September is always a hectic month at Bates College. New and returning students are settling into their dorms, classes, sports, and clubs. Faculty and staff are prepping for courses and campus events. Ultimately, everybody is transitioning from the relaxing summer months to a bustling start to the fall semester.
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Clayton Spencer is a name immediately familiar to anyone who knows Bates College. She is Bates’ eighth president as well as a great fundraiser, but we want to know more about the lady behind Bates and how she got here.
Growing up in the South, Spencer’s father was president of two different colleges. Living on these campuses exposed Spencer to new ideas and passions. She remarks, “growing up on a college campus in a small town was fabulous because every time a speaker or visitor came to campus they would come to our house for dinner, and I was very fascinated with the adult conversations…”
When it came time for college, Spencer knew she wanted to go to an institution that valued the liberal arts style of education. “I grew up with a model: you went to a liberal arts college for college, because you wanted the close relationship with faculty, and then in graduate or professional school, go to the best one you can find, right?” Spencer tells.
Williams College provided her wtih a positive undergraduate education, one marked by close faculty relationships and the liberal arts style of education for which she was looking. Oxford University, which exposed her to a different type of learning style, was next on the educational docket.
After spending the first twenty-five years of her life on college or university campuses, Spencer believed she would pursue a career as an academic. Instead, she pivoted in her career path, opting for law school after Oxford University.
“I grew up thinking I’d be a straight academic, and then I became so interested in the world that it felt like law was a better choice for me. But even when I went to law school, I said that I wanted to work in education, and I imagined that I might want to be a university general counsel,” she notes. She worked her first year out of Yale law school as a clerk, then at a firm doing litigation, and finally as a federal prosecutor.
“Those were all good experiences that, in one sense, toughened me up as a professional, but I also knew deep in my heart that it wasn’t purposeful work for me. It wasn’t work that was aligned with who I am. So, I really came alive when I left being a prosecutor and went to Washington and was chief education counsel for Senator Kennedy—that was fabulous, because that was the intersection of law and education…” admits Spencer.
After working in Washington in the Senate at the junction of law and education, she and her family, moved back up to Boston where she was offered a consulting job by the Head of Government Relations and Communications at Harvard.
Her stint at Harvard lasted fifteen years and was “pure joy” with the trials and tribulations that any job has. Working there allowed her to use the skills learned on Capitol Hill, but also provided an avenue for her to be around higher education again, the flow of ideas. According to Spencer, most jobs have a shelf life, so when the fifteen-year mark at Harvard came around, she started looking for a new challenge.
But why Bates? Why go back to the small liberal arts world when you have already gotten acclimated to places like Oxford, Yale, and Harvard?
In her own words Spencer notes, “I have an irrational passion for Maine. I love Maine…For me, New England had always had a romance to it, and once you’re in New England, then you pick the most romantic state: it’s this big, naturally beautiful state with mountains and ocean and moose…I’m a cliché. I’m a summer person who thought Maine was all about those summer experiences, and of course, you realize the reality of Maine is much more complex. But as far as I’m concerned, it makes it much more interesting. I had a secret fascination, and compulsion to go to Maine, and everybody knew this about me.”
Spencer, the southerner turned Mainer, knew she wanted to make a life for herself in this corner of New England. When the position for President of Bates opened, she jumped at the chance.
“What is best about Bates long predated me,” she notes. “But my job is to bring strength to strength, to make the institution stronger by the time I leave than it was when I got here in a variety of ways, and hopefully to have joy and colleagueship while that’s going on.”
On November 30th, President Clayton Spencer emailed the students, faculty, and staff informing them that Bates “recently signed an open letter to the President-elect Trump from college and university presidents affirming the basic values of human decency, equal rights, freedom of expression, and freedom from discriminating and pushing back against a climate of harassment, hate, and acts of violence.”
The “racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and similar incidents” are “contrary to the values on which Bates was founded and they contribute to an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.” Therefore, over 100 colleges and universities stated that they want a “continuation and expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.”
According to the letter to the community published by Clayton, “Bates welcomes applications from all students without regard to their immigration status, and applications for admission from DACA and undocumented students are treated the same as those from domestic students. Likewise, DACA and undocumented students are eligible to apply for institutional, need-based financial aid, and, as with all students, we meet the full demonstrated financial need of any admitted student.” The act of adding our name to the letter is not to be taken politically, rather it is a way to emphasize what are our values are.
