At Scripps College’s weekly afternoon tea, the college displayed posters emblazoned with the bold-faced slogan of the new fundraising campaign: “We want more.” These particular posters tacked on an inviting ellipsis, prompting students to let the college know in writing what they would like to see more of at Scripps. The responses on the posters were largely to be expected. They focused on amenities (“air conditioning”), food (“more bread pudding”; “pesto”), and hinted at academic opportunities (“summer grants to study abroad”; “STEM awareness”). I stood there scrutinizing the posters, eating my cupcake and drinking my tea and wondering—what did I want more of from my college? Then I spied some phrases hidden among the multi-colored jumble: “feminism,” “people of color,” “financial aid,” “people from diverse socioeconomic classes,” “more GWS classes.” OK, I thought, now we’re talking.
“We want more” is a fundraising campaign launched by Scripps earlier this week. The campaign looks to raise $175 million to go to five areas: academic excellence, national leadership, signature campus, financial strength, and collective power. The focus, if diffuse, is clear: improve student resources, continue to coif our picturesque campus, and establish a competitive endowment. Generally speaking, these are great goals; of course I want Scripps to offer more academic resources and maintain an image that draws prospective students and earns us national accolades.
But what do I really want more of at Scripps? Simply put, I want a radical reconsideration of how we conceptualize and interact with diversity. I want the calls for diversity to take the forefront of the posters displayed at tea. I wanted it scrawled in big, unapologetic, colorful letters. I want this to take precedent for my community, at least over “pesto.”
Though “We want more” is a fundraising campaign tied up in very real monetary concerns, it’s important to consider that it is also a campaign to realize our identity as a college. In a letter posted on the campaign’s website, President Lori Bettison-Varga writes, “We are not a women’s college of the East. We are deeply rooted in the pioneering spirit of the West—a story that is still unfolding.” Problematic colonialist evocations of Manifest Destiny aside, Bettison-Varga’s statement captures the fact that Scripps is looking to build an identity that distinguishes it from other colleges. With the liberal arts and humanities coming under popular siege, I think this a great time for some reflection. Yet I wonder if this campaign for Scripps College has its head too far in the clouds of a liberal narrative of progress, rather than critically addressing some of the structural issues at work here—in our academics, student body, and administration, and the communication among all three.
As an Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (FGSS) and English dual major, I have maintained a foot in the door of two dramatically different departments that have come to symbolize some of my tensions with Scripps. The Scripps English major is rigid in structure, distinctly canonical, and, quite frankly, set in its ways. The courses employ an add-and-stir method when it comes to including writing by authors of diverse races and backgrounds, tacking on a woman of color poet here or there.
Wondering why I struggled to connect to the literature I was reading, I gravitated toward the FGSS department. The department is marginal at best. It is embarrassingly small for a women’s college, boasting just two non-cross-listed faculty. Yet it is where I did find diversity. It’s where I started to have critical conversations about the way we do things here. It’s where I learned the words to explain why I felt so alienated from the Scripps community for so long.
I often joke that I came to Scripps by happenstance, largely because my background does not indicate the trajectory so commonplace for my peers. I am a first-generation student who attended what would popularly be called an integrated inner-city high school. I am from a working class family, but I can pass at the 5Cs because I am white. Structural issues are more apparent to me because there are virtually no ways in which Scripps resembles where I came from.
There is a certain order to life at Scripps that is very obvious to my predominantly white, upper middle class peers yet entirely foreign to me. Usually, I brush off the lack of diversity, the lack of awareness of different positionalities, the micro-aggression moments when I explain that, no, I did not have an internship this summer because I folded clothes for minimum wage instead. But when it comes to academics, the lack of questioning about who we study and why we study them, that I have had trouble getting behind.
This straddled position, and the disconnects that have arisen between departments and disciplines, characterizes the way Scripps is grappling with ties to a traditional past and a tenuous grasp on a changing future. It has pushed me to wonder: In what ways are we embracing the messages of diversity and inclusivity that we are marketing to prospective students with our admission brochures, our queer theorists, our postcolonial scholars? In what ways are we still holding on to the traditional, classed, Westernized approaches to knowledge creation and dissemination so apparent in the English requirements? These are big questions that I, as a student who knows nothing of the business of running a college and has only experienced a taste of the bureaucracy behind all that Spanish-style architecture, cannot begin to resolve. But it’s time to negotiate our tradition of excellence with our capacity for real change.
In her letter Bettison-Varga writes, “We have set our sights on a new era of leadership in higher education—a new era of leadership in women’s education and in the liberal arts.” I’m behind you, LBV, but I hope that the Scripps community considers what leadership looks like. Is it students of color? Is it students on financial aid? Is it students exploring their interests in a dynamic academic setting? I suppose that I’m asking these questions because I do agree that we can do more.
I do not think that the concerns I raise here are shocking or new to my peers. I think they are structural, institutional issues that are often so subtle and so ingrained that they go overlooked in favor of more glaring, and potentially more trivial, issues like the lack of air conditioning in the dorms. But in order to look at what ‘more’ means for Scripps, we need to first establish a sense of what’s really going on here. We need to have the hard conversations about race and class and resources and curricula that are so often cloaked in well-to-do false promises about diversity and inclusivity, but are rarely concretely demonstrated. If we are ready to critically look at our identity and our future as a college, then I’m on board. Let’s talk about ‘more.’