A discussion with Bates College President Clayton Spencer on leadership, innovation and preparing students for ‘purposeful work.’

Editor’s note: This profile by Mainebiz is one of several in its annual Women to Watch series. For more, go to mainebiz.biz.

LEWISTON — The president of Bates College outlines her hope that students will discover “the zeal to define a project and finish it” — as part of a larger effort to find “purposeful work” in life.

Clayton Spencer, the eighth president of Bates, found purposeful work in 1993, when she left the legal profession and took a job working for U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

That purposeful work continues today, at Bates, where she also influences a generation of students.

“Human beings are more motivated by trying to make meaning out of life and the world, rather than some idea of ‘happiness,'” she says. “You have to find purposeful work, something to keep you motivated. You have to make meaning out of life. Happiness is a byproduct of meaning.”


Spencer has brought new energy to the liberal arts institution, which has been an anchor in Lewiston since 1855.

She’s led a $300 million capital campaign, looking toward expansion and upgrades that will raise the level of the school and help attract top-level students. For students who are already there, she has helped start programs to prepare them for work and career.

Over the course of her career, Spencer has informed national education policy and made significant contributions to increasing equity, accessibility and diversity in higher education. Under her leadership, Bates has launched new initiatives in a number of areas, including digital and computational studies.

Spencer grew up in Virginia and North Carolina. Her father, Samuel R. Spencer Jr., was president of Mary Baldwin College (now Mary Baldwin University), in Staunton, Va., and Davidson College (now Davidson University), in Davidson, N.C. At Davidson, her father became president just as the college admitted its first African-American students, and within four years oversaw its transition to a co-ed school. Davidson was his alma mater.

Vietnam and the civil rights movement were topics of dinnertime conversation, she recalls.

Spencer received a bachelor’s degree from Williams College in 1977, earned a bachelor’s degree in theology from Oxford in 1979 and a Master of Arts degree in religion from Harvard in 1982. She also earned a law degree from Yale in 1985.

Spencer clerked in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, then practiced law at the Boston firm of Ropes & Gray. She worked for Ted Kennedy from 1993 to 1997 and served as the chief education counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources.

Returning to higher education, Spencer spent 15 years on Harvard’s senior leadership team as vice president for policy, directing policy initiatives.


Spencer’s work with Kennedy was a turning point in her life, she says.

“I was a litigator,” she says. “The nature of being a lawyer and a lawsuit is looking back at what’s happened. I like looking forward,” she says. “Ted Kennedy was one of the most forward-looking people I’ve ever met. … He had his feet on the ground and was looking ahead.”

Working for Kennedy moved her from work to purposeful work, she says.

Her career path took her to Harvard University, where she worked for another key mentor, Drew Faust, who retired recently as the university’s president. Faust was ethical, had vision and was driven, she says.

When the opportunity to lead Bates came up, she was eager not only for the challenge but to be in Maine. Spencer has a house on Swan’s Island, where her transportation is a Boston Whaler. “I didn’t have to be convinced to come to Maine,” she says.


Spencer’s impact over six years at Bates has taken different forms. But career development is an area where she’s helped lead the college. She has helped ensure that students get a liberal arts education and are also ready for careers.

“Don’t relegate (career development) to spring of senior year, then run off and read ‘What Color is Your Parachute?'” she says.

“Most students realize they’re not da Vinci or Yo-Yo Ma. They worry they don’t have a passion. But finding your passion is a trap,” she says. “You have to try things.”

Whatever people think of a liberal arts college, she says, students have always been aware they had to find jobs.

“It’s always been about work,” she says. “Everyone has to put food on the table.”

That’s when she puts emphasis on a phrase that comes up continually in a conversation with Spencer.

For students, “college is their day job. Work can be for pay or not. But it has to be purposeful work,” she says.

Be a “master of opportunities,” as George Colby Chase, Bates’ second president, once said.

Bates offers an intense “short term,” a five-week semester, from late April through May, in which visiting professionals come in to lead courses related to their work. In one such course, students traveled to the northern Rockies to do mapping projects and study economic geology sites.

Bates received a grant from the Libra Foundation to help fund “purposeful work” internships.

Another initiative launched by Spencer is a department of computer science.

“When I got here in 2012, there was no computer science. I said, ‘I think that’s a problem in the 21st century,'” she recalls.

At the same time, she didn’t want Bates to treat computer science as a program of study “bolted onto the math department,” she says.

To start the Digital and Computational Skills Department, Bates raised $10 million and endowed three chairs, recruiting a department head, Matthew C. Jadud, from Berea College.

Spencer has also built up the administrative and business sides of the school. She hired Geoff Swift, chief financial officer at Harvard Law Schools, as the Bates vice president for finance and administration and treasurer. From Johns Hopkins, she recruited Joshua McIntosh as dean of students. To operate the infirmary, Bates formed a partnership with Central Maine Healthcare.

In 2016, Bates was one of 57 schools to receive a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for “development of cultural competencies by faculty; redesign of curricula to include research experiences for first-semester students.”

Applications were up 45 percent for the coming school year, with 7,600 applicants. Bates will welcome its largest freshman class to date. The school has 2,000 students.

Diversity has been a major push on campus. About 20 percent to 25 percent of the students are people of color. About 10 percent are first-generation college students, and another 10 percent are Mainers. Bates has also made an effort to hire a more diverse faculty and staff.

“We want to offer the college and curriculum of the 21st century. We want students to see themselves in their faculty,” Spencer says.


Under Spencer, Bates has embarked upon a $300 million capital campaign, Driving Academic Excellence.

The campaign funds include what’s been raised for computer studies, and will also go toward science programs, endowed professorships, academic innovation and the endowment.

It has raised $190 million so far, boosted by board of trustees Chairman Michael Bonney’s 2017 gift of $50 million.

Bonney, the retired CEO of Cubist Pharmaceuticals, and his wife, Alison Grott Bonney, were in the Bates class of 1980. His maternal grandfather, father and the couple’s three children also went to Bates.

“The internal piece of this is that it is very clear to me that under Clayton Spencer’s leadership we have developed a tremendous amount of forward momentum,” Bonney said in an interview posted on the Bates website.

“She is visionary and a tremendous integrator,” he added. “She sees the forces shaping our society and she sees the globalization of everything.”

Clayton Spencer, president of Bates College, has made career development one of her focuses in the six years she has led the Lewiston private college, trying to ensure that as students get a liberal arts education, they are also being prepared for careers.  (Tim Greenway/Mainebiz)