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Career Profile: Lori Bettison-Varga

Scripps College

Lori Bettison-Varga
Lori Bettison-Varga is the president of Scripps College in California. The information for this profile is from an interview conducted on April 25, 2011.

Click on a topic below, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Current Job Description * Educational Background and Career Path * Key Decision Points in Career Path * Favorite Part of Job * Challenges in Job * Balance * Myths and Misconceptions * Advice

Briefly describe your current job responsibilities, perhaps by describing a typical day, week, month, or quarter.
The job of the president is to be the representative of the institution to all of its constituents and the outside world. The responsibility is to be the chief executive officer of the college as well as the embodiment of the college's goals and mission. On an "average" day, I can talk with students about projects or career paths, meet with the senior executive officers, speak with the board chair, receive calls from parents (to maintain high touch educational interaction), and talk with alums. I also travel to fundraise and "friendraise," participate in activities and events in higher education, speak about our goals and image to the broader world. I'm responsible for a budget that follows my vision and the vision developed with broader constituencies. I don't manage the budget day-to-day, but overall I make sure our programs are operating to their highest efficiencies within the budget. Lastly, I try to inspire the staff, faculty, and students to continue to do the fabulous work they do.

When I first began working in an all-women's school, I immediately noticed how empowering it was to work with bright intelligent women who have high aspirations and career goals. Scripps is single-sex, but we have shared classes with the Claremont Consortium so the women have plenty of time to experience the co-educational side of things, too.

Briefly describe your educational background and career path.
I saw a NOVA special in my senior year of high school with Ken McDonald showing some of the earliest video of black smokers of hydrothermal vents. I was so interested in this that I decided to go to UC Santa Barbara for my undergraduate education because that was where Ken McDonald worked. I did follow this interest and majored in geology. I then went on to UC Davis to get my Master's and PhD in ocean crust dynamics to continue studying hydrothermal vents. I ended up doing exactly what I thought I would do.

I began teaching as a visiting assistant professor at Pomona College after being married for one and a-half years, after having my first baby six weeks earlier, and having not quite finished my dissertation. I had a great experience at Pomona teaching all eight courses offered for all the other faculty. I finished my dissertation and started applying for positions at liberal arts colleges because I had really come to enjoy the emphasis on student learning instead of graduate research. I liked being able to do undergraduate research with students, too.

I was offered a job at the College of Wooster in Ohio and my husband and I had to decide what to do. I had two other offers at the same time, and my husband's job was going to be moving to Houston. Together, we decided the move to Ohio would be best for both of our careers.

The time I spent at Wooster was when I really grew as a liberal arts professor in terms of my view of education and interdisciplinary teaching, collaboration, integrating science research, and teaching first year seminars using books like "Frankenstein." There was a lot of support for faculty development at Wooster and I took advantage of opportunities as they arose. Also, three semesters of undergraduate research were required for all students and I really enjoyed mentoring students in that work. I became involved with the Keck consortium and eventually became it's director. I also was able to serve on several committees, including the committee on research and grants.

Next, I accepted a job as the Provost and Dean of Faculty at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. I knew this college and geology department through my work with the Keck consortium and was excited to begin work there. I served in this position for two years. Then, the job as President at Scripps came open. I applied and was offered the position.

Each college I have worked at has changed me fundamentally, no matter how long I worked there. They are all strong liberal arts colleges. The staff, faculty, and students have all worked to change my views.

I believe that serving on committees is important in liberal arts colleges because so many of the changes and policies are reliant on faculty governance. The work can seem burdensome, but it is very important to move the institution forward. I'm very supportive of this collaborative process. It is a lot of time and energy, but it is essentially important to affecting the institution.

What were key decision points or factors that were important in deciding your career path? Were there any specific challenges or difficult moments that arose while making your decision?
After finishing my Master's degree, I had a chance to start applying for positions and to begin working. It was at that time that I realized that I was not done with my education yet and that I needed to pursue my PhD to be able to work as a professor in a liberal arts school. I just knew this. This was the first pivotal point in my career path.

Next, I was offered the position at Wooster, which was the first real decision point that my husband and I had to make as a dual career couple. My husband was very supportive of this decision and he eventually did get a tenure track position also at the College of Wooster. We could have decided not to make this move, but eventually did it because we knew it was the best for us both.

The next step, I had a couple offers at institutions before going on to Whitman that I ultimately declined because it wasn't the right time or place for us to go as a family.

When the position came open at Whitman, I really felt it was time and that the position was a good move for us. My husband was supportive of this because he knew this was the next step in my career goals and also because his only sibling lived in Walla Walla (where Whitman is located) and he wanted that time to reconnect with family. A decision was made with my family that I would go on to Whitman alone and the kids would stay in school in Ohio with my husband for a year until my oldest child graduated from high school.

