In Person with Lara Tiedens
This past fall, Scripps President Lara Tiedens embarked on her national In Person tour, meeting alumnae and friends of the College in cities including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. At each stop, she participated in a live interview and audience question-and-answer session led by a Scripps alumna. On January 28, Tiedens visited the Women’s University Club in Seattle, where she spoke with alumna and trustee Kalpana Singh Rhodes ’94 about her initial impressions of Scripps as well as some of the issues that have come to the forefront since she began her tenure in August 2016.
Kalpana Singh Rhodes ’94: What excites you most about the job now that you’ve been on campus for almost a year?
Lara Tiedens: Scripps’ particular strengths make the job exciting. One of the questions I get asked a lot is: What’s been surprising to you about Scripps now that you are here?
And the answer I usually give is that I went through a long process of research and interviews, but I didn’t really understand the character of this community until I was on the job. I think the Scripps community is very unusual. People are more connected to each other here, they support each other more, the campus has such a unique and beautiful look, and it has a deep dedication to the humanities—all of these things come together to make Scripps a liberal arts college with a very distinctive flavor. And I think that flavor is particularly well suited to address some of the biggest challenges that we face in the world today.
KSR: You touched on the humanities, which are under attack at some institutions across the country. How can we preserve the interdisciplinary humanities that are so important at Scripps?
LT: So many colleges and universities are trying to figure out how to rebuild the humanities, because they’ve kind of dwindled. Scripps doesn’t have that problem. The humanities are alive at Scripps in many ways, from our Core Curriculum to the Humanities Institute to Denison Library to our public speakers series. We don’t have to figure out how to rebuild, and in fact we have a faculty that is in a mode of constant innovation around the humanities.
Scripps also continues to push the notion of the public humanities—trying to link the central questions of the humanities to the problems of the world. Part of what’s happened with the humanities is that folks sometimes have a hard time seeing what the real-world relevance is. We often hear our students and alumnae talk about how their Core Curriculum courses allowed them to understand and engage the world in a deeper, more nuanced way. That perspective doesn’t make it into public discourse as often as it should, and I think Scripps is very well positioned to be a leading voice in that discussion.
KSR: At the same time, we are seeing over 20 percent of Scripps graduates earn STEM degrees while maintaining an interdisciplinary humanities focus.What does Scripps need to do to support these students?
LT: This is going to be just a big area of focus for the College over the next decade. We’ve seen an explosion in STEM class enrollment through our W.M. Keck Science Department. It’s been a challenge—our science building is bursting at the seams, and our faculty is overtaxed. But it’s also a great opportunity for Scripps. If you look at the most pressing problems in the world, solving them requires more than just one piece of knowledge or one discipline. If we are going to encourage students to get out there and change the world, to really engage with the pressing problems of our time, they’re going to need some knowledge of science. Scripps students recognize this.
Our other opportunity is that, when we think about the challenges facing higher education in our country, one problem is the underrepresentation of women and people of color in STEM fields. It’s interesting to think about this phenomenon in the context of our joint science program at Keck. We work with Pitzer and Claremont McKenna Colleges, and this is a gift—we couldn’t have the science that we have without this collaboration. Keck enrollment across all three colleges has been steadily growing, which is part of why we need to expand.
But the exciting thing to me is, at a time when the world is saying, (A) We need more scientists; (B) We need more women scientists; and (C) We need more scientists who are people of color—you should see who our Keck graduates are. If you think of just about any college out there—any coed peer of ours, not just in the 5Cs—what would you think the number of women STEM majors is? You’d say, if you pay attention to these things, something in the 15 percent range. And this is part of why people are worried. At Scripps, it’s higher, but that’s not that interesting. Looking at Keck as a whole, there are students from two coed schools and one women’s school participating, and 70 percent of them are women. At CMC alone, over half of STEM majors are women. This is in part due to Scripps—we’ve helped Keck reach a tipping point.
Once you involve a certain number of any underrepresented group, you start shifting people’s expectations and stereotypes about who can succeed or who belongs there. At Keck, the whole culture has changed to become a place where women love science and succeed in science. The same thing is now starting to happen with students of color and first-generation students; the Keck faculty has put a huge amount of effort into changing their pedagogy to be more inclusive, with some amazing results.
KSR: Over the past few years, we’ve seen demonstrations around issues of race, class, and gender at college campuses across the country. Could you touch on how these issues have affected Scripps and what you see as the administration’s role in responding to student demonstrations going forward?
LT: Last year at many colleges and universities across the country, there were protests having to do with issues of diversity and inclusion. And Scripps has been right there in that. I think that for some of our alumnae, this has come as a real surprise, and often the explanations for it have been very Scripps-specific. But I think the national patterns are important, too. There’s a wave of interest in political questions among this generation of college students and a particular concern around issues of diversity and inclusion that is best seen in terms of a generational lens as opposed to a college- specific lens.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t college-specific ways in which these issues are playing out. Scripps is a tight and close community, and I think this makes our diversity and inclusion issues all the more important and all the more emotionally charged. What is it to feel excluded or marginalized in a context that so values inclusion and closeness? If you’re a place that says that part of what we offer students is community—that’s part of the contribution we make to your life as an institution—then it becomes really important that we follow through on that. Not everyone at Scripps feels included. There is a feeling community is oriented towards some people more than others. So this is part of what the College has been working on.
At Scripps, we are used to working together and figuring things out together, so I think when these conversations become contentious it’s surprising and a little hurtful to all sides. My sense, when I came in during the summer of 2016, was that there were a lot of wounds all around—for students, for alumnae, and among the faculty and staff.
But I do feel a real and continued desire on everyone’s part to figure out how to fix these issues and have these conversations better. Sometimes you have to have a difficult conversation to find a good solution, and I think we are in the process of recognizing the ways in which things aren’t going as well as they could be, but also trying to be unified in searching for solutions.
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