds like a cliche — wanted someone to take them to the next level.”
Higdon has accomplished that, Koehler says.
“I think Hal Higdon is the best thing that has come to the Ozarks since cashew chicken.”
Higdon an “average student,” he says
If you ask Ed Higdon, 83, how he is most like his son Hal, he says:
“If I tell you something I will stand by it. I think Hal is the same way.”
Higdon’s parents, Ed and Merle, still live in Decatur. Neither went to college.
Their two boys were raised Southern Baptist, athletic enough for church-league basketball but at Decatur High the only time they ventured onto the football field was with a tuba. They were in the Red Raiders marching band.
Higdon describes himself as a middling student in high school and the University of Alabama.
“I was an average student,” he says. “I did just enough to get by. I had a good time, though.”
But once he locked onto a career path he did not stop with a bachelor’s degree.
He has a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in higher education from the University of Southern Mississippi.
His father, a former Marine, recalls the moment that Hal buckled down with school work.
“He was a good student. He became a better student when he had to start paying for his own education — I’ll tell you that.”
Steve Edwards: “That’s how you lead”
Voters created OTC in April 1990. The first classes were in September 1991.
Since then, it has had an estimated 28,000 graduates, but only two presidents. Higdon replaced Myers, who retired June 30, 2006.
Oddly enough, the school has only employed presidents born on Oct. 26.
Fisk, an OTC board member since April 2008, says Higdon typically is thinking a few steps ahead of everyone else.
Higdon and his leadership team routinely create plans for programs and construction projects long before there is money available to fund them.
“He has plans ready whenever federal money becomes available. He’ll say, ‘I can use it here and here is what I am going to do with that money.’”
According to Fisk, Higdon realized years ago that the Springfield campus was landlocked. So over the years the college has purchased individual properties in the neighborhood and, as a result, has been able to expand.
“We would buy them one at a time,” Fisk says. “We never used eminent domain.”
For years, OTC has been strengthening its WiFi service at the Springfield campus, Fisk says. It created additional hotspots in parking lots.
That foresight paid dividends, Fisk says, when the campus was closed due to COVID-19. One day Fisk looked out into the parking lots and saw cars with students in them accessing the WiFi.
Higdon also directed the college’s growth with a satellite campus in Hollister (also called Table Rock) and centers in Waynesville, Lebanon, Republic and on the base of Fort Leonard Wood.
(The Richwood Valley Campus on Highway 14 between Ozark and Nixa opened in 2007 but was planned prior to Higdon’s arrival.)
“It has been a time of tremendous growth and prosperity,” McGrady says.
Looking at the big picture, McGrady says, Myers led the college through its youth.
“We have moved into our early adulthood. It really took somebody like Dr. Higdon with his vision and his leadership style. He had fresh eyes, a new perspective.”
McGrady credits Higdon for successfully guiding, thus far, the college during the pandemic.
She says Higdon made it clear that he expected her and other members of the 14-person OTC leadership team to be vaccinated.
“He really has led us through COVID on the basis of data,” she says. “Will we mask? How long will we mask? How often do we re-evaluate?”
In August, after the Ozarks experienced a dramatic increase in COVID hospitalizations due to the Delta variant, Higdon decided that all students, employees and visitors to OTC must wear a mask inside all buildings.
Higdon does not shy from important decisions, says Steve Edwards, president and CEO of CoxHealth.
“Hal has a titanium backbone,” Edwards says. “He will say things that need to be said.”
Higdon is on the CoxHealth Board of Directors and Edwards was once on the OTC Foundation board.
Both men independently decided early in the pandemic that they would not lay off or furlough employees.
“A little grace early in a crisis is not only the right thing to do but it’s also the smart thing to do,” Higdon says.
Edwards, who has announced he will retire June 1, says that in early 2020 CoxHealth was scrambling for personal protective equipment, such as masks, for employees treating COVID patients.
“We didn’t have enough,” Edwards says. “People across the world didn’t have enough.
“I got a call from Hal and he told me that someone from the state of Missouri had contacted OTC and wanted the college to take an inventory of all the PPE the college had.
“Hal told me, ‘I think I know where this is headed. So why don’t you come over and take all our PPE before we take that inventory.’”
CoxHealth quickly sent staff to OTC to pick up masks, gloves and other items.
“That’s how you lead,” Edwards says. “And no one would ever think that he saved lives, but I believe he did.”
A student perspective
In many ways, Justin Burnett of Springfield represents how Higdon and the college have focused on students.
Burnett, 32, was home-schooled as a boy. But he never received a high school diploma or its equivalent.
In fact, he had never even attended a school until he enrolled at OTC.
Burnett had gone straight to full-time work at Mardel Christian & Education.
Neither of his parents graduated from college.
