President Bettison-Varga Talks Departure from Scripps

By Lucy Altman-Newell '17

On July 8, all Scripps College community members received an email from Board of Trustees Chair, Mark R. Herron, informing them that Lori Bettison-Varga, Scripps College President since 2009, will be departing the College on Oct. 5 to fill the position of President and Director of the National History Museum of Los Angeles County. Amy Marcus-Newhall will be Interim President for the 2015-2016 academic year, beginning Oct. 5. A search committee has been established to find a presidential successor to President Bettison-Varga.

Mark Herron’s email included a letter from President Bettison-Varga to the Scripps College community. “I envisioned myself remaining at Scripps and continuing my rewarding and promising work on behalf of the College for several more years,” Bettison-Varga wrote. “However, the unexpected opportunity to lead the Natural History Museum calls to my roots as a geologist and educator, and the ability to impact the public through serving its mission ‘to inspire wonder, discovery, and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds’ is deeply compelling. Even as I look forward to this new opportunity, I know I will always look back on my time at Scripps as one of the highlights of my personal and professional life.”

Bettison-Varga went on to thank the Board of Trustees, the alumnae network, the parents, and the students. “Undoubtedly, the most rewarding aspect of my time at Scripps has been that spent with our students,” she continued. “I have found Scripps students to be brave in pursuit of their passions, bold in expression of truth to power, wickedly brilliant, and committed to creating a community that aspires to inclusion and empowerment. You are the legacy of this College – each and every one of you is woven into the fabric of Scripps.”

On the morning of July 9, a community meeting with President Bettison-Varga and Board of Trustees Chair Mark Herron was held in Balch Auditorium for those community members who were still in Claremont during the summer months.

Through tears, President Bettison-Varga spoke about her love for the College and about the many relationships she has made here at Scripps. The decision to leave was hard, Bettison-Varga told the community, but she knew that taking the job at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County was the right decision for her to make. Bettison-Varga also said that she knows the timing of her departure is not easy for the college, but that other institutions have managed awkward timings, and she is confident that Scripps will, too, especially with the support and leadership of her “remarkable, calm, and enthusiastic” senior team.

President Bettison-Varga also made it a point to say that while she is currently moving out of the Revelle House, she will be here through the opening of the academic year. Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, the space will be used for other purposes until the next president of the College moves in.

Finally, Bettison-Varga thanked all community members for their commitments to Scripps and for making the College move forward in their own way. The President made time to talk to people one-on-one after the community meeting.

After President Bettison-Varga quitted the stage, Board of Trustees Chair Mark Herron took the podium. While there is no good time for Bettison-Varga to leave Scripps, he said, her departure will not put the capital campaign behind; the campaign is right on schedule, he is thrilled about the trajectory and current state of the College, and he has great confidence in the senior team.

These comments echo some central messages of Herron’s July 8 email to the Scripps community, as evidenced by the following excerpt:

“President Bettison-Varga leaves Scripps in a strong position, with a well-earned reputation as a superior liberal arts college and a leader in women’s education. During her tenure, demand for a Scripps education has climbed steadily, as evidenced by a 20 percent increase in applications and a more competitive and selective admissions process. We continue to successfully recruit accomplished and promising scholars from a wide range of disciplines to join our distinguished faculty. Scripps is consistently ranked in the top tier of national colleges by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, Forbes, and Business Insider, among other publications. 

To date, we have raised $115 million of our $175 million Scripps campaign goal, advancing strategic priorities including scholarships, a new residence hall, and the LASPA Center for women’s leadership. We have recorded a budget surplus each of the past six years, and our financial outlook remains healthy due to steady increases in revenue and the size of the endowment. Most importantly, we have a highly engaged and supportive community of students, faculty, staff, alumnae, parents, and volunteers who are invested in the College’s success and working to cultivate the next generation of women leaders.”

In early September, President Bettison-Varga met with The Scripps Voice to discuss her own plans and vision for her life after Scripps:

TSV: While we all will miss you at Scripps, we’re also excited that you’ll be able to take on another job that you love and that I’m sure you’ll excel at. Can you tell us a bit about your background in natural history, and how that influenced your decision to become Director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County?

LBV: I am a geologist by my disciplinary background and I got into higher education because I really wanted that blend of bringing my passion for understanding the history of the Earth—the research aspect of that, with the educational aspect and being able to inspire students, not necessarily to be geology majors, but to appreciate the Earth and our impact on it. So when the Natural History position was called to my attention, I thought, “Wow, that’s really [an opportunity to] bring together at a much larger scale those pieces of my background.” And now my experience as president here [at Scripps] has set me up to be able to do something that has such a capacity for public impact in a way that I haven’t done yet. So being able to bring together research and collections and education through the visitor experience, the citizen science, the BioSCAN project—all these wonderful things that are happening there [at the Natural History Museum]—while supporting the museum’s remarkable staff just seemed like a great opportunity.

