Scripps College welcomes its 10th president, Suzanne Keen, an internationally known narrative empathy theorist whose work as a leader, scholar, and teacher is animated by an ethic of care.
By Katherine Juhl Griffiths
Unanimously selected from a highly competitive pool over an eight-month search process, Suzanne Keen’s proven track record of administrative and academic leadership, strategic planning, and fundraising, as well as her commitment to inclusivity, access, and affordability, establish a framework for her success at Scripps.
“President Keen is committed to the long-term stability of the Scripps mission; this empowers her to think not only of the issues of the day, but also in a very strategic and long-term way,” says Laura Hockett ’85, chair of the Board of Trustees.
Keen was attracted to Scripps because it offers gender-diverse students a woman-centered education inside a coeducational consortium.
“Scripps is a small liberal arts college. It has roles for women and for gender -diverse students, who wouldn’t necessarily have as ample opportunity for leadership. These are unique strengths,” says Keen. “Some of the other colleges that Scripps considers its peers have consortia, but you have to get on a bus or a van or train to get to the other colleges. The fact that you can just walk across campus and take coursework or study with a professor on another Claremont campus is just one reason to love the opportunities that the consortium affords our students.”
Being part of the larger consortium also will inform Keen’s decision-making as a president, as well as her leadership of Scripps.
“My role is, first and foremost, to advocate for and to represent Scripps and to make sure that Scripps gets a good deal,” she says. “Scripps is well-respected and absolutely considered a good partner, and I certainly hope to continue that by cultivating concord and showing that I’m interested in the other colleges’ worlds.”
A seasoned senior administrator, Keen previously was chair of the English department and dean of the college at Washington and Lee. She joins Scripps from Hamilton College, where she was vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty.
As a chief academic officer, Keen enhanced experiential learning opportunities for students by expanding undergraduate research, improving access to study abroad and internship programs, and establishing a robust academic advising initiative. She also recruited and retained faculty in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields, creating a supportive environment for scholarly achievement, instructional excellence, and professional development. At both Washington and Lee and Hamilton, Keen increased hiring of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and women faculty in fields where they were historically underrepresented and supported their success through mentoring, implementation of campus-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and articulation of antiracist principles.
“As the number of small, residential liberal arts colleges diminishes across the country, the ones that remain provide a unique academic environment that includes a focus on growth beyond the classroom,” says Trustee Lynne Thompson ’72. “Having served in the administrations of Hamilton and Washington and Lee colleges, President Keen is uniquely positioned to understand the myriad issues that exist across the Scripps community in the 21st century.”
Raised in Washington, Pennsylvania, Keen studied studio art and English at Brown University, then earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Brown and completed doctoral work in English language and literature at Harvard University. During an exhaustive series of interviews with Scripps’ Presidential Search Committee, she differentiated herself among 64 applicants and 14 semifinalists by the rigor of her engagement.
“She came to every interview with not only materials we provided, but also her own in-depth research on Scripps,” says Hockett. “This enabled us to engage in very rich discussion on multiple topics.”
“I can’t help but think how appropriate President Keen’s surname is,” agrees Thompson. “She has a quick and eager mind.”
“I like her poise,” says Julienne Ho ’23, who served as a student representative on the Presidential Search Committee. “She is excellent at thinking quickly and responding under pressure. She just has it all together.”
Recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and author of four sc holarly books, a textbook, and a volume of poetry, Keen has brought her love of literature to interdisciplinary empathy research. Google Scholar rated her 2006 article, “A Theory of Narrative Empathy” #1 Classic Paper of 2006 in Literature and Writing and Phi Beta Kappa Society tapped her 2014 book, Thomas Hardy’s Brains: Psychology, Neurology, and Hardy’s Imagination, as a finalist for the 2015 Christian Gauss Award. Her best-known work is Empathy and the Novel (Oxford University Press, 2007), which presents a comprehensive account of the relationships among novel reading, empathy, and altruism.
Keen’s administrative acumen and dynamic scholarship both are rooted in a passion for undergraduate education. She has taught at Yale University, Washington and Lee University, and Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. “I love teaching,” she says. “I pride myself on equipping my students—from the very beginning, first-year writing seminars to graduate students—to become better communicators, so that no matter what walk of life they end up in, they’re going to be the writer to whom everyone in their organization turns.”
This passion will inform her new role as a college president by reinforcing her alignment with the teaching mission of Scripps.
“Everything we do at Scripps is about the academic mission to support students who will graduate equipped to make a difference,” she says. “I hope that every decision that I make is a decision that benefits the student experience.”
Keen anticipates that her leadership style, deeply and profoundly informed by her academic interest in empathy and her teaching experience, will cultivate an enhanced spirit of listening at Scripps.
“I think empathy is incredibly important,” she says. “My personal empathy stands me in good stead as a listener: a person who tries to understand where the other person is coming from. I prefer to enter conversations with a preset of open mindedness, positivity, and optimism that we’re all pursuing aims that are intended to be beneficial to the community, writ large, always with students at the center.”
“Dr. Keen is one who listens more than most and deeply processes what she hears,” says Hockett. “She is adept at assimilating new information and is willing to adjust her own views as situations evolve.”
“During her first meeting with Scripps’ Staff Council, President Keen was specific in addressing each of us at the table, asking about our individual areas of work, and giving thoughtful comments,” says Staff Council Co -Chair Christina Ranney, assistant to the Core director and administrative coordinator of Core Curriculum. “The president engages with many people: staff, faculty, students, parents, and alumnae, to name just a few. President Keen’s personable, professional approach makes others feel comfortable around her. When people feel comfortable, they can work, live,
study, and teach with increased confidence.”
Throughout her career, Keen has worked to expand access to higher education by increasing affordability and ensuring commensurate curricular and co-curricular experiences for low- and middle-income students and their full-pay peers. Over the past several years, Keen has raised more than $12 million for humanities support, new positions in STEM, a special collections outreach librarian, and funds for student experiential learning.
“I really love facing outward, finding the friends of the institution or making friends for the institution in order to build funds to make things possible for students,” says Keen. “I sincerely hope to advance our institutional commitment to improving the structure of financial aid packages and moving towards a situation where Scripps can afford to be less need aware.”
“Dr. Keen will further the growth and successes achieved by her predecessors and prepare Scripps for the years beyond its upcoming 100-year anniversary,” says Thompson.
In her first year, Keen cites recovering from the global COVID-19 pandemic, including reconvening, rebuilding a sense of community, and encouraging people to engage in activities on campus as a vital priority.
“I can’t wait to be at the athletic events, the concerts, and the performances,” she says. “Being present with one another in the same space produces a different kind of relationship. That’s my immediate goal for the year, to bring us back together.”
“President Keen shared how she would see herself on our campus, engaging with the community,” says Ranney. “This immediately struck me as something that a Scripps president in perfect form would do! Our college has such a special feeling, and I thought she would fit so nicely.”
“I see her everywhere on campus,” says Ho. “I think it is important for leaders to be in touch with the communities they serve, and she is getting to know each member of the community on an individual level.”
Keen will be formally inaugurated in April 2023.