This year marks the fourth year President Clayton Spencer has been at Bates. As a way to understand where we are currenly and where we are headed, The Student sat down with the President for an interview. We addressed some of the issues that arose last year, particularly last spring, at Bates. This article has been edited for clarity and length.
The Bates Student: Some of the frustration last year surrounded the lack of communication between the students and the administration regarding institutional changes. This is still a lingering concern after some conversation with the students. What steps have you taken to address this lingering concern and how do you think the administration has improved the line of communication?
Clayton Spencer: First of all, I think it’s a hugely important issue. It was clear that we didn’t have it calibrated right last year. The big step is the new Dean of Students who came in last year, Josh McIntosh. Josh put together a new organization and a new staff that has much better communication across all aspects of the college. And then we have had a number of very consultative processes that we’ve run on the Campus Culture Working Group, which has students on it. Institutional Planning has students on every team, not just the student centered team. The team that’s mostly focused on faculty issues has students on it and the team that’s focused on infrastructure issues has students and resources. It’s provided an opportunity for students to be involved in all aspects of the college.
Josh himself and I have totally amped up the amount of time we are personally engaging with students. I have regular office hours now. I think I had about seven sessions of them in the fall, and I’m having six of them this winter. Students sign up, and you don’t have a particular reason to sign up. Some students want to just come in and chat, some want career advice. Some have a particular issue and they’ll organize around that particular issue. This has given me a lot more constant contact. I’m very open and direct, so if something’s on my mind and we think we’ve got a bright idea of something we’re going to do, we’ll share it.
Josh has people over to his house all the time. The President’s Advisory Committee, which is a student group, is headed by Audrey Zafirson. They meet with me on a regular basis. Audrey has organized lunches so I can just have lunch in Commons with a small group of students. I would say by pervasively trying to stay finger on the pulse through contact with students, I feel like I have a much richer sense of what’s on students’ minds coming toward me. I also feel like it’s a great opportunity to share both formally and informally what ideas we have.
BS: Given the recent restructuring of administrative staff last year [within the Dean of Students Office], what was the end goal of these changes in leadership?
CS: The point of the exercise was to make sure that we are taking a more proactive, design-oriented approach to educating the whole person. In other words, we’re not just being reactive and waiting for students to end up in academic trouble, mental health trouble, or whatever else to come in, but rather saying, how do we think about social life? How do we think about students who may need more time on tests? How do we think about integrating with professors in a timely way that has appropriate documentation and structure? How do we think about aspects of the student conduct system? It’s really to take each function and get on the front end of it.
Another example would be orientation. We took a very intentional approach and said it’s really not good that students get dropped off in different hunks: the students going to AESOP, the athletes, the international students. Let’s get all students here on the same day. Why should we make students and their families wait in the hot sun for two hours to get their photo ID made when you can get those done over the summer and have a smooth process? Let’s make sure every family is greeted and stuff is taken up efficiently into the dorms. I would say across the board we’re taking a much more intentional, better designed, and better organized approach to a variety of things.
BS: As you mentioned, we are trying to think about how we think about social life. Some of the questions that arose last year surrounded changes to Bates culture in terms of traditions. Do you envision a new Bates culture, and how will the new dorms or some other changes contribute to this new culture?
CS: I do not. I do not have any aspirations for a new Bates culture. The distinctive, collaborative, nurturing, inclusive culture at Bates is one of the strongest features of Bates College and the Bates experience. And anything we do, looking at the total student experience, is building on that strength. So many people come here and say, “I got the vibe,” “that’s what I like about Bates.” The point of strengthening the different office functions and the programs is to actually make sure the Bates culture isn’t a hit or miss experience, like if you are lucky enough to land with a good friend group or if you are a particular kind of student. Rather, make sure we’re paying attention—the adults here—to having a more reliable and consistent experience of precisely the strength of the culture that’s already there.
BS: Looking back you’ve been here almost four years. What are some obstacles that you’ve had to face that you didn’t anticipate having to deal with coming into the job?
CS: I really have loved being here from the second I got here. I knew I wanted to do this job. I knew I loved Bates and everything it stands for. My first four years have not been an experience of obstacles. It has been an experience of being incredibly impressed with how invested students are in their experience here, how much they care about the place, how invested the faculty are in their teaching, and the quality of the academic experience. The fact that we have thesis. That fact that students here almost universally end up loving their experience here.