TSV: When you were a professor, was that in geology?

LBV: Yes, I was a professor in geology. I started as a two-year visiting assistant professor at Pomona College back in 1990-1992, and then I went to a tenure-track position at The College of Wooster where I was a faculty member in the geology department before going into administration. Then I went to Whitman to be provost for two years, and then I came here [to Scripps]. So, yes, [going to the Natural History Museum] is getting back to that, to what really inspired me to actually go on and get a degree, and then an advanced degree.

TSV: Were there other factors—in addition to the fantastic match in terms of subject matter (natural history)—that led to your decision to take the position at the Museum?

LBV: As a kid I went to the museum, and so seeing how much it has transformed in the last ten to 14 years was really inspiring to me. So, along with my connection to it from my background, the ability to bring it forward even more is exciting. The museum always has been an important cultural aspect of L.A., but it is so much more vibrant in the last ten years, and so that is part of the fun, the pull of it.

TSV: How has it transformed?

LBV: Museums for a long time were about developing and displaying collections, and the scientists and curators were usually in the back of the shop doing their research. But the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles—along with other museums, obviously, but I think [the Natural History Museum] is really at the cutting edge—takes the collections forward with the curators’ design and education work, showing how science has progressed over time. For example, the Dinosaur Hall shows skeletons put together [has placards, for example, that say] “we used to think [x] about this part of the fossil or how this dinosaur lived, and now we know [not-x but y] from this [z] kind of evidence.” So it really shows the dynamic evolution of scientific thinking, and it’s really done well there.

TSV: What sorts of things will you be doing as Director of the Museum? What does this very exciting job look like? And do you know in what direction you want to lead the Museum?

LBV: Well I would say first off, a lot of the work of the director of the museum is not dissimilar from being the president of a college because it’s really about guiding and implementing the institutional vision, advocacy, fundraising, board development, events… So all of those things are similar to what I’ve been doing here [at Scripps]. But what’s different would be the engagement with the public arena in such a broad way, and certainly the responsibility to oversee the funding from the County of Los Angeles.

One of the really wonderful things that we’re going to be embarking on is the master planning process for La Brea Tar Pits. The museum has three main museums—there’s the NHM in Exposition Park near USC and downtown, La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in the mid-Wilshire Miracle Mile area, and  and the Hart Museum and Park, a western museum ranch out in Newhall. The Tar Pits actually has attracted a lot of attention internationally because it’s the largest and most diverse collection of ice age fossils in the world. It is also the largest and only active urban paleontological excavation site. So it’s a really interesting place where we can look at the evidence of natural climate change variation in the fossils—not just the mega-fossils, but also the microfossils. And one of the ideas is to continue that conversation to look at the impact of humans on climate. So you go there to get a sense of what Los Angeles used to be like and what it’s like today and you think about what that means with respect to global climate change. So there’s a lot of possibility there.  The La Brea Tar Pits Museum has been given a face lift recently and that has generated a lot of enthusiasm among Angelenos to revisit the location. There’s a new 3D ice age mammals movie that has been well-received. We will embark on a master planning process this year [with regards to La Brea Tar Pits]. It’s right by LACMA on the Miracle Mile, and it’s a very important area to the cultural life of Los Angeles.

TSV: Did you learn or further develop any skills as President of Scripps College that you think will be especially useful in taking on this new role?

LBV: During my time at Scripps over the last six-plus years, what I’ve really grown to appreciate is the voices of all these different stakeholders (they’re not collectively one voice) and how listening to those voices—the students, for example—have really had an impact on the way I think about the work that we’re doing here at Scripps. [I’ve learned] how those stakeholders really have a lot to say and [how they have] wonderful ideas about how to move the institution forward. As a faculty member before and then early on in my administrative career, I got the sense of a particular area -  faculty stakeholders—being president has really helped me understand that there are lots of different stakeholders, as well as how to bring those voices to the common ground. I’ve really grown here. And I’ve appreciated the opportunity I’ve had to spend time with students and to hear them, to hear about what their hopes and dreams are for the College. [I’ve also appreciated the opportunity to hear the] faculty, alumnae, friends of the College, staff, people in the community, the different institutions... So I think that’s something that I will bring with me to this position [at the Natural History Museum]: valuing the many perspectives about the role of the Museum.

TSV: Will you continue to have a relationship with Scripps College after you move into this next stage of your career? If so, what will be the nature of this relationship?

