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Lori Bettison-Varga named new president of L.A. County's Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has picked Lori Bettison-Varga, president of Scripps College in Claremont, as its next president.

In announcing Bettison-Varga's hiring Wednesday, the Natural History Museum became one of the few large Southern California cultural institutions to have a woman follow another woman as its top executive.

The choice of Bettison-Varga also follows a tradition of putting a scientist in charge. Raised in Long Beach, she was a professor of geology for 17 years before veering into administrative jobs at small liberal arts colleges starting in 2007. She has led Scripps, a women's college of about 1,000 students, since 2009.

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She will replace Jane Pisano, who in September announced her intention to leave the post. Pisano had been an expert in public administration and a longtime high-ranking administrator at USC before the Natural History Museum tapped her as president in 2001.

The Natural History Museum operates major venues in Exposition Park and at the La Brea Tar Pits with combined attendance of more than 1.1 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30. After some initial downsizing to cope with chronic budget problems, Pisano presided over growth and revitalization centered on a $148-million capital campaign that during the last five years has yielded a renovation of the Exposition Park site's exhibits, including new halls for dinosaurs and mammals, refurbished nature dioramas, a new entrance pavilion where the bones of a huge fin whale swim in the air and the opening of an indoor nature lab and outdoor gardens that focus on L.A.'s urban biosphere.

Pisano said in an interview that one of her remaining tasks before Bettison-Varga takes over in October will be trying to complete the capital campaign, which is $11 million short of its goal.

Bettison-Varga, 53, said she's excited to take charge of a museum that thrilled her when she was a girl coming to Exposition Park and to the tar pits on school field trips.

"From early on I was interested in science, and those trips stimulated that interest," she said, recalling the venerable taxidermic dioramas as a particular favorite. "Kids have a moment when they become excited about something, and for me it became a passion that stuck with me."

Bettison-Varga went on to earn a doctorate in geology at UC Davis, followed by teaching positions at Pomona College and the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. Her first administrative job before being tapped to lead Scripps was provost and dean of faculty at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

The Natural History Museum wasn't committed to hiring a scientist as president, said Sarah Meeker Jensen, chairwoman of its board, nor was the search concerned with the new leader's gender. Most of the seven or eight finalists were men, she said, but it was Bettison-Varga who aced her job interview, striking the search committee of 10 museum trustees as the best candidate.

"We were completely exhausted" after a long day of interviewing finalists in May, Jensen recalled, when Bettison-Varga had her turn. "Lori came in the room and electrified us. She's so smart and funny and direct and charismatic. She has a brand of leadership that's very fresh and will serve the museum exceedingly well."

Bettison-Varga is approachable, friendly and collaborative, said Mark Herron, chairman of Scripps College's board of trustees.

"We've been very fortunate to have her," he said.

Under Bettison-Varga, Scripps launched a $175-million fundraising campaign. Herron said it has taken in $115 million so far.

At Scripps, Bettison-Varga was involved in two decisive and controversial calls during 2014.

Last fall — in a decision that Herron said was ultimately the board's rather than the college president's — Scripps canceled a speaking engagement by conservative pundit George Will after one of his syndicated Washington Post columns had ventured into the tinderbox subject of campus rape investigations.

Will detailed a case at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania that in his view was an obvious instance of consensual sex between students but had led to a complaint and sexual assault investigation. Sparking outrage in some quarters, Will maintained that this was an example of "capacious definitions of sexual assault" that reflect how "progressivism" on campuses has come to "make victimhood a coveted status."

According to a report by the Pomona College publication, the Student Life, Bettison-Varga announced the cancellation in a letter to Scripps students last October, saying that "sexual assault is not a conservative or liberal issue, and it is too important to be trivialized in a political debate wrapped into a celebrity controversy." After Will questioned a specific case "that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students," the college decided "not to finalize the speaker agreement."

"In a women's college, sexual assault issues are serious," Bettison-Varga said Tuesday. She said that a campus visit by Will would have generated far more heat than light, setting off a storm over his position on campus rape rather than yielding a substantive political discussion. She noted that other conservative political figures, including Newt Gingrich and columnist Charles Krauthammer, have been part of the guest speaker series at Scripps.

