Q&A with New Scripps President Larissa Tiedens

Dr. Larissa Tiedens became the ninth president of Scripps College on Aug. 1, 2016. (Courtesy of Scripps College)

Dr. Larissa Tiedens, a social psychologist and former senior associate dean at Stanford Graduate School of Business, took office as the ninth president of Scripps College Aug. 1, 2016. TSL sat down with Tiedens in her office to discuss her academic background and interests, approaches to diversity and inclusivity, and long and short-term visions for the future of Scripps.

TSL: What has your transition to Scripps been like? What have your initial experiences working, living, and walking around campus been like?

LT: Whenever you move houses, move [to new] locations and jobs, there’s a lot going on and so it’s been like that, really intense. My days are really full with just learning about a ton of things and one of the things I think you see when you change organizations or change institutions is how much knowledge—just local knowledge of local practices– and so there’s a lot to catch up on. I love that you asked the question about ‘what do I feel like walking on the campus?’ because I think one of the things that really sold me on this place was when I walked on campus the first time as part of this process. I had met with the search committee mostly in L.A. and at a certain point I got an opportunity to walk around the campus as part of that visit [with the search committee] and it was sort of at that moment that I felt I just had to come here. I think this place just feels good and feels like what it is: a real community dedicated to education and to thinking more deeply. I’m really struck by the love that people at Scripps have for Scripps and that what follows from that is just this sort of unfettered desire for the good of the institution and that just so clearly trumps everything else. People are united in wanting what would be good for Scripps and as an incoming president that’s wonderful because that means I’ve been met with an overwhelming sense of people wanting things to be good here for me and for me to be good for Scripps, and you don’t always walk into new jobs that way.

TSL: You come from a liberal arts background at Carleton College, and most recently worked at Stanford Business School. How did you come to find your place within higher education, and what piqued your interest about Scripps?

LT: I’d say as someone who really loves to plan—and I spend a lot of time planning—all of the big things that I’ve done were completely unplanned. I would include in that coming here to Scripps; it was not in my plan to become a college president. I went to graduate school with the idea that I loved college and I just wasn’t ready to be done being a student. I really came to love [social psychology] research and lab, which got me to this point where the easiest kind of job to continue doing that research was to become a faculty member.

I should say [that] I was working with a faculty member at University of Michigan was a Scripps alumna and she was one of my close advisors. She had gotten her PhD in social psychology and her appointment at University of Michigan was half in the business school and half in the psychology department, and she was the one who really encouraged me to apply to business schools. I applied to psychology departments and to business schools and no other business school had any interest in me, but Stanford is a very unique business school that mostly hires people who don’t have business degrees.

At Stanford, my audience was psychologists but also sociologists, legal scholars, and economists. They asked me really different kinds of questions about my research than I had gotten anywhere else. It challenged me in a different way and found that really appealing, so that was kind of the main reason why I ended up going there. It felt like a really big change for me coming from a liberal arts school and psychology and going to a business school, but it was a great place and I was there for a long time—18 years—and had a great experience.

Scripps called me somewhat out of the blue and I hadn’t really been thinking about a job like this, [but] I just have very fond memories of my experience at Carleton and a real attachment to liberal arts education. As each layer became uncovered about Scripps I just fell more and more in love with the place.

TSL: What are your short-term and long-term visions for the college? What do you plan to prioritize, build on, and do differently than previous administrations during your first year? 

LT: My short-term goals are all about really learning about Scripps, understanding the people who make it the great place that it is, understanding its history, understanding how all people who are involved see as the future for Scripps. A lot of this year will just be immersing myself in getting to know students, faculty, staff, alumnae, the board of trustees, the other colleges, and the community that we’re located in, and taking my time so that I do it really well.

Part of the way that I’ll use that learning process is to guide the college in creating a new Strategic Plan. The college has a Strategic Plan, I think it was created in 2007, and one of the things that the search committee and board of trustees had asked me to do is to help the organization envision its future.

