Clayton Spencer donned her father's 50-year-old black academic cap as she was inaugurated this fall as the eighth president of Bates College, in Lewiston, Me. Following the advice of her parents, who were sitting in the front row, she tried to deliver a speech that would be an important framing statement for the 157-year-old institution, accessible to a broad audience, and, above all, not long-winded.
Along with the cap, which she said holds sentimental value, Ms. Spencer has inherited from her father, Samuel Reid Spencer Jr., 93, a sense of how to lead a college. He did that for nearly three decades, as president of Mary Baldwin College, in Staunton, Va., from 1957 to 1968, and then Davidson College, in North Carolina, from 1968 to 1983.
"From my earliest point in my life," she says, "I experienced the liberal-arts college as a distinctive alchemy of people and ideas."
That exposure sparked Ms. Spencer's interest in working in higher education, but, she says, she decided to first pursue a career in law to learn the strategies needed to move ideas forward. From 1993 to 1997, she worked for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who became a model for her of how to balance aspirations and practicality. The late U.S. senator was "an idealist pushing for health care for everybody, civil rights, but also very pragmatically making sure he moved legislation forward and compromised when he needed to compromise," she says.
Before coming to Bates, Ms. Spencer spent 15 years at Harvard University, where she held several positions, most recently as vice president for policy. She was key to reshaping Harvard's approach to financial aid, and says she strives to continue making college accessible to all talented students, regardless of their background or circumstance. In doing so, she hopes to uphold Bates's long-held tradition of egalitarianism.
As she steps into the next phase of her career, Ms. Spencer looks to her childhood observations of her father, among other things, for guidance. As president, Mr. Spencer would welcome faculty, staff, and students to the family's house on the campus, while his daughter listened in from the window seat in the living room. She soon graduated to a seat at the dinner table with those guests, a place where she would spend subsequent years "marinating in the issues and culture of a liberal-arts campus."
Now, at 58, Ms. Spencer recalls those dinners as her first lesson in how to succeed as a college president.
"This is a direct influence from my dad, to plunge into all aspects of life" at the college, she says. Her father attended many events on the campus, including games and performances, and Ms. Spencer plans to do the same. "It's really a pure joy to experience the full texture of a place like Bates," she says.
As she works toward her many goals at Bates, Ms. Spencer says, she will always be inspired by her father's passion for higher education.
"It's a multifaceted job, being president; my father loved every minute of it. I knew when I was in the Bates search that I would love Bates College. I love what it stands for. It has an amazing history and an amazing set of values."