Some or the colleges and universities that signed the letter are Amherst, Bard, Bowdoin, Colgate, Cornell, Davidson, Middlebury, and Williams. The short but informative letter is directed towards Donald Trump and begins with “as do you, we ‘seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.’”
It urges the President-elect to “condemn and work to prevent the harassment, hate, and acts of violence that are being perpetrated across our nation, sometimes in your name which is now synonymous with our nation’s highest office.”
President Clayton’s letter to the school discusses the personal fear many students have given their background, whether immigrant or LGBTQ+, therefore it is important to remember that we “have the responsibility to do everything within our power to defend our values, to ensure the safety of our students and protect them from discrimination, and to foster a campus climate defined by deep listening, mutual respect, and honest discourse on even the most difficult subjects,” especially since we do not have control of what is happening in the world.
How is Bates’ approach in creating the Computational and Digital Studies Department different compared to other schools’ program?
How it’s different is that unlike a lot of our peers who’ve had computer science longer, this isn’t a program bolted onto a math department, and we don’t have legacy professors. … So we are starting fresh. We are in the process this year of recruiting the first faculty leader of computer science, and that will be a senior tenured position. … We are very conscious that this computer science program is located in a liberal arts curriculum, so one of the things you want to make sure is that even as you teach hard core computer science you are also teaching an interpretive, critical look at society, and that will be built into the core set of courses… We feel like given the scale of Bates, given the fact that faculty are so interconnected, that we’ve got the perfect situation to situate computer science both in societal issues and in intellectual issues in a way that puts us at the front of the pack.”
How has Purposeful Work evolved and grown in the past few years?
“We’ve got over 300 students doing funded summer work, which is fantastic progress… The core employer program in Purposeful Work has worked very well, where we’re now up to close to 70 core employers…Then the other piece is Practitioner Taught Courses in Short Term. They’ve gotten rave reviews from students… There [is] Purposeful Work infusion into regular courses, where [we have] curricular ties to potential career options. Purposeful Work Unplugged, where we bring in people. … I think the program was extremely well thought through and set up by the faculty originally. … I don’t think many colleges have thought it through as fundamentally as we have and tied it to mission. [Purposeful Work] is the third leg of the equity promise: We bring in students from a wide range of backgrounds, we do our best to support students for success and we’re making a series of strides there to improve that, and now we’re saying, but it’s not enough to say here’s your degree, now good luck with the rest of your life. We are now doing that bridge to life and work after college, and for students particularly from families who don’t have strong professional networks, that is critically important.”
Can you talk a little about Athletic Director Kevin McHugh retiring and what the hiring process might look like?
“I have enormous respect for Kevin and what he’s accomplished. He will be finishing his tenth year this year. I think he strengthened our athletic program competitively… But much more important are Kevin’s personal qualities s to the educational mission of sports…Personally he is beloved by coaches. He knows student athletes. He’s at every game. If half of life is showing up, Kevin is that guy. He is very well liked and respected by the faculty for his determination to situate athletics within the educational mission of Bates. … We’ll have a committee that includes faculty, coaches, and, I hope, students, and we’ll figure out a careful selection process for people with the right kinds of representation and experience. Then I think we will hire a search firm…, and that’ll happen, I would say, within the next period of probably six weeks, where it will constitute the committee, hire a search firm, have them come and begin interviewing people. … I never put an end date on a search because you never stop the search until you find the right person. But the goal is to have the next athletics director identified before Kevin leaves so that it is a smooth transition.”
What did we want to accomplish with the new dorm buildings at 55 and 65 Campus Ave? And how do we evaluate their success?
“In my experience, students vote with their feet. We will have housing lotteries. If nobody’s choosing those dorms, they’re not working. If people are choosing those dorms, they are working… We hired architects who spent a lot of time interviewing people all over Bates… The brick was made in Auburn in a particular size that matches, I think, the Chase brick. There’s lots of touches that are a new Bates for a new era, respectfully knitted into existing Bates with its history, values, and sense of community. There’s been a lot of suggestion that when Smith was chalk full, overloaded, a lot of sense that there weren’t informal spaces for students to gather, just hang out, play games, watch TV, study, talk, work on a project. So, you’ll see that those buildings have a lot of that space built in. The theory there was to enliven the street life there and create a much more attractive space, but also, the whole campus goes to Post & Print, and the whole campus goes to the bookstore. So it’s also a way of drawing more students into feeling comfortable using those spaces.”
What will the fate of Chase Hall be?
