Cultivating the Genius of Women

by President Lori Bettison-Varga, Excerpted from the Inaugural Address, March 27, 2010

Scripps College Inauguration: Big Bridges Auditorium

Imagine being a member of the very first Scripps College Board of Trustees — 10 women and 10 men — charged with developing a women’s college that would not seek to replicate the women’s colleges of the East, but that would be a post-war college, one that recognized the need and desire of women to balance family and work.

Among the women whose names grace the residence halls of Scripps, the names we often take for granted, were trustees Mary Routt, who was one of only six women journalists to cover Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first administration, and Susan Dorsey, first woman superintendent of the Los Angeles School District from 1920 to 1929. They knew all too well the challenges Scripps women would face.

Scripps College was formed under the guidance of the genius of these women. They were remarkable for their time, for any time, purposefully creating a college where women’s potential could be nurtured and thrive. And, of course, Scripps was founded through the genius of one woman in particular, Ellen Browning Scripps. Pioneering journalist, world traveler, philanthropist, and advocate of women’s rights, Miss Scripps’ vision was clear: to establish a college unlike any other college in the country, one that would prepare women for meaningful lives. Innovative for its time, Scripps College today sets the gold standard of interdisciplinary education, with a model faculty, curriculum, and environment to which others aspire.

Genius: Nature or Nurture

Our theme this year — The Genius of Women — has sparked a lively conversation. Let’s consider the question: What is genius?

If I asked each of you to name 10 figures widely regarded as geniuses in their fields, who would you name? How many of you began that mental list with men? Did any particular area of study dominate your list? Conduct a Google search and you’ll come up with one site that provides a list of the top 50 geniuses — there is not a single woman on that list. Why? Are women incapable of genius? Or has their genius largely gone unrecognized? I know many of us, once we realize that we approach the question of genius by answering the accepted names — Einstein, Newton, Michelangelo — will step back and begin to consider women — Georgia O’Keefe, Virginia Woolf, Marie Curie.

Our three panelists and moderator this morning framed their responses to the question “What is Genius?” from their experiences. Ruth Markowitz Owades, Class of 1966, Beth Nolan, Class of 1973, and Karen Tse, Class of 1986, are recognized leaders in their careers, each extraordinary in her own way, even they struggled with the use of the term “genius” in our theme. Beth Nolan told us she also did a Google search — and found that “The Genius of Woman” is now virtually owned by Scripps College! She went on to say that “I may not know exactly what it means, but I believe in it with all my heart. And I believe in it because of my Scripps College education, which I carry with me every day.”

Why does the use of the term “genius” make us uncomfortable? Being Scripps College, we need to confront the discomfort head on. We’ve been raised with the classic definition of genius: a person who has exceptional original thought, intellectual ability, or creative expression.

So, here is the obvious next question: Is genius something one is born with? Or can it be cultivated? Kant, in the Critique of Judgment, argued that genius involves originality of mind and thus, it cannot be taught, that it is innate. But new research suggests that “talent not as a thing, but a process; not something we have, but something we do.”1 Greatness, in other words, is something we must cultivate and work at relentlessly.

In a ground-breaking essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?,” art historian Linda Nochlin argues that there is no as she calls it “golden nugget of artistic genius.” To make her case, she poses the question from a different viewpoint: Why were there no great artists from the aristocracy? She says it’s not that women, or aristocrats for that matter, are missing the genius nugget, but rather that history’s highly regarded artistic geniuses developed their talent through apprenticeships and through access and opportunity afforded only to a specific chosen few. It isn’t that women did not have exceptional talent, it is that the emergence of that talent was suppressed.

Does Scripps College believe that every person has the potential to be a genius under Kant’s classical definition? No, probably not. But by adopting our theme, we accept that the nature vs. nurture argument in the recognition of and the development of “genius” is not resolved. I just downloaded David Shenk’s recently released book, titled The Genius in all of Us, onto my Kindle. Shenk promises to enlighten us on scientific evidence that environment modifies genes, saying “Genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses, and other genes.”

If we accept, as Nochlin and Shenk argue, that certain conditions and opportunities, along with a great deal of practice, are more likely to lead to greatness than others, then we recognize the potential in each of our students for originality and innovation, and it is our responsibility to empower them to realize their talents.

Furthermore, if genius can be cultivated, isn’t it our role, indeed our duty, to challenge and amend societal structures that may have prevented women’s genius from flourishing?

How Scripps Nurtures Genius

When author Elizabeth Gilbert, who is writing a new book on genius, spoke here last fall, she commented that Scripps is a breeding ground for genius. Who are we to argue this?

Seriously, why would Gilbert say this about Scripps? Because Scripps has a talented and committed faculty, a powerful curriculum, and an inspiring environment — the ingredients that combine to cultivate genius.

