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Scripps President Defends the Place of a Women's College

December 12, 2010

Erica Bellman
Scripps President Defends the Place of a Women's College

Scripps President Lori Bettison-Varga’s cozy Balch Hall office contains an immense, honey-hued wooden table, made from the elm trees that once stood before Mallott Commons.  The table was a gift for the President’s 2009 inauguration and commencement, The Genius of Women—a memory she cherishes.  Bettison-Varga has worked for coed Whitman College in Washington and the College of Wooster in Ohio, but Scripps’ female-focused environment has won her heart.  “Just being in the interview [at Scripps] with mostly women was so empowering. Not intimidating at all," Bettison-Varga said, in an exclusive interview with the Forum. "It gave me a sense of what it’s like to be in class with only women.  You’re willing to take risks: I will raise my hand, I will ask that question.  There’s the freedom to be 100 percent yourself.”

In 1976, Claremont Men’s College became Claremont McKenna College, a coeducational institution with a student body equally divided between men and women.  Admittedly, CMC’s more masculine reputation may not land far from the truth, but CMCers of both genders are known to embrace the school’s culture as their own.  Graduating CMCers are prepared to enter a world where men and women coexist within the workplace—whether that’s Wall Street, Washington, or the art world.

But the new Scripps president insists that a women’s college will forever remain relevant. “We’re at a point in time where people will say ‘Why?  Women can do what they want!’” Scripps President Bettison-Varga mused during our interview.  “But the bottom line is that women are not yet equal to men.”  According to Scripps College’s 8thpresident—and only the 2nd female to hold the position—the place of a women’s college in America remains vital.

Mention the word “Scrippsie” to most Claremont students and a barrage of stereotypes will follow: artsy, bookish, naïve, ravenous for men, uninterested in men...and all female.  These stereotypes—a mixture of entirely off-based and completely true—exist for each of the 5Cs.  But what may be different about the Scripps stereotypes are their actual effect on the student body’s mentality.  Initially, Scripps students may not take as much pride in their school as most CMCers do.

“It’s a tough thing,” President Bettison-Varga acknowledged. “You know, there’s only a small portion of students attracted to the idea of attending a women’s college from the get-go.  It really is when we get students here on campus that they realize ‘Wow, it’s a fabulous college, it’s a women’s college, and it’s set within a co-ed environment.’”

In order to cultivate a cohesive Scripps community, Bettison-Varga believes the college’s unique humanities Core requirements set students on the path to becoming empowered women.  “Women at women’s colleges have more chances to become leaders, more high-impact opportunities to further their knowledge, and become more engaged in their academic experiences than women at coed colleges,” Bettison-Varga explained.  “If you looks at the sciences, women’s colleges historically have a higher percentage of women going on the pursue PhDs. More women role models means more supportive environments.”  Bettison-Varga cited statistics from the Women's College Coalition to support her stance that a “leaky pipeline” still exists from college to the post-graduate and professional fields for women.

The oft-spoken catchword at another 5C, “leadership,” has infiltrated Bettison-Varga’s own vocabulary.  The Roxanne Wilson Fund for Women’s Leadership has brought prominent women in various fields—culinary sensation Alice Waters, for one—to campus in order to promote leadership at Scripps.  The 2007 Strategic Plan for Scripps outlined an idea for a women’s center for leadership, eventually a physical building where faculty and students can conduct research related to leadership.  “The idea is to really think about how we can set ourselves apart from other centers in Claremont like this and build upon what is unique about Scripps,” Bettison-Varga stated, a bit vaguely.  The center for research in leadership seems to be a plan still emerging for Scripps.  

Bettison-Varga’s primary goal is to shine a spotlight on Scripps to enhance the college’s visibility on the national level.  With the most aesthetically beautiful campus in Claremont—“an environment conducive to reflection”—and a ranking within the top 25 liberal arts colleges, visibility would not seem to be an issue for Scripps.  “What we can do to help raise visibility is important to the future of the college,” Bettison-Varga said.

The president also believes the other Claremont Colleges have a duty to explain the consortium, clear and in full.

“The consortium can be more proactive as a collective in articulating who we are so that people know when they’re at Scripps they’re not going to take a shuttle bus to CMC,” she said.

Philanthropy is certainly not a weakness at Scripps.  This year, the White House recognized the Scripps College Academy as one of fifteen winners of the National Arts & Humanities Youth Program Award. The SCA is a program to prepare female students at underserved high schools in Los Angeles County for college.  Each summer, around 50 students reside on campus for a two-week intensive program.  Last year, 100% of SCA graduates attended college.

 With an idyllic campus, an array of academic options, and a reputation for doing good in the community, Scripps College certainly has a great deal to offer.  But in a world where men and women must work together toward common goals, the concept of a college exclusively for women may approach irrelevancy. The President doesn't think feminists can rest their case just yet; she thinks women still face subjection.

“Feminism means equality,” Bettison-Varga stated.

If equality is what feminists strive for, wouldn’t the ideal move be a coed Scripps College?  According to President Bettison-Varga, the answer is, simply, no.  “There will always be a place for the women’s college,” she said.  But there's a certain danger for Scripps in retaining this feminist mindset.

The President’s comments suggest she recognizes the natural limits of the institution she inherited.  Landlocked by coed colleges similarly bent on increasing the renown of the consortium, Scripps’ original premise could prove a detriment to its growth.  Will American undergraduate women continue to believe they can attain equality through academic separation from their male counterparts?  For Claremont Men’s College, equality meant welcoming women into the student body; will Scripps one day make this crucial move towards integration?

Bettison-Varga rejects the idea of a coed Scripps College.  For now, she can do so safely; buffered by four coed colleges, the “heart of the 5Cs” can maintain its traditional identity.  50 years from now, however, the idea of a women’s college may well be an artifact of Claremont's history.

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