LBV: I’m always going to be an ambassador for Scripps. I love the college. I really see myself in a position of hopefully being available to help the institution in any way that I can in L.A. I want to be a resource, I want to be an advocate, and I want to be an ambassador.

TSV: What are you most excited about as you move forward in your career and life?

LBV: I love new challenges, and this is a new challenge for me. I’m really looking forward to this public/private piece of it, which is really new [to me], and I’m looking forward to being part of the civic life of L.A. I’ve never really been that close as a working adult to an urban location, to a city. So being engaged in the life of L.A. is going to be really interesting for me. I’m looking forward to that.

TSV: Is there anything in particular that excites you most about Scripps’ future, as you envision it?

LBV: I think Scripps is so well-positioned right now, and strong. [Scripps has] fabulous students, remarkable faculty and staff, and is fiscally strong. The More Campaign is going well, [as is the construction of] the new residence hall. The LASPA Center is just really starting to come together and I’m really excited to see how the programming develops for that and how that can also become a larger bridge to alumnae and the external world for our current students. I think it’s an exciting time for the college, and I think it’s really well-positioned to attract a really great president.

TSV: You have said many times that the decision to leave Scripps was a very difficult one. What would you say to other people who have a difficult choice to make? What’s your advice?

LBV: I am a big believer in listening to your gut instinct. So what I would suggest is to ask all the questions that you need to ask—and sometimes the problem is that you don’t always know what you should be asking—but if it feels right, just follow your gut instinct. And I think that’s true for just about anything I’ve ever done—[I think] about what feels right to me based on the way I live my life, whether it’s a decision that I know not everyone’s going to agree with on campus, or a life decision. [It comes down to] what feels right to me and what feels like a good match for me. So I think that in making a decision while you have to think about how it influences other people, but you still have to decide what you think is really the right thing to do. And ultimately that’s what I came down on this one—it just felt like the right thing to do. As sad as it was to make the decision, it just feels like the right thing to do for me. Listen to yourself. We know ourselves better than anybody else. If we live our lives based on other people’s expectations of us, I don’t think we can really ever fully become who we want to be.

TSV: As a female scientist and leader, are there any words of wisdom that you would like to pass on to other aspiring female scientists, or to other aspiring leaders (in whatever field they may choose)?

LBV: I would say one of the things that I’ve thought a lot about when making a decision to get off a career track or to make a change or when thinking about next steps is to just take the risk of saying yes. And I think that holds for anybody.  I don’t want to over-generalize, but I do think that women are a little bit more risk-averse and put up barriers to making these decisions in ways that inhibit their ability to move forward or continue in their work. So I think it’s about taking the leap. And that’s what I think is so great about Scripps—that is, I believe that all the work we’re doing here is about setting up our graduates for that confidence, courage, and hope to take the risk, whatever that might be.

TSV: Is there any particular rule or principle that has helped you in your extremely impressive leadership of the College? Any sort of “secret to success” here that you’d like to share?

LBV: Listening. Definitely listening. And I hope everyone here knows that I’ve always been authentic—that’s who I am. So [my principles of leadership would be being] authentic, listening to people, valuing opinions, and ultimately knowing that as a leader, as president, I have to make a decision and not everybody is going to believe that the decision was the right decision to be made. But I should be able to explain [that decision], whether or not they agree. I think that’s basically how I’ve gone through things. And I will say this: I’ve been able to attract an incredible senior leadership team and I think they all believe in the same values of inclusivity and listening and bringing about the very best in Scripps, just like I know the faculty and staff do. I think it’s that whole ethos of the entire community that is what makes any leader successful.

TSV: If you could choose one quality for the next president of Scripps College to have, what would it be, and why?

LBV: A sense of humor. There’s so many different things to choose from—honesty, integrity, a collaborative spirit—these are really critical, but I assume that any president would have all of those. And also a healthy dose of a sense of humor because you have to have fun in these positions. So not just a sense of humor—also all those other qualities that a leader’s going to have—but a heavy dose of a sense of humor should be good, too.

TSV: Finally, many Scripps people have been wondering if they’ll get a discounted rate into the museum. Will we?

LBV: We’re working on it!  Stay tuned!

TSV: Do you have anything else you’d like to add here?

LBV: I hope everybody knows how much I believe in this institution and its people—an institution is about people. [Scripps is] a great place and I’ll get to say more about that later in the letter [to be published in the second issue of The Scripps Voice]!

A farewell celebration for President Bettison-Varga will be held on Bowling Green Lawn on Friday Oct. 2 from 4:30pm to 6:30pm. No RSVP is required.