LEWISTON — Months before Clayton Spencer became Bates College's eighth president, she wanted to meet Lewiston.
She'd read the school's description of the city, which piqued her interest. "I knew I loved Maine," she said. Though she had visited other parts of the state for years, she had never made it to Lewiston. And there were the rumors.
"I'd heard some pretty sketchy things about Lewiston," she told attendees at Thursday's Great Falls Forum. "So I grabbed one of my best friends."
The pair drove up to get an close peek at the community.
"We had lunch on the terrace of Gritty's, overlooking the Great Falls and the Androscoggin, and we drove around," Spencer said. "I had surfed the 'net, and I'm like, 'I don't get what people are talking about. This place is so cool.'"
"By then, I'm like, 'If this search committee does not pick me to move up to Lewiston and do this job, I'm going to be seriously put out,'" she said.
They hired her.
She started work on July 1, 2012, and was formally inaugurated on Oct. 26.
"Lewiston was more than I could ever imagine," the former Harvard University vice president for policy said during an hour-long talk.
Spencer talked about ways Bates College might improve its growing connection with the community and its future in an age of growing technological challenges.
Part of the answer is to continue changing the definition of a liberal arts education, she said.
"The boundary lines between theory and practice are collapsing," she said. "If you look at science, labs have always been part of it. They've always understood that practice is important, but in many other areas, it's been, 'Excuse me. We'll be in the ivory tower, doing our book learning, our reading and writing.'"
One answer is to continue the community service-learning of Bates entities such as the Harward Center, which oversees thousands of hours of student projects in Lewiston-Auburn.
It's something that cannot be replicated by less-expensive online courses, and it makes the school a better neighbor, she said.
As the school plans its future, more time will be spent looking at ways to better integrate with Lewiston, she said, including some infrastructural changes that might encourage traffic to and from the campus.
However, any investments cannot sacrifice core needs, she said. If she had to choose between a parking garage or a new science building, the science building would win, she said.
After her prepared remarks, an attendee asked Spencer if the school would consider buying a downtown building.
"I love the idea, and if there's anybody here who would like to buy us a building, we'll take it," she said. "I would love us to have a presence in downtown Lewiston, unequivocally."