What we know for sure is that the power of a Scripps education starts with our faculty. Artists, scientists, historians, musicians, practitioners in their fields, they mentor and, more profoundly, inspire our students. As teachers and scholars, they have our students’ intellectual development at the heart of what they do; their unwavering commitment to our students is our mark of distinction. Faculty: I want to take a moment to celebrate you and your work. Your students are your apprentices, but they are also part of your own process and thinking as you teach and develop your research — it is this intellectual community and mutual respect that guides our students to their potential.

You have designed a curriculum to stimulate in our students the ability to think, to integrate, and to innovate — you push our students to engage critically with texts, to challenge their assumptions (both those of the authors and of their own), to grapple with ideas that may make them uncomfortable, fostering an openness to dissonance (and comfort with ambiguity), to new ideas, and to different perspectives. As one student said, “There is an expectation of original thought from day one. You’re not rewarded for regurgitating what someone else has come up with.”

Part of what allows students here to get to original ideas is our nationally recognized and supported Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities. Scripps was founded with a curriculum that was purposefully interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinarity as a specialty may seem ironic. But, indeed, the rest of the world has caught up to us. Today, it is widely acknowledged that solutions to many of the world’s most complex problems occur at the intersections of disciplines — biotechnology, economics and sociology, engineering and chemistry. And in our environment of interdisciplinarity, in an environment solely dedicated to developing women leaders, our students support and challenge each other. They openly disagree, yet also find consensus.

In Core, we expect differences of opinion, but we invest in our students the responsibility of approaching challenging issues from a variety of viewpoints, and with civility and respect.

The magic of the Scripps curriculum also lies in the sequence of its component parts, which prepare students for each subsequent step. I have had the great fortune of being part of several marvelous colleges, and I believe Scripps combines all the best practice touch points: intellectual community, engagement through a common core curriculum, undergraduate research, faculty mentorship, and capstone projects. Our curriculum has been designed to encourage Scripps students to create, to take risks, and to define who they are and what they value. As the parent of a recent graduate told me at a reception in Seattle, “Scripps College helped my daughter become a self-actualized agent for change.”

Allow me to turn now to the Scripps setting — a remarkable asset that goes beyond the physical.

In a recent Forbes Magazine article, Scripps was cited as one of the “World’s 14 Most Beautiful College Campuses.” We are quite happy to be recognized as such! It is a beautiful campus, and as many of you know, we are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But with all of the accolades about the campus, what you may not know is this: Scripps College is beautiful for a reason.

Ellen Browning Scripps was quite clear that the physical environment of Scripps should be a source of learning for the women who came to the College. Today, what do we know about the impact of place on learning? There is some research about the link between physical environment and metacognition. Certainly, there is research about how spaces can be created to build and foster collaboration, community, and interaction. What I know is that those of you in this auditorium who have had the pleasure of spending time on this campus have experienced its inspirational effects. Architect and Scripps alumna Regula Campbell says, “Clearly, this campus has and continues to serve as an on-going conversation between generations, a conversation with nature, and a conversation about what it is to be a woman in the world.”

After nine months at Scripps College, I know this environment also has a tangible effect on community and the nature of how we all engage in our work on a daily basis. This beautiful place fosters civility and respect every bit as much as our curriculum does. But, more important, and the goal that Ellen Browning Scripps had when she envisioned this campus, this inspiring environment causes us to pause, encouraging us to see the value in what we are doing at a higher level. As one alumna said recently, “Every time I step foot on campus, my visceral reaction is both a sense of calm and a sense of potentiality.”

Building on the Scripps Legacy

As we herald a new era in Scripps leadership, and this great college’s ability to nurture it, a new president must ask: how should we build on the Scripps legacy?

I have told you what makes Scripps “Scripps” today:

  • A gold standard of interdisciplinary excellence
  • A model faculty
  • A challenging curriculum and a four-year sequence combining best undergraduate practices
  • A physical environment designed as an incubator of quality thought, creativity, and ambitious standards

There is one more factor to consider. Scripps is a women’s college. Why does this matter today? It matters because women still need to be written into the history books, and because women still need opportunities to make history. We have ideas to consider, but it will take the collective work of our community to make these ideas reality. I hope to hear your voices as we raise questions and issues and build upon our substantial legacy. Here are but a few of the questions I’ve been pondering.

