Scientist, Educator & Speaker
This is the third in a series of interviews with women leaders that aim to inspire, motivate, and provide useful tips for advancing your career towards becoming a leader in your field.
NW: Before taking on the top leadership role at the Natural History Museum just recently in 2015, you were president of Scripps College in Claremont, CA for six years. What were some of your most important achievements of that time as president of a liberal arts college and leader in women’s education?
LBV: When I was at Scripps, we shifted from a place of viewing the world at Scripps as one of the past and moving us to a more contemporary view of higher education and societal issues, particularly with a progressive student body interested in pushing us forward. We really tried to take on some of the challenging issues around equity and inclusion on a campus that was primarily white. We worked hard to shift the dialogue in the community, with my senior team as well as with the students. That’s ongoing work, it’s never going to end. I feel that during my time there that I helped to infuse that conversation broadly across the community. Some folks might reflect on that and say that it wasn’t as successful as they hoped it would be, but I felt great about starting that work and moving us forward in the conversation. I think that is a role that women’s colleges in particular have always played. Certainly, they were founded on this idea of equity and access to education.
NW: Were you successful in translating what you had started into a more diverse student body?
LBV: I think the challenge with the diversity of the student body was related to the financial aid packages that the college was able to provide. That is a limitation. The more diverse the community, the more open that dialogue can be. Frankly, I think many liberal arts colleges that are small like Scripps confront the challenges of diversifying the student body for financial reasons. But, also because a lot of families don’t recognize that they can get financial aid to have their children attend institutions like Scripps. The diversity process was slow – it was better some years than others. A lot of that connected to the circumstances of the financial packages we were able to provide.
NW: What did you learn during your presidency at Scripps College that you are now applying to your work at the Natural History Museum?
LBV: That equity and inclusion piece, which is really phenomenal! Here we are as a county institution, and we have the three sites. Our largest museums–the Natural History Museum here in Exposition Park and the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum on Miracle Mile–– are located in two very different communities. We have an incredibly strong and diverse local audience at this location [Natural History Museum], whereas, the La Brea Tar Pits certainly beloved by a local audience, but is more of a national and international tourist destination.
NW: Do you think it’s because of the geography?
LBV: I think it’s partly geography, but I don’t know entirely. I think this neighborhood [surrounding the Natural History Museum] may be more familiar and welcoming to a diverse population than perhaps Hancock Park is. But, I can’t really tell you. I don’t think we really know. But, I do know that the staff at the Museum are really interested in ensuring that our programs are accessible. We are thinking about ways to get out into the community more, rather than just having it destination oriented. So, that’s a shift in thought. Also, we’re thinking about bilingual signage and bilingual exhibit development — bringing that sense of the strong, forward, progressive Scripps student/Scripps faculty focus on equity and inclusion to the public arena where I think we have a lot of work to be done. And, people are really excited about doing that work.
NW: You oversee the Natural History Museum here in Exposition Park, The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Hancock Park, and the William S. Hart Museum in Newhall. Altogether, these museums are some of the great cultural institutions of LA County and Southern California. What are some of the activities going on at each museum that you find particularly exciting?
LBV: Here at the Natural History Museum, I love that we have all of the framing of the traditional natural history work – dinosaurs, minerals and gems, mammals, exhibit development. And also that we are a museum of living nature, so we have a nature lab downstairs that moves into the 3 ½ acre nature gardens. We have a strong and robust citizen scientist program. And we have activities that are really geared across all age levels.
At La Brea Tar Pits and Museum – let’s just face it – it is a portal into the Ice Age in a region that is so urban and dense. People throughout the world recognize it as a unique location and I think we have the potential to enhance Angelenos’ understanding of what the story really is there. We are continually working on that. In the Fall, we are going to have a climate change series that I’m really excited about that we’re working on with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.
Then the William S. Hart Museum is a sleepy house museum with parks around it that Parks & Rec manage. We have a silent film festival in the summer, and that’s a really interesting project, as well.
So, there’s something going on at each location and the programs are continually changing.
NW: Are there new initiatives or programs that you would like to develop, or already have in the pipeline since your arrival in 2015?
LBV: Yes, we are in strategic planning right now. We have three different major goal areas that we are starting to develop. Those will be publically accessible in the next several months. But, we’re beginning to think about master planning at La Brea Tar Pits and Museum since the Hancock Park region has changed so dramatically and will continue with the Metro stop and LACMA’s new building and The Academy.
