LEWISTON — Bates College must hold tight to its identity and mission — "making a better person" — or risk being swept away in waves of easy information, parsed budgets and remote teaching, new President Clayton Spencer said Friday.
"The most complete kind of human learning takes place in a community, with the solidarity of companionship and the challenge of truth," Spencer told about 2,500 people in the school's Margaret Hopkins Merrill Gymnasium.
The speech highlighted her inauguration as the eighth president in the school's 157-year history.
Spencer portrayed a school that must prepare for unforeseeable changes and the increasing pressure to erode its carefully cultivated community.
"As a practical matter, this means redoubling our efforts to recruit students from a wide range of backgrounds and it means maintaining an unwavering commitment to financial aid," Spencer said. "A residential liberal arts education is expensive for us to offer and for families to afford.
"Unless you're content for us to become a luxury good, higher education's version of a gated community, we need to make sure that we have the financial means to seek out and admit talented students, regardless of their ability to pay," she said.
The comments came amid a ceremony that seemed to borrow from a graduation's pomp and a sermon's solemnity.
There were bagpipes and a baton, steel drums, a grand stage and more than 70 delegates from schools as far away as Cambridge, England.
All came to welcome Spencer, the former education counsel to Sen. Edward Kennedy and vice president for policy at Harvard University.
Friend Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's president, gave Spencer's official introduction.
"Bates is blessed to have found its perfect president," Faust said.
Spencer seemed genuinely humbled by her reception, by the standing ovation of the capacity crowd and by the symbols of Bates' leadership: a set of keys to the campus, a record book and a shiny collar.
"A little bling for the president," said Michael Bonney, chairman of Bates' board of trustees.
"Thank you so much for this welcome and thank you for turning up," she said. "I particularly appreciate the fact that the students showed up. We're all about you and I was just worried that you'd have better things to do on a beautiful Friday afternoon."
Moments later, the 57-year-old president choked up as she talked about her family who attended. They included her mother, Ava, and her father, Samuel, who is in his 90s. He served Friday as the delegate from his North Carolina alma mater, Davidson College.
"It is a special honor for me to wear, on this occasion, the cap that my father wore throughout his academic career, including 26 years as president of two different liberal arts colleges," Spencer said. "It is an understatement to say that my parents have made a heroic effort to travel up here to be with us today."
Spencer also took a few minutes to thank the community.
"Bates is privileged to be part of a community with a rich history and increasingly vibrant present, and I have felt at home here from the moment the moving trucks pulled up at 256 College St. this past summer," she said. "We and our host cities draw strength from a partnership of genuine mutuality.
"Give us a little time, and I'm pretty sure that it is our West Coast counterpart that will be known as 'the other L.A.,'" she said.