How can we best continue our success in cultivating women leaders? I’m sure many of you are familiar with the book Half the Sky. In it, Kristof and WuDunn make a powerful case that women can solve many of the world’s most plaguing issues — poverty, hunger, terrorism. Scripps is already developing leaders who are working to address important societal concerns. At yesterday’s Academic Showcase, you heard about the many projects and creative engagements of our current students. Senior Halley Everall and junior Cassandra Gamm talked about Cultivating Dreams, an organic gardening program initiated by Scripps students for the California Institute for Women correctional facility. A team of Scripps women talked about (in)Visible Magazine, a publication addressing women’s body image and other issues at the College. Senior Clio Korn told us about her six weeks in Uganda teaching neuroscience to college-level students. Our students represent a new wave of women’s leadership, one that embraces civic engagement and community outreach as a part of their college experience. As a natural outgrowth of student interest, the faculty and broader community will begin to plan for a center for women’s research and leadership, one that is integrated into the curriculum and life of the College. This dynamic center will drive academic discussion, undergraduate research, new internship opportunities, and expand our reach beyond Claremont. The center will provide the seeds for innovative projects that bridge theory and practice.

How can we build on our success in producing women scientists with a unique approach to serving the public good? Over the past 10 years, the percentage of Scripps’ students majoring in the sciences climbed from 5% to 20% of our graduating seniors. Our science program, jointly administered with Claremont McKenna and Pitzer colleges, is a vibrant academic powerhouse. Scripps students are a cornerstone of the program’s success. One joint science faculty member recently commented, “Scripps women have an exceptional confidence about their abilities to go on in science.” But here are some additional questions I would like to see Scripps answer: What is the impact of our common interdisciplinary humanities core curriculum on the kinds of scientists Scripps students become? How does this curricular focus affect their view of science and the public good? How does it affect their career paths? What can other schools learn from our unique approach? I have to think that Ellen Browning Scripps, as patroness of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, would marvel at how far our college has come in preparing women for stellar careers in the sciences. In fact, we are so successful that the Joint Science Department has seen unprecedented growth, and we have now, more than ever, an imperative to vigorously support student and faculty development while seeking the resources to provide greater opportunities, as well as space, for the program to continue on its upward trajectory.

How can we capitalize on interdisciplinary innovations both within the College and our larger consortial environment? Just this year, we introduced a new major that is distinctly Scripps, the only one of its kind on the West Coast. Our new Art Conservation major marries the humanities, fine arts, and social and physical sciences. What other curricular horizons await us? What untapped collaborations exist? How can we best contribute to and benefit from the vast intellectual resources of the Claremont University Consortium? I ask these questions fully aware that such endeavors are resource intensive — both in terms of financial and human capital. And this is where our partnership in the consortium comes into play.

The Claremont Colleges are a family, and while we sometimes have our differences, we recognize that we are far stronger as a collective than we are individually. We are a New World Oxford, at the edge of the Pacific — and at the edge of a continent — at the crossroads of geography, culture, and commerce, and in a cosmopolitan location unlike any other. Our students benefit from the intellectual life and community of our seven college consortium, expanding our individual boundaries and their horizons. I want to thank each of the presidents of these colleges — Pam Gann, Maria Klawe, David Oxtoby, Laura Trombley, Shelly Shuster, and Joe Hough — for providing tremendous support during my first months at Scripps. And I look forward to the myriad ways our collaborations will extend in the future.

So, can the genius of women be cultivated? Genius is cultivated every day at Scripps. And, as we prepare women leaders, we are constantly aware that access and opportunity to a Scripps education must be financially preserved to enable the most talented students to accept our invitation to study at Scripps College.

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argues that genius needs freedom. We provide that freedom at Scripps College. This is not just a nice idea in a pretty place. Scripps is where the best and the brightest cultivate a genius for connecting ideas, translating skills to new environments, and bringing the highest standards of quality to everything they do. As one alumna said recently at a reception in Chicago, “Sitting in the Margaret Fowler Garden as a student, I realized that the garden was a metaphor for the College — Scripps is a place that allowed me and my fellow students a garden of unlimited growth.”

Before I close, I want to extend my gratitude to this community — faculty, staff, students, alumnae, and friends of the College — for your enthusiastic welcome and for contributing in so many ways to our success. Thank you to all of you who have put such time and energy to making the inauguration weekend such a memorable time for all of us and in particular to Carolyn Wagner, our alumna trustee who chaired the committee that pulled all of this together. To the Board of Trustees, thank you for entrusting me with the responsibility of leading this great institution. To all of you in the audience who have supported my personal and professional growth, my heartfelt thank you. And especially, to my mother, Barbara Yunker Bettison, Class of 1954, and to my family — Bob, Matt, Will, and Lexie — thank you for your unconditional love and support.

I end with one final idea for all of you and for Scripps College about cultivating genius from someone I think of as one of today’s great creative geniuses, Maya Angelou. She said, “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. . . .Pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.”

Thank you.


  1. Paul, Annie Murphy. (2010, March 18). How to Be Brilliant. New York Times Sunday Book Review, 19.


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