We went behind the doors of President Spencer’s study and chatted with her about the vibe she hopes will be present on campus this year. Covering topics from Bates’ response to the proposed repeal of DACA, the class of 2021, the importance of the liberal arts education, and more this article sheds some light on what our president sees for college’s immediate ten month future. The article has been edited for grammar.
The Bates Student (TBS): What is the tone that you hope this year will embody? You mention most of this in your Remarks at Convocation, but if there is anything else that you would like to add.
Clayton Spencer (CS): I would love this year to celebrate the strengths of Bates where we have been building year-to-year with our three best admission years ever, our highest Fulbright year ever, our best athletic season last year, winning the Women’s North American National Debate Championship. We have a lot to be proud of and I want us to embrace that and I would love the world to know more about what Bates students are capable of, and the wonderful outcomes we have. I’d also love to get to a place that I think we are working very hard on, on genuine communication and a mutuality on the student social scene, and making sure that we find the right balance of robust, vibrant social life for students, yet safety and the right balance between off-campus and on-campus options and social venues. I feel like we haven’t gotten the balance right yet, and we’re getting a ton of really great ideas and feedback and interactions with students, so I think we’re going to be moving in the right direction there. We’re also about to get a new Head of Security, which I think can be a great part of resetting that. So I’d like this to be a joyous, optimistic year. I think there are tough issues nationally on all sorts of questions: free speech, equity and inclusion that affect campus climate, and I’d like us to manage those with the kind of creative, communal approach that Bates excels in.
TBS: What are you most looking forward to about the present first-year class, the class of 2021?
CS: The thing that I am most looking forward to is getting to know the students, and that’s in each class because you guys are smart, you’re funny, you’re idealistic, you are witty, you have taste in music that are so far beyond me, so it’s just for me, really fun and joyous to actually deal with the students we are here to educate. You are the reason we are all here. I’m not the reason we’re here, nobody else is, you all are the reason we’re all here. So the more I get to know students, the more I am infused on a daily basis with the mission of what we are doing, and the more fun it is.
TBS: In your statement on DACA you state, “Bates remains committed to admitting students without regard to their immigration status and to ensuring the safety and support of all students while on campus.” Can you elaborate on how revoking DACA would be contrary to Bates’ essential nature?
CS: I think revoking DACA would be contrary to America’s essential nature, which is that talented, young people, wherever they come from, ought to have the ability to realize their hopes and dreams. And Bates certainly was founded with that core principle in mind. In fact, we were a hundred years ahead of many of our peers in embracing students from all walks of life, et cetera. The 800,000 DACA participants, some of which are students and some of which are working, young adults, are talented, hard-working people who are part of the future of America. So I think it goes against everything of defining American ideals, and certainly everything that defines Bates.
TBS: In your convocation remarks you state, “Never has the humanistic project of the liberal arts been more important. Never has this form of education been more needed–or more challenged.” What is Bates doing to combat these challenges?
CS: I think what we’re doing is trying to teach our students to approach intellectual work, their own development, and the notion of social contribution with rigor and integrity. So when we talk about intellectual work, it’s learning to work hard on problems, to reason from evidence, to realize that in a democracy, you need to persuade people of a point-of-view, you need to be open to divergent points-of-view. Free speech is fundamental, so is respect for others. So in every dimension of how students are developing, which is intellectually, also as a whole person, and hopefully as leaders and contributors to a larger social good–that’s everything that Bates is about, both in the liberal arts as the academic core, and our community engaged work in the notion of Purposeful Work, which is aligning what you do with what your deepest interests are. And in preparing you guys to be creative, adaptable agents in the world ahead of you.
TBS: A small follow-up question, why is the liberal arts education so vital right now? Has there been a change, a pivot point that you’ve seen in the past couple of months, couple years?
CS: I would say that given the many forms of communication–social media, segmented access to news and information–the notion of having a common set of facts, the ability to interpret however one wishes from a common set of facts is really at risk. So I think the liberal arts–the integrative thinking, the commitment to truth, the notion that facts matter–these what we all know that in the last several years, these very basic notions that many of us probably took for granted, both as Americans and as educators, have come under attack. A lot of that has to do with the manner and means of communication, some of it is more cynical and political in nature.
TBS: Our final question, what is something you hope to change about yourself this year in relation to Bates, or yourself in general?
CS: I’d like to get my tennis game back, that’s thing one. And change myself in relation to Bates, I would love to spend more time on campus with students. Last year we launched our fundraising campaign–largest fundraising campaign in Bates history–$300 million goal. We’ve already raised $168 million before we’ve even launched, so we’re in great shape. But to do that I was off campus more than I would like and I really would like to be on campus participating more than I was able to last year.
TBS: I actually just have a small question, I was just percolating in my head. You as a highly, highly educated person, very impressive list of schools that you’ve attended, just population-wise, what do you see the value of a small, 1,800-person community as?
CS: Okay, so let me first just note that I grew up on the campus of a liberal arts college, Davidson College in North Carolina. And I went to Williams College, so another small NESCAC. So my first, and most deeply ingrained model of education is the residential liberal arts college. What I think it has to offer is education at a deeply human scale. I think that allows us, more than any other model, to take on the project of educating the whole person, and I think it’s an inspiring and highly effective model.