Clayton Spencer is a name immediately familiar to anyone who knows Bates College. She is Bates’ eighth president as well as a great fundraiser, but we want to know more about the lady behind Bates and how she got here.
Growing up in the South, Spencer’s father was president of two different colleges. Living on these campuses exposed Spencer to new ideas and passions. She remarks, “growing up on a college campus in a small town was fabulous because every time a speaker or visitor came to campus they would come to our house for dinner, and I was very fascinated with the adult conversations…”
When it came time for college, Spencer knew she wanted to go to an institution that valued the liberal arts style of education. “I grew up with a model: you went to a liberal arts college for college, because you wanted the close relationship with faculty, and then in graduate or professional school, go to the best one you can find, right?” Spencer tells.
Williams College provided her wtih a positive undergraduate education, one marked by close faculty relationships and the liberal arts style of education for which she was looking. Oxford University, which exposed her to a different type of learning style, was next on the educational docket.
After spending the first twenty-five years of her life on college or university campuses, Spencer believed she would pursue a career as an academic. Instead, she pivoted in her career path, opting for law school after Oxford University.
“I grew up thinking I’d be a straight academic, and then I became so interested in the world that it felt like law was a better choice for me. But even when I went to law school, I said that I wanted to work in education, and I imagined that I might want to be a university general counsel,” she notes. She worked her first year out of Yale law school as a clerk, then at a firm doing litigation, and finally as a federal prosecutor.
“Those were all good experiences that, in one sense, toughened me up as a professional, but I also knew deep in my heart that it wasn’t purposeful work for me. It wasn’t work that was aligned with who I am. So, I really came alive when I left being a prosecutor and went to Washington and was chief education counsel for Senator Kennedy—that was fabulous, because that was the intersection of law and education…” admits Spencer.
After working in Washington in the Senate at the junction of law and education, she and her family, moved back up to Boston where she was offered a consulting job by the Head of Government Relations and Communications at Harvard.
Her stint at Harvard lasted fifteen years and was “pure joy” with the trials and tribulations that any job has. Working there allowed her to use the skills learned on Capitol Hill, but also provided an avenue for her to be around higher education again, the flow of ideas. According to Spencer, most jobs have a shelf life, so when the fifteen-year mark at Harvard came around, she started looking for a new challenge.
But why Bates? Why go back to the small liberal arts world when you have already gotten acclimated to places like Oxford, Yale, and Harvard?
In her own words Spencer notes, “I have an irrational passion for Maine. I love Maine…For me, New England had always had a romance to it, and once you’re in New England, then you pick the most romantic state: it’s this big, naturally beautiful state with mountains and ocean and moose…I’m a cliché. I’m a summer person who thought Maine was all about those summer experiences, and of course, you realize the reality of Maine is much more complex. But as far as I’m concerned, it makes it much more interesting. I had a secret fascination, and compulsion to go to Maine, and everybody knew this about me.”
Spencer, the southerner turned Mainer, knew she wanted to make a life for herself in this corner of New England. When the position for President of Bates opened, she jumped at the chance.
“What is best about Bates long predated me,” she notes. “But my job is to bring strength to strength, to make the institution stronger by the time I leave than it was when I got here in a variety of ways, and hopefully to have joy and colleagueship while that’s going on.”