TCU’s associate dean of student development has seen the university blossom during her 43 years on campus.
Dr. Kay Higgins, who is retiring this month, has seen the addition of state-of-the-art buildings and growth in the student population that now exceeds 10,000. She has filled multiple roles at the university and seen what began as a part-time job in the housing office morph into a successful career.
Her dedication and love for students and faculty alike will be treasured, even as her time on campus comes to a close.
“I get consistently good feedback from our parents saying that they love working with Dr. Higgins because she ‘gets’ college-age students,” said Chancellor Victor Boschini. “To say I am sad she is leaving would be an understatement. She is retiring knowing, without a doubt, that she made a tangible difference in the lives of literally thousands of TCU students, past and present.”
Higgins arrived on campus in 1977 planning to earn a master’s degree in religious studies from the Brite Divinity School.
A part-time job working in housing took her in a different direction. Within a year she was working as a full-time area coordinator, coordinating with hall directors and RAs – a role she held for 16 years.
Higgins said she loved working hands-on and supporting all students and faculty. She was constantly seeking out ways to better the experiences for not only the students but for her team members and coworkers alike.
“There are many former hall directors who will tell you that Kay’s mentorship was vital in helping them be successful,” said Dr. Don Mills, a distinguished professor of educational leadership.
Mills, whose been at TCU since 1972, is a former director of housing, associate dean of students and longtime work colleague of Higgins.
“Many of those who prospered under Kay’s guidance have themselves gone on to successful careers in student affairs,” said Mills.
While Higgins enjoyed her time in housing, she was always “looking for other playgrounds to play in.”
The position of director of new student orientation was one that Higgins had seen filled multiple times over the years and one she felt ready to take on.
“So, I finished out my housing role and became the director of new student orientations, which I did for 16 years,” Higgins said. “When Don became vice chancellor of student affairs in 1994, my role was moved to Student Development Services.”
When Higgins joined SDS, it directed five organizations – now there are nearly 300.
While working in SDS, Higgins also became the first director of what is now the Gender Resource Office to support and encourage women to grow during their time on campus.
Higgins has always had a strong passion for women’s success, especially on the college campus. She utilized her leadership position to ensure the success and stability of this campus’s resources.
Her passion came in part from looking at national data that showed women frequently belittle all of their accomplishments and hard work due to lack of confidence.
“When looking at resumes and applications for women students, they showed the women were performing at the top of all their classes and making significant contributions,” said Higgins. “ But the women were rating themselves in the low 30th percentile for feeling they were competent at doing these things, and that always bothered me.”
In order to combat these statistics, Higgins held lectures and workshops helping students understand “that who you perceive you are and who you perform to be are not in agreement, you just have to step up.”
Higgins was born and raised in Georgia and attended Mercer University, a small school in Macon, Georgia.
Coming from a campus with roughly 500 total students in each class, Higgins said that when she first arrived in Fort Worth she “thought this place was bigger than New York City.”
While to Higgins the school was notable and prominent, to the city of Fort Worth it was just another cluster of buildings. Higgins said it best, saying at the time TCU was the “untapped Texas secret.”
Back then, Higgins would get calls from parents who lived less than 15 minutes from campus, but had no idea where the campus was.
This integration of the campus and the city was not something that came easy but rather something the people had to work hard to bring about.
“Now, TCU is such a dynamic party of the economy, of the city and the culture and in infusion of people from around the world,” said Higgins.
With the building of that community relationship, cultural and geographic diversity became another priority for TCU, Higgins said.
“The intention to diversify was very, very specific and calculated,” Higgins said. “Because ultimately, the more diverse an institution is, the better education every student will receive, as long as students are open to learning from others.”
Higgins’s dedication and work, which was largely behind the scenes, never went unnoticed.
“At TCU we pride ourselves on being a connected campus. Kay took that responsibility seriously: helping students who were struggling, identifying new ways to support students, mentoring staff and being 100% pro-student. Kay is what it means to be a true ‘Horned Frog’,” Mills said.
Having worked under four chancellors, Higgins has watched and taken part in the growth of the university over the last 43 years.
Along with Mills and Higgins, one other person who has been at TCU since the early 1980s is a long-time friend and colleague, Mary Ruth Jones.
Jones, who is also retiring this year, said TCU will be losing a special and devoted colleague.
“I have known Kay Higgins since 1985 when I went to work as the admin in the TCU Housing office, we worked together and became good friends,” said Jones. “Kay is a dedicated leader and motivator and even though she is retiring she will still be a part of TCU.”
Until the pandemic, Jones and Higgins saw each other every week and have been active parts of each other’s lives.
“I was there when she and Keith Spalding married and I was there when both her children, Mary Catherine and Christopher, were born,” said Jones.
Even though her career at TCU is ending, Higgins has no plans of slowing down.
“I always find myself wanting to get into more philanthropy work, but because there are only so many hours in the day, I find myself saying ‘no’ a lot,” said Higgins. “So after I nap for two months, I am going to work trying to make what contribution I can to Fort Worth and to TCU!”
As Mills said, even though Higgins didn’t attend TCU, she is just as much a Horned Frog as any student on campus.