We’re about to turn 90 at Scripps and it’s going to be exciting to celebrate but the way I will be thinking constantly is ‘what is Scripps going to be at 100? What does Scripps at 100 look like?’ It’s a really great moment to come into a college where there’s this great past and we’re about to hit this huge milestone.

TSL: In the past year, there has been lots of discussion at Scripps about providing more support and resources to low-income students and students of color. How do you plan to address concerns related to diversity and inclusivity? 

I think that Scripps has all the pieces in place to be in a better position to approach these challenges. [Last year] there was what happened at the 5Cs and what happened all over the nation. At some colleges and universities that can remain nameless, what the Board of Trustees and the students thought was so far apart and part of it is about generational differences, about lots of things. But I actually think at Scripps, one of the things I find really impressive, and again was part of why I wanted to come, there’s a very consistent value of diversity from all of the different constituents. There’s really no one who’s saying “we’ve solved that” or “where’s the problem.” Now, different people clearly have really different ideas of ‘ok, if we all value diversity, how do we get there? How do we do better than we’re doing?’ There’s a diversity of opinions about how we’re going to achieve our goals, and I think that’s okay and even good in the way that diversity always is, that these are really hard problems to solve. If they were easy problems to solve they would have been solved long ago.

Higher education has gone through lots of different phases and I think there was a time where there was just the idea of ‘oh, bring tons of people here and have them cope with whatever the system is.’ If the goal is to really have a diverse community and create equal opportunity, that’s not the way to do it. You can’t throw people into a situation and not give them resources they need to succeed. My impression of Scripps was that Scripps hasn’t solved all these problems, nobody has, but that I thought and still think that Scripps has some head starts on some of those issues.

I’ve been really impressed by what I’ve seen from Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment (SCORE) and feel like it is a great piece of Scripps that has provided a lot of resources to students. Though we suffered from staff losses there, we’re all about rebuilding in that area. In fact, we’ve allocated more resources to SCORE to support those initiatives and efforts. I think when you’re talking about supporting students you need to understand what support students want, and I think SCORE has been well structured to do that.

TSL: How are you planning to direct fundraising efforts and financial resources? Are there any parts of Scripps that you would like to see grow or expand under your leadership?

LT: I think [supporting] low-income students is a really, really important issue for Scripps going forward. I want to make sure I really understand and learn about Scripps thoroughly before kind of saying, ‘this is what we’re doing,’ and at the same time I will be shocked if there isn’t a big part in future plans about building financial aid capacity. I know there’s strong feelings about it here and that the college is doing everything it can with the resources that it has, and what the college needs is more resources to do more on that front.

One of the complimentaries between my background and where Scripps happens to be right now is the LASPA Center. It’s kind of in its nescient stage and I have a fair amount of experience with conceptualizing leadership development with a broad view. I hope to be helpful on the fundraising side of things but also on the vision side of things, [by] helping the LASPA Center grow and have the college grow into it more.

I’m just starting to learn about and am very interested in the sciences at Scripps and the Keck Science Department. Science is a complex area in that it’s really expensive to do good science but also really important in today’s day and age for students to get a good background in science. I [want to make] sure that we have the resources that students need to be prepared for the careers and paths that they want to be prepared for.

A Strategic Plan really directs your fundraising efforts and is part of the way in which you engage possible donors. I want to mention those three [areas] with a very light touch in the sense that the strategic plan will really be directed by a process [with] a huge amount of input from the community, about ‘what’s important’ and ‘where is the energy’ here.

TSL: How would you describe yourself in three words?

LT: Kind, persistent, introverted.

TSL: What do you enjoy doing for fun?

LT: Playing with my kids.

TSL: Is there anything/anywhere you’re excited to explore in Claremont or greater southern California?

LT: I’m excited about exploring the botanical gardens in Claremont and also the hiking trails in the mountains nearby. I’ve also heard great things about Lake Arrowhead and am looking forward to going there.  Up in Northern California I always considered it a treat to go to the ocean, and I expect that will be true down here too.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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