Of course here [at the Natural History Museum], we are looking at opportunities to develop a theater and really be a hub for dialogue about the natural and cultural worlds. We have a theater that’s been closed for years because of access issues. So, we’re limited in some of the programming that we can do in terms of the space and the ability to bring large groups of people in. We are also looking at new exhibit development with the bilingual goal. In the Fall, we’ll be opening a Paleo play zone that will be in the discovery zone area for young kids – which is really great. We’re working on some traveling exhibits that will be coming in, and revising some other exhibits. Some freshening — continual ongoing work!
NW: What is your view of striking the right balance between supporting research that museum scientists conduct behind the scenes, and supporting public educational programs that visibly showcase your collections and research work?
LBV: We are hiring new curators specifically with the understanding that their work is to be brought to the public arena. We have a group of 15 curators now, many of whom are involved in that public-facing work. Just like institutions that have faculty who do research, teaching, and service – we have that same balance here. But, it’s critical because the assets we have here are county assets. It’s critical that we’re sharing them with the public. Our curators really get that and are engaged in all sorts of presentations – public, as well as with small groups. They’re very interested in sharing their knowledge with the public.
NW: You are a geologist by training and it was a big part of your academic career for quite a while. What led you to pursue administrative positions, rather than continuing with research and teaching?
LBV: At the College of Wooster when I was a faculty member there, I really became interested in institutional organizational structure that supported the work of faculty to implement the mission, to do all these things they had to do. I found that piece of it empowering for me – helping other people do what they wanted to do. That seemed like the natural progression to becoming an administrator. I loved the geology research I was doing when I was doing it. But, I think the limited scope of reach for me was not as fulfilling as being a part of uplifting a mission and really impacting a greater number of people through that work.
NW: Do you have specific advice for women who are seeking leadership positions in their field?
LBV: One of the things I learned when I was going through the process early on of making decisions about whether or not to apply to anything is something many women figure out. They think they have to have this really incredible, robust resume that has everything done; they just have to have all of this stuff done before they’re willing to take a leap and apply for a position. Sometimes you just have to say, “Yes, I’ll put my name in the hat.” Instead of, “No, I haven’t done X, Y, or Z.” You have to say “Yes” to get your name in the hat. I think there’s something to just taking the risk. It’s very easy to be safe and stay in your position because it feels familiar, and you’re not sure, and you question yourself about whether or not you have all the skill set that you need to take on that next responsibility. Everybody always realizes when they take a new position that they are always developing that skill set. So, say yes to the opportunity.
NW: Are you the kind of person who thrives on being at the bottom half of the learning trajectory?
LBV: I like new challenges, absolutely! I think as I’m learning, it’s not so much that I’m at the bottom half of the steep side of the curve climbing up, it’s that I’m always learning. I never shut the door and think that I know everything. How can anybody know everything? I’m someone who really likes to go to conferences, meetings, or events because I’ll always take a nugget away and think, “Oh! I can apply that here or there to that program.” I like to think about what I could be doing with new ideas.
NW: You raised three children while developing an intensive career, first as a professor of geology at the College of Wooster, and now as President of the Natural History Museum – with notable leadership positions in between. Do you have any tips or insights on how to manage work and home life?
LBV: I think the trick is — if you have a partner, to really work in a partnership. Which means to me it’s not always 50:50. Sometimes the partner has got 90% of what has to be done, and other times I would have 90%. Truth be told, my partner – my husband – has probably been much more on the heavier side than not. I think communication and having a strong support network is critical in making time for family. I think my kids would say I could have been better at it, but they also say they are proud that I’m their mom. I try not to second guess myself as much as I think I used to. You’re a good enough parent if your kids love you and they know you love them. That was our mantra, and has been to this day.
NW: Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
LBV: I would encourage more women who feel like they have something to bring to an organizational structure that is missing, to step into the role and just give it a try. Not be worried about the negativity that often surrounds people who are in those positions. Being in leadership positions in higher education can be incredibly challenging. And certainly in governmental and elected office – those are really challenging positions. But, we need people who really are driven by that notion of servant leadership – serving and helping people. We need people to step into those roles and I would love to see more women doing that.
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