Bettison-Varga made another controversial call early in 2014 when she rejected a candidate to head a new Center for Leadership at Scripps. It aims to give students a chance to receive guidance and inspiration from visiting speakers, scholars and social activists who are accomplished women. She started the search anew despite the recommendation by a search committee of students, faculty and alumnae. The Student Life reported that students protested outside Bettison-Varga's on-campus residence, but she was not swayed, insisting that she had authority over the hiring decision.

Lisa Watson, head of the Downtown Women's Center serving homeless women on L.A.'s skid row, recently was announced as head of the leadership program, which will begin this fall.

At the Natural History Museum, Bettison-Varga will take charge of an institution that lately has shown no signs of strife.

"Jane [Pisano] brought the whole staff very much together into a kind of cohesive family feeling," board chair Jensen said. Potentially contentious decisions about how to divide funding among different needs and departments in a multifaceted museum "is all done in a really good spirit," Jensen said. "That's a real gift. Jane will be a tough act to follow."

Pisano shifted the organization's priorities, reducing curatorial jobs devoted to scientific research that takes place behind the scenes and emphasizing the need to improve what the museum offered the general public. It receives $20 million in annual funding from county government, about half its $40.4-million operating budget in 2013-14, the most recent year for which figures are available.

In 2004, Pisano's second full year on the job, spending was split 50-50 between research on the one hand and exhibits and public educational programs on the other. Last year the split was 62-38, favoring the public offerings. Combined spending for the two facets of the museum's mission has doubled, adjusting for inflation, from $11.5 million in 2004 to $23 million in 2014. Although their share of the pie is smaller, research and collections have seen inflation-adjusted budgets rise to $8.9 million from $5.6 million over 10 years.

Luis Chiappe, the noted dinosaur expert who's the museum's vice president for research and collections, said Pisano was right to try to bring the behind-the-scenes research out of "an ivory tower" and make it more relevant to what museumgoers get to experience.

"Jane has transformed this institution, but the work is not 100% completed," he said. "Where it is now is a tremendous change from where we were a decade ago, and I'm confident with new leadership we'll be able to take it to a new level."

Of Bettison-Varga, Chiappe said: "My first impression is that she is a tremendous fundraiser who has a great deal of management experience and the scientific credentials to understand the importance of research. I was very impressed by her easygoingness and her understanding of an institution like this."

Chiappe and Jensen said that despite all the growth under Pisano, big jobs lie ahead for Bettison-Varga, who begins with a three-year contract calling for mutual renewal options that could extend it to seven years.

Chiappe said that the museum lacks a suitable showcase for its collections and research on marine life, and he'd like to see a new hall carved out of the sprawling building in Exposition Park so that it can address what he sees as an important gap in its public offerings — especially for a nature museum in a major coastal city.

Jensen said the auditorium in Exposition Park needs to be upgraded. Meanwhile, under Bettison-Varga, museum leaders will begin intense strategizing for a makeover of the Page Museum at the tar pits. Chiappe said the aim is to make the astonishing fossils there more directly reflect current issues such as climate change, extinction and biodiversity.

Bettison-Varga thinks that being a scientist will position her to bring passion and knowledge to the task of communicating the nature museum's work to the public and to potential donors.

Her husband, Bob Varga, is a geologist who heads the Keck Geology Consortium, which is based at Pomona College in Claremont and oversees field research by undergraduates from campuses across the country.

They have three children: a daughter in high school, a son at Chapman University and a doctoral candidate son at the University of Arizona.

The most recent available public filings from Scripps and the Natural History Museum show that Bettison-Varga's earnings and benefits totaled $542,261 in 2012, compared to $439,177 for Pisano. The county government pays a department head's salary of $158,898 and the Natural History Museum Foundation's board sets the total compensation package and makes up the difference.

A museum spokeswoman said Wednesday that details of the new president's compensation haven't been finalized yet.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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