Even with the investment [in the Bates experience], there’s a real openness to change. Purposeful Work is a revolutionary way of approaching the set of issues around preparing students for work, life, and social contribution. There have been no obstacles there. The door has been wide open to take a very intentional approach.
I’ve hired a senior staff because of retirements and other things. A new head of fundraising changed the way we do alumni events—hugely positive response. We’ve been getting record crowds in all the cities: New York, Boston, etc. So in general it hasn’t been a feeling of obstacles. It’s been a real feeling of solidarity, taking what is a wonderful experience and making it even stronger.
A student said to me the other day when we were having lunch, “When you build the new dorms you’re going to increase the size of the student body.” No, no we aren’t. The whole point is to make sure that for the existing student body we’ve got a high quality residential experience for everybody, which we do by adding 230 beds. But I’m like, I must have said that fifty times that it’s not about expanding the student body. How do you figure how to communicate in a way that gets through clearly? I think our mismatches last year with the student body are a good example of that.
The other thing I think that’s striking about Bates is that people really do care about their experience and everybody has kind of a slightly different view of what their experience at Bates is. So you have to tread very carefully. And that’s something I had to really understand and realize just how important consultation and trust really are.
BS: One of the main points of your inaugural address was making a college education accessible to all students, even those who cannot afford it. What are some plans in place to address the rising cost of tuition nationwide and to make sure a Bates education is accessible to everyone?
CS: First of all, one of the first things I did was to limit the annual increase in tuition. We had assumptions in our financial plan because we don’t have a large endowment which I felt were too aggressive for families, so I pulled back. Tuition does go up each year because the platform of costs goes up for us, but we try to keep it in the most restrained way possible—so a long term strategy of restraining increases in cost.
Second, there’s a huge emphasis on recruiting students from a wide range of backgrounds, having a diverse and inclusive student body, and supporting students through generous financial aid. We spend $33 million a year on financial aid. Compared to our endowment and our operating budget, this is one of the biggest priorities of any institution in the country. As we go into a fundraising campaign, which we expect to over the next several years, fundraising for financial aid and for access to college will be huge.
Finally, let me just say the last thing that is currently in the center of the national conversation is student loans. We work very hard to limit student loans. Our students who have loans graduate with an average of under $14,000 in debt, whereas the national average is somewhere in the [thirty]-thousands. The other thing we do is when we admit students we meet their full financial aid. Some institutions might admit you and know that you needed $25,000 in a grant, but they’ll say, “Well, I’ll admit you and I’ll give you $15,000, you go figure out where you’re getting the other $10,000,” which can only be gotten through a loan or what your family is doing. We make every effort to meet the full financial need of every admitted student. Those are huge priorities, they’re fundamental. We spend a disproportionate amount of our limited financial resources on financial aid, and this is absolutely the right priority. I was in charge of federal financial aid for Senator Kennedy. I’ve been working on this set of issues since 1993, that’s almost 25 years, and I worked on issues of access and affordability at Harvard.
BS: Another point was the impact of technology on education. How will the implementation of the new Digital and Computational Studies program impact the Bates education and does it resemble what you imagined four years ago?
CS: I came in and realized we didn’t have a major in computer science and I thought that was a dangerous place to be in the 21st century. Let me take it from a few different slices. It’s really important to have digital and computational studies here, number one for intellectual reasons and curricular reasons. Many fields now are incorporating digital and computational methods into the field. You see it hugely in biology, genetics throughput. You see it in physics and all the astronomy data. You see it in political science in decision theory. You see it in neuroscience, you see it in economics, and on and on. If you talk to Margaret Imber, you see it a lot in humanities. There are all different kinds of digital humanities applications.
If you think purely intellectually, we’re going to want to be attracting professors in a variety of different fields that will feel like they have colleagues here whom they can engage with and can do their own work and research. We’re also going to need to make sure that students who want to go on to graduate work have the basic exposure to digital and computational methods in their fields. That’s the sort of intellectual, curricular side. Then there are the students graduating and going on to professional school and the world of work. Increasingly, workplaces assume that students have some exposure to programming. Some of the highest growth areas in terms of companies in the United States are the Silicon Valley digitally-based start-ups. In terms of widening the options that our students will be well-prepared for, that will be a huge help there.