He was 23 when he enrolled at OTC.
“It was intimidating to take on a new project like that,” he says.
“But I felt like there was a whole new world of academic knowledge that higher education would open up,” he says. “It would provide new options. I wanted to find out what my life calling was.”
First, he needed help getting his high school diploma equivalency.
OTC helped him, he says.
Second, he needed financial aid.
OTC helped him secure Pell grants.
He needed online classes, as well as night classes. OTC provided both.
“The library system was accessible online,” he says. “The instructors were readily available and accessible. Every instructor I had was excellent.”
Classes were small in size.
“I had read a lot of studies that said that many first-generation college students face challenges or get distracted and never get a degree,” he says.
Burnett did face obstacles and he did get distracted.
But he persisted and Higdon handed him his associate degree at the May 2018 commencement ceremony at JQH Arena. Burnett has a photo of that moment.
For Higdon, handing out degrees never gets old. In fact, he loves it.
“Still, in this day and age, there are a lot of first-generation college students,” Higdon says.“There are parents there who have taken off work to watch their kid graduate. It is a joyous occasion.”
Burnett now attends Drury University and is pursuing a degree in emergency management; he recently was hired to lead Missouri Faith Voices in Southwest Missouri.
“Without OTC,” Burnett says, “I don’t think we would be where we are as a community.”
An educator who understands business
Higdon never expected to get the job at OTC.
He had held various top administrative posts at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College over 13 years. He eventually became that school’s vice president of administration.
His boss was Willis Lott, then president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
Lott retired in 2011. He is 77 and lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
What did he see in Higdon in 2006?
“I saw a very smart, dedicated person with a bright future,” Lott says. “Someone who could get things done. Someone that you could certainly trust because he was always very open and transparent and someone that everybody likes.
“He is just a great visionary and someone who has a plan.
“I think the one thing Hal learned through his many years of experience before going to OTC is that the people who work with you are critical to the success of the institution. He makes wise choices in choosing people for leadership positions.”
Lott noticed something else in Higdon.
“He can size people up pretty quick. … He is not easily fooled by people.”
Higdon was stunned when he was named one of the six finalists asked to visit Springfield. He had a vague recollection of passing through the city with his family as a boy en route to Kansas City.
Former provost Lawler was designated to greet finalists and show them the campus.
“From the first time I met him, I felt like I had known Hal all my life,” she says. “He had a lot of Southern charm. He was raised by parents who instilled in him the same kind of morals and values that my parents had instilled in me.”
Higdon, like other candidates, met with the public as well as faculty and staff.
“The interview went amazingly well,” Higdon says.
He was asked how committed he was to the field of allied health (now called “health sciences”), which includes, for example, nursing, dental hygienists, dietitians, occupational therapists, physical therapists and respiratory therapists.
“I told the story of my grandmother, who was 49 when she had to go back to Calhoun Community College (in Huntsville, Alabama) to get her GED and then got her nursing diploma. I told that story and it connected with the group really well.”
His grandmother needed to return to school to support herself after a divorce.
Snyder, who was on the Board of Trustees when Higdon was hired, recalls exactly why Higdon got the job.
“First of all, Hal had served in just about every administrative position,” he says. “He had served right under the president and he was the only person who had filled a lot of those positions.
“The second thing — and the most important thing to me — was that he was a business person, too. He grew up in a business. He understood business.
“This college has always been run more like a business than a school. I mean that in a good way.
“Some of the other candidates had been presidents at a community college. But it was like we have a president at our Richwood Valley campus or we have a president at our Table Rock campus. They had not had the experience Hal had.
“Hal understood politics. He understood you have to pay attention to what is going on in the state. He understood funding. He understood that he would have to be involved in Jefferson City. He was an educator that understands business. The rest of them had no clue.”
Higdon had no clue he would soon be offered the job.
“I told my wife that it went fine and I learned a lot,” Higdon says of his interview in Springfield. “And I told her that’s the last I will ever hear from them.”
Immersed in the community
Myers, now 83, says Higdon’s likeability has played a role in his success at OTC.
“You know, a lot of good leadership is personality,” Myers says. “If you are kind of a people person you can get a little more done than if you’re kind of a grouch.”
Myers says Higdon has never forgotten the story of how OTC’s first board treasurer, Don Clinkenbeard, had to sign a promissory note for $50,000 so the college could make its very first payroll.
“Once we got rolling, the college watched every penny and Hal still does that,” Myers says.
OTC has accomplished this with the second-lowest tax levy of Missouri’s 12 community colleges. (The current lowest will increase 8 cents in 2022, making OTC the lowest.)
The OTC Foundation has grown dramatically under Higdon. It had $837,607 in 2006, when Higdon was hired. It totaled $11 million as of Oct. 31.
