Welcome to the White House: Q&A with New President

By Maureen Cowhey ‘19
Business Manager & Staff Writer

Photo by Meghan Joyce '20

Photo by Meghan Joyce '20

The Scripps Voice had the opportunity to sit down with Scripps College’s ninth president Lara Tiedens. Having been named President June 21, 2016 in an unanimous vote, Tiedens discussed her decision to leave her position as senior associate dean of academic affairs and faculty member of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, her transition to Scripps, and her goals for the future.

The Scripps Voice: How would you like to be addressed?

Larissa Z. Tiedens: You may call me Lara.

TSV: What motivated your career change?

LZT: Fully how awesome Scripps is. I was not in the market to become a college president. I was not looking for that job in fact I had served on the committee at Stanford that searched for the new president at Stanford and I thought ‘I don’t know about that job; it doesn’t look so great.’

But when Scripps contacted me- Stanford is a great place- but I have a fond place in my heart for liberal arts colleges and I certainly knew about Scripps and thought of it in a very positive light, but I wasn’t an expert in it. I had been to the campus, but it had been a long time.
So I remember I got the email from the search firm asking if I had any interest, and I let it sit there for a couple days. In the way that higher education works, there are all there search firms always looking for all these positions and it was just usually very easy for me to send messages back saying “no, I am not interested. I am good where I am.” This one, I thought, ‘hmm, I’m not ready to say ‘no.’” I let it sit and threw it around in my head and thought, “I’m going to talk to them and just see.”

I had the first contact with the search firm and thought that this sounds better and better, and I started obsessively reading the website. I read The Scripps Voice online and everything I could find. From the very beginning, every bit more I learned about Scripps the more I liked it and the more I felt that it was a very special place. I would say that was the main motivator. I think in conjunction with that, in the recent past, liberal arts has been under attack and I think it is something that needs to be saved and preserved and cherished. That was another piece of it - Scripps being so special and through this position to be a protector of the liberal arts approach to education.

The other piece of it was that, since high school, I have thought of myself as a feminist and at lots of different points in my life been involved in things oriented towards the advancement of women. In the last few years, I had been involved in several efforts towards the advancement of women that really got me thinking about the stalling of the advancement of women. Tons of progress has been made, but still not enough. Scripps’s mission around the advancement of women is also very appealing to me. Early at some point in the process, I met with students and talked to them about what brought them here, and I think a lot of what they said really resonated with me. Very much of what they loved is what I loved. The other piece that I really heard when I spoke with first-years, and I think if you have been here long enough you really start to forget, but how many of them talked about their first time visiting campus and just the feeling of the campus and how good this place feels. I very much had that experience.
I will not forget that first time and walking - i came early in the morning and it was just so quiet - through honnold gate and down the lawn and just the smell of the trees and just the way the air sits and students starting walking around. I have been on a lot of college campuses as an academic and scripps has a very distinct and unique feel that is really special and hard to say ‘no’ to.

 TSV: Following the events last year on CMC and college campuses across the country, what will you do to best support marginalized communities and open a dialogue between the administration and students?

 LZT: I hope that students will consider my door open and that they will also see the Dean of Students office as open to them as well.  The rest of the administration team and I want to work collaboratively with students on building a community that supports all students. If students have ideas about ways we can do better (and I hope they do!), I hope that will tell us as those ideas as soon as they emerge.

TSV: How will you foster a community that allows people with different or even controversial opinions to speak up?

LZT: This year, we are trying out a new program called “ConverActions on the National Climate on Race, Community, and Change.”  These events are designed to provide students, staff, and faculty opportunities to engage in meaningful, challenging conversations about race, class, and politics. These conversations will provide an environment to explore racial and ethnic identity and to gain insights into the experiences of others. Our ultimate goal is to create a more inclusive community, where all voices are heard and valued.  The first one was great, and I look forward to the next one.  We are also very open to other ideas from the community about how to promote and produce an environment with deep discussions of opposing views, so I hope that those will be suggested to us.

TSV:  Do you have plans to make Scripps more accessible to students with physical disabilities?

LZT: This is a topic that SAS has said that they would like to work with us on this year.  I’m eager to engage in this work with SAS.

TSV: What long term and short term goals do you have for Scripps?

LZT: In the short term, even though I just told you how much time I spent researching this place, I did it in a way that I could under the cloak of secrecy. It was all reading online and books, and I learned a lot, but there are huge limitations to what you can learn through those modes. So my biggest short term goal is to really learn about the college in a way that I couldn’t then - which is to really learn about the people and get to know them. [I want to] understand what the experiences here are for students, faculty, staff, alumnae then and now, how the board of trustees experience the college, and how the consortium experiences us (and vice versa). The first year, as it always is for a new president, especially one from the outside, is for deep learning. That is what I will be most engaged in and am already engaged in, but will continue throughout the year because this is a complex place. I want to do that because I can’t really do anything without doing that first.

Another big thing that was part of the job description is to create a new strategic plan for Scripps College. We have one that dates back to 2007, and most people believe that it’s time for something new. I think the way that strategic planning works best is through a deep understanding of the institution itself. I can’t make a good strategic plan without understanding the organization really well. The big long term goal is to establish a vision for the college. Where are we going? We’re about to turn 90 and I want to know what Scripps looks like at 100. Where are the energies and passions within the college about what it wants to be. I can’t come in and say this is what “I” want Scripps to be at 100 because it is about what the whole “community” needs and will put their efforts into. As I am getting to know the place, it’s partly in this open ended way, but also in this targeted way of listening for the currents that are out there that will turn into the river that becomes the strategic plan. We need a plan that takes into account who students are now and who students will likely be in the next 10 years.

TSV: If you could create and name a drink at the Motley what would it be?

LVT: “Monty’s Motley Meow” – Vanilla, black tea, milk, a touch of agave.

TSV: Which hall would you like to live in?

LZT: The only residence hall I have seen the inside of, at this point, is New Hall, and I was ready to move in even while it was still under construction. I am looking forward to seeing the others after having heard so much about each hall’s beauty and character!

TSV: Tell us a bit about your family (including pets) — who’s in it, what they’re like, etc.

LZT: There are 4 human members (me, my husband Dale, my daughter Elena, and son William).  My husband is a social psychologist.  He is originally from Canada and is highly identified with being Canadian.  My daughter is in 7th grade and loves history and literature.  She is also a dancer (ballet and tap).  My son William is in pre-school.  He loves trucks and loves to cook. We also have a cat, Montgomery, who goes by “Monty.”  He is my daughter’s cat and is named after L.M. Montgomery, the author of “Anne of Green Gables.”

TSV: How is your family enjoying living in the Revelle house?

LZT: We are all liking it, and we each have our favorite part.  I love the wood paneled room with all the bookshelves (our browsing room), my husband loves the garden, my daughter has a beautiful gabled room that overlooks the oak tree, and my son loves being so close to the cookies of Malott Commons.