BS: So you are seeing an interdisciplinary impact of this program?
CS: Yes. The program is designed to have two possible pathways. Every student could have an option of taking however many basic computer science courses they may want, like classic computer science, algorithmic thinking, some basic programming, etc. You wouldn’t have to be a major to do that, and you could take that just the way you’d take an economics course. And then a major could decide to double down on pure computer science, and we will have the ability to do that so you can get a very rigorous computer science degree from Bates. Also, a student has a different path available as we’ve designed the program, which is to say, “I’ve got my basic five introductory courses, but what I want to do my thesis on is an applied problem in sociology, economics, or neuroscience…” So even in your own experience here with research and thesis, you can make an interdisciplinary pivot. A lot of places have their computer science programs located within a math department—this is explicitly designed to be interdisciplinary from the very beginning. That’s why it’s called Digital and Computational Studies.
BS: As the president of a liberal arts college and a former student at a liberal arts college, what is your definition of and vision for Bates in the liberal arts context? What do you think are the benefits of a liberal arts education in the world today?
CS: I think a liberal arts education has long been and remains the most powerful and adaptive form of education you can have in a world that’s always changing. I don’t ever say “a changing world” because the world has always been changing. And so a liberal arts education educates the whole person in an integrated way. It gives you a set of skills that you have internalized and the capacity to deal rigorously with substantive material: curiosity, creativity, interrogation of assumption, and thinking in an evidentiary-based manner. It’s about actually applying some of those techniques to how you think about your own life and move through the world. I think that’s what Bates has always been about, and I think that’s what Bates continues to be about. There is a reason the graduates of liberal arts colleges end up as leaders in business, government, a variety of non-profit fields, and the academy. I think the liberal arts education is the most powerful integrative education there is available.
BS: How will all these changes that have occurred in the last year—whether the dismissal of staff, the implementation of the new program, or the opening of the new dorms—help get Bates closer in rank with all of our elite competitors?
CS: My number one focus is substantially, what kind of experience are we providing and are we doing an excellent job at it? The academic experience is governed by a certain set of intellectual values as determined and articulated primarily by the faculty. The student experience is the product of a culture that has grown up over a long period of time, and those have very little to do with rankings. Rankings are highly dependent on resources, and many are actually driven by ratios and dollars that have to do with the size of your endowment and the number of faculty members you have for each student. This is also dependent on endowment with faculty salaries and so on. So that’s not a needle we are going to quickly move far.
What I do think we are doing is improving the quality of the Bates experience and we are constantly improving our position in the marketplace as evidenced by admissions. We’ve had record admissions these past four years—the numbers of students applying and the quality of the student body. On the resources side, we have seen our fundraising go up. Two years ago it went from $12 million to $16 million…so that’s a third. The next year it went from $16 million to $21 million. We just raised $19 million for Digital and Computational studies. All of that will help but it’s a slow process, not a quick fix.
BS: What’s next? What can the incoming class expect of you and your administration?
CS: In their lifetime they can expect brand new dorms when they first get here that not only have the effect of giving everybody new dorms, but also of creating highly desirable dorms in Smith because those become doubles that you can block into with up to eight people.
They can expect in their time here an excellent Digital and Computational Studies major and continued innovation and experimentation in Short Term. We’re creating incredible experiences, like when students participate in course designs and redesigns with the faculty. It’s almost like a second thesis experience through a cohort experience. We’ll continue to have really intense practitioner-taught courses, and there will be more of them.
I want to see us make strides in science education. I want to see us have a very intentional approach to making sure that all of our students, and in particular our students of color, have full access to the Bates experience—that they succeed in it and find the atmosphere inviting. We’ve had some terrific discussions all year on that, so strides on diversity and inclusion.
During this tenure period that we are in, we will be recruiting about a third of the faculty new because of faculty retirements. I hope to see a highly talented and diverse faculty.
I’d love to see us get to some post-season play in basketball again. With lacrosse, we’re already off to a great start. Ahmed just won the national championship in squash for the [second] time. There’s strong support for athletics, the arts, and so on.
The next year alone will bring some drastic changes to the Bates community and curriculum. The Student will continue to monitor what’s next on Spencer’s agenda.