The step on to Scripps was a difficult one to make because it arose so quickly after the move to Whitman. It was particularly difficult for my middle child because he had 9th grade in Wooster, 10th grade in Walla Walla, and would complete high school in California. I think my kids are pretty resilient because of all the moving. We made the decision to go to California because there were few places where I could imagine being president and knew if I were to do the job, I would have to be passionate about the school. Administrative positions are hard to do really well if you're not passionate about the institution. You have to be a good fit for the school. Scripps is a great fit for me and I knew I could be passionate about Scripps.

What do you like best about your work?
I love how dynamic my job is. It's ever changing. I love facilitating all the work that faculty, staff and students are doing in pursuit of the goals of the college. It's fun! It's wonderful to meet alumni who are proud and who share how their career and family life have been impacted by the time they spent at the school. It's fun to listen to the passion of the students who I know are going to go out and change the world because they're bright motivated, and challenge each other and the faculty to be their very best. There is never a dull moment.

Since I enjoy meeting with students so much, I have to work hard to be sure I have time to do this. I keep a travel blog and have different groups of students over to our house, I go to concerts and events. I try very hard to meet with them whenever I can.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?
Keeping momentum forward in economically difficult times is very challenging. It's a hard time right now for all of higher education. Our students and families have been impacted by the negative economy, and the institutions are as well. We've been streamlining operations and are very fortunate to have received a fabulous gift that has allowed us to not make staffing cuts, but at the same time, we cannot do the things we want to do to advance the institution because we don't have the resources to do it. It's challenging to want to move forward, and keep costs under control. And at the same time, we need to give a small raise to our staff and faculty annually. The challenge is in trying to meet everyone's aspirational expectations that everyone has of Scripps in a tight economy while keeping morale high by letting people know how appreciated they are for all the work they do. People are working so much harder to make advances without the extra resources. Balancing all of this is a challenge.

My approach to this challenge is to give people as much information as possible about the situation and the choices we're making. I've set up community meetings to discuss the budget and breakfasts for the staff to talk about it. I attend faculty meetings and speak with student leadership. We have students and faculty as voting members at most of our board meetings. They have a voice and can serve as representatives, hear what's going on, and give their opinions of what's going on. It's my job then to articulate the choices that have been made and maintain transparency.

Many geoscientists entering the workforce are interested in balancing their personal and professional life. Please share information about your situation, your ideas and experiences about balance in your life and what challenges you have maintaining balance.
I think it's important that people understand that there's no one right way to balance professional and personal life. Everyone is going to find their own way based on their relationships and priorities. This question has been asked for decades. We're still asking it because we still haven't found a way to do it with regard to societies expectations and roles. It is still a difficult time to make decisions that seem out of sync with normal societal expectations. But, you can't let outside opinion or people influence your decisions regarding family and work. You have to do what is right for your unique situation. People may want to make statements and judge you about your choices, but they are your choices.

My husband and I have always viewed our relationship as a true partnership. This doesn't mean 50/50 all the time, sometimes it's 40/60 or 20/80. We respect and support each other. We try to model this for the kids and are sensitive to where they are in their lives, even though the family is not run as a democracy and sometimes decisions get made with which they do not initially agree.

Some people say that you have to reserve one night a week for family night or for your spouse, but I've never seen these as major benefits. There's nothing magical about it for us. We just do our stuff and are support of each other every day.

That said, it's important to have some kind of routine that you follow, some kind of activity to do together. For us, it was going to the beach every year for a week, and while it might not feel like much, it was an important part of my kids' family experience. During that week, my husband and I didn't do anything but focus on the kids.

There was a time after my youngest was born when I wanted to just quit because it was so much to balance with a lot going on personally and professionally. I was experiencing a conflict within myself about what I wanted for my career between teaching and research versus administration. I was also dealing with guilt over the kids being in daycare and our family time being short. It's tough to balance it all. Obviously, my husband and I figured it out, but it was a difficult time for us.

Are there any myths about your job that you would like to help dispel?
Some people think that people want to be president because they want the power. That couldn't be farther from the truth. I haven't met a single colleague in administration who is doing the job because they like power. When a person moves up in administration there's always a suspicion of why they are doing it. But, the people I know who are in this role are doing it because it is a calling for them. They want to serve. They want to advance the goals of the institution because they believe in them and the people who are part of that community.

What advice do you have for graduate students or post-docs preparing for careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career?
Keep your options open.

When you're working toward your PhD, the work and expectations follow a certain path toward academia. You are working with people who have all followed that path and have made that choice. It's easy to get on that hamster wheel and just follow that path. But, your passion really needs to be there. If it's not, it can be hard but necessary to make a decision in a different direction. There are always other doors to walk through. It's important to look at all the different ways to move forward. If you keep your options open, you can recognize the different opportunities when they arise.

Be sure to follow your gut instincts. This is made much easier if you know what you value because if you are really in touch with what you value, then the path will be clear.

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