LEWISTON — Bates College announced Sunday a distinguished Harvard University official will lead the liberal arts school in its next chapter in higher education.

Following an international seven-month search, the Lewiston college’s board of trustees unanimously elected Ava Clayton Spencer as the newest president of Bates College. The 56-year-old Winchester, Mass., woman assumes the leadership reigns July 1, making her the eighth person installed as president in the school’s 156-year history.

“I am honored and humbled to be asked to serve as the next president of Bates College,” Spencer told the standing-room-only crowd gathered at Clifton Daggett Gray Athletic Building. “It is such a privilege to be asked to join this very special community — on campus and beyond — and to imagine our work together as we write the next chapter in the life of this remarkable institution.”

Spencer is vice president for policy at Harvard, where she works closely with the president and deans. She previously served as executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and was a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Spencer graduated magna cum laude from Williams College, and earned a theology degree from Oxford in 1979. She received a master’s degree in the study of religion from Harvard in 1982. She earned her law degree from Yale in 1985, and served as an editor of “The Yale Law Journal” and chair of the Public Interest Council during her time there.

Spencer will succeed Nancy Cable, Bates’ interim president since July 1. Former president, Elaine Hansen, stepped down from the position last June after nine years to accept a position at The Johns Hopkins University.

“Clayton Spencer is the best possible choice to lead Bates at this key time in the college’s history,” said Michael W. Bonney, chair of the college’s board of trustees. “She is a true national leader in higher education, and she understands Bates in a very personal way, endorsing its innovative approach to the academic curriculum and its ambition of excellence in all aspects of the liberal arts experience in the 21st century.”

Prior to her work at Harvard, Spencer served as former chief education counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources from 1993-1997 under Sen. Edward Kennedy. While there, she managed the committee’s education staff, directed the legislative process and worked directly with Kennedy on higher education legislation and policy, including federal student aid, science and research policy, education budget and technology in education.

Spencer made it clear in her remarks Sunday she intends to raise the bar for Bates College in terms of generating more financial aid funding for exceptional students who might otherwise not be able to afford the school’s $35,000 price tag. She called the school’s funding needs “comprehensive,” explaining that the high-quality liberal arts education found at Bates is both expensive to provide and expensive to afford. But in the end, it was the school’s strong belief and commitment to liberal arts that drew Spencer to Lewiston.

“A liberal arts education has never been more important than in today’s really complicated world,” Spencer said. “We need the courage of our convictions around the liberal arts, but we need to be pragmatic about that, too.”

Spencer said she aims to not only attract more of the brightest and best students from Maine — thus increasing the school’s 10 percent population from its own backyard — but also looks forward to putting the small college campus on the national map as an attractive, liberal arts experience for students from across the country.

For months, a 14-member search committee poured over a diverse, competitive pool of more than 300 candidates from around the world. Representatives from Bates trustees, faculty, administrators, alumni and student body were charged with narrowing that number to one. One key element noted by committee co-chair Michael Chu was Bates’ unique position as an educational leader and its strong emphasis on liberal arts resonating with applicants — making the college attractive to sitting college presidents and provosts, foundation presidents and more.

Some on the search committee sought a visionary. Others demanded strong financial sense. Still others desired innovation and leadership.

But Bates College junior Jacqui Holmes and her classmates wanted someone they could relate to.

“She’s so modest and so down to earth. And from a student perspective, that’s really what we need,” said Holmes, who also served on the search committee. “There’s no question in my mind that she’s going to be accessible. It’s wonderful and it’s what students are really looking for.”