Koehler says Higdon supports bold ideas from others.
“If somebody has an idea and it comes to him, and they can justify it, he’ll tell them to go for it and ‘let me know if you need anything.’ He’ll let them do everything and he can come in and lean in with his shoulder if they need it.”
McGrady says Higdon will push staff beyond comfort zones.
“It’s the speed at which he likes things done. Once he makes up his mind he does not like for any of us to rest on our laurels.
“I have worked in higher education for 25 years,” she says. “Higher education is historically glacially slow at times.”
To his credit, Lawler says, Higdon has immersed himself in the community. He joined the Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce; he serves on the CoxHealth Systems and Burrell Behavioral Health boards.
He took a leadership role in the Missouri Community College Association; he was chairman of the group.
Higdon works well with other college leaders in the Ozarks, Lawler says, adding that Robert Spence, the longtime president of Evangel University, who died in 2020, was his mentor in Springfield.
Spence also was a son of the South and – perhaps not surprisingly – a graduate of the University of Alabama.
Biggest stress? Constant fight for state funding
OTC currently is in the middle of the largest capital investment in its 32-year history.
The $40 million Robert W. Plaster Center for Advanced Manufacturing is under construction on the main campus at Chestnut Expressway and National Avenue.
Groundbreaking was November 2020 and the college plans to have the huge facility completed by the fall of 2022.
The center bears the name of late businessman and philanthropist Robert W. Plaster. The Plaster Foundation made a significant but undisclosed contribution to the project.
The 120,000-square-foot center was planned for years and should draw industry to the Ozarks, says Trustee Snyder.
It will feature the latest educational advancements and training opportunities in robotics, fabrication, mechatronics, automation and drafting and design.
It also will offer continuing education for individuals and companies through the Center for Workforce Development.
In April 2018, voters in the OTC district passed a five-cent property tax increase to build it.
Snyder says finishing the center and filling it with students and trainees will be at the top of the list of Higdon’s 2022 goals as chancellor.
Higdon has a five-year contract that each July 1 rolls over into a fifth year. He earns $314,003 a year, according to his contract, of which $23,230 goes directly to a retirement account.
Higdon’s annual review is pretty simple, Snyder says.
“Did we accomplish the goals that we set out for the year? If not, why not?”
Thus far, Snyder says, Higdon has done remarkably well at OTC.
“I’ve talked to him about how I’d like for him to retire here when he’s ready to retire. He is our leader.”
The biggest challenge Higdon says he has faced in his 16 years at OTC is when the economy tanked in The Great Recession of December 2007 to June 2009.
“We went from a pretty prosperous economy to Gov. (Jeremiah) Nixon saying, ‘What is your fund balance? We are going to need to take it.’”
On top of that, Willow Brook Foods closed its turkey processing operation in Springfield on March 31, 2008, eliminating 780 jobs.
Higdon says that only a handful of those who lost their jobs had as much as a high school diploma.
OTC provided free training so the former Willow Brook employees could become welders, electricians and truck drivers.
“That day went from being what they thought was going to be the worst day in their life to being one of the best days of their life,” Higdon says. “They went from earning $11 an hour to a job where they could make $18 or $19 an hour.”
The bind that community colleges face is this, Higdon says: “The worse the economy, the more people need you and the less money the state will give you.”
The biggest stressor he faces now, he says, is external. It’s the ongoing fight for adequate state funding for higher education in Missouri.
“We are a state of low taxes and low services and thinking that is going to change is a pipe dream.
“I am a worrier by nature. I sweat all the details. I am navigating in a state that does not fund higher education very well.”
Missouri ranks 47th in its funding of higher education.
Nevertheless, 2021 turned out well, he says.
The Legislature gave another $10 million to community colleges and OTC received $2.6 million of it.
“I think we are having a really good year.”
The Heart of the Ozarks
Higdon was married once prior to his marriage to Nancy. His first marriage lasted six years and ended in divorce in 1992.
Over a recent holiday break, he became engaged to Molly Kerr, a banker who works and lives in the Kansas City area.
Hidgon is in good health; he works out for an hour three nights a week. He decided to hire a personal trainer three years ago when he noticed something.
“Whenever I got up from a desk or a table I was using my hands to help push myself up rather than just popping up,” he says.
He has become more fit.
“I had an increased energy level. I dropped about 20 pounds – but I put 10 of it back on. I also noticed that my stress level went down.”
Part of his workout regimen is cardio in which he gets his heart pumping.
It might surprise some that the original name for OTC was “Heart of the Ozarks Community College.”
The name was shortened in 1994 when “Heart of the Ozarks” was removed.
Nevertheless, in a way, that heart of the college remains; it beats with compassion in its leader.