“It is up for grabs…The institutional planning report says we at least ought to consider enlivening Chase as a real campus center. And that could be done in the same way the Den and the OIE have been done, which is to go into the space, make it cool, but you’re not doing some hugely expensive renovation… If we move towards a comprehensive fundraising campaign, there’ll be a lot of competition for resources – we have to make sure there’s plenty of money for financial aid, plenty of money raised for endowment, some money raised for facilities. So there’s been some talk, so do we want to renovate Chase and make a fancy student center? Well that might compete with a science building. So this is all really to be sorted out, very much in dialogue with students… I think it’s going to be a fun and very collective, collaborative process to figure that all out.”
Do you have a timeline for that process?
“I’m not aware of a firm timeline yet. I think we’d rather do it right than fast, but it probably needs to be right and fairly expeditiously so that we’re not leaving space [unused].”
How does Bates address parents’ pressure to avoid or question the liberal arts with regard to its ability to prepare students for a competitive job market upon graduation?
“Personally, I think the liberal arts have never been better aligned with the needs of the world. The jobs that require what the liberal arts quintessentially teaches are the jobs that are the most secure, and people are seeing that. … We have to do a very good job delivering on what we say we do. We really do need to offer a rigorous education that understands how to work across differences and ideas and human beings. That’s something that a residential liberal arts college does best. … Purposeful Work is one example… How do you actually embrace the notion that we are preparing our students for the world of work, as well as life, as well as social contribution? Now there’s broad, almost universal access to content… We’ve lost the disadvantage we had relative to larger universities. But we still have the advantage we’ve always had, which is you’re working with tenured faculty members on your thesis… So I consider this the golden age of the liberal arts.”
A recent announcement letter from the University of Chicago explicitly eliminated safe spaces. How do we at Bates balance intellectual discourse and open exchange of ideas with some sort of sensitivity towards topics such as racial micro aggressions, cultural appropriation, sexual assault triggers, etc.?
“I think it’s a false dichotomy, and I think the discourse is freer, more open and richer, if you’re also in a sensitive way taking account of the diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, etc., and some of that needs to happen in places where you have the freedom to explore. I like to think of it not as free speech versus limits on free speech, but free speech and utter respect for the humanity of every one of our students and every member of our community. If you keep both of those principles in mind, I think you can navigate through in a way that serves both parts more fully.”
How is Bates’ approach in creating the Computational and Digital Studies Department different when compared to other schools’ program?
So let me explain how it’s the same and how it’s different. How it’s the same is that it will be a strong computer science major for someone looking for a strong computer science major. There will be a set of core course that you would find in any computer science major, algorithmic thinking, coding, etc. And we want to make sure that we’ve got a computer science degree you can hang your hat on. How it’s different is that unlike a lot of our peers who’ve had computer science longer, this isn’t a program bolted onto a math department. And we don’t have legacy professors who are trained in computer science—you know it’s been a very fast moving field—so we’re starting fresh. We’re in the process of, this year, recruiting the first faculty leader of computer science. That’ll be a senior tenured position. A search committee is formed. And that person will come in and then recruit the other two faculty positions that’ll make up the program. So how it is different is we’re very conscious that this computer science program is located in a liberal arts college, a liberal arts curriculum. One of the things you want to make sure is that even as you teach hardcore computer science, you’re also teaching an interpretive critical look at the role of technology in society. And that will be built into the core set of courses. We also will have two tracks as it’s now envisioned, and my guess is it will continue to evolve as the new leader comes in who knows more about computer science than any of the rest of us. But we envision two tracks. One, let’s call it just straight down the line computer science problems. The other is, how do you use the foundational courses in other kinds of analysis. In neuroscience? There are many computational problems and I know Jason Castro works a lot with that. In genetics, in epigenetics, in physics. We feel like given the scale of Bates, given the fact that faculty are so interconnected, that we’ve got the perfect situation to situate computer science both in societal issues and in intellectual issues in a way that puts us at the front of the pack because we have no drag on the system. We got three brand new lines. We’ve had fantastic advice putting this together. We looked at a bunch of other programs. So I think it’ll be very exciting.
How has Purposeful Work evolved and grown in the past few years?
So I’m much more interested in students’ assessments. I can tell you we have, if you look at the kind of combination of purposeful work internships, the internships through the career development office, faculty research—people are either working with faculty on campus or off campus—and Harvard Center fellowships. We’ve got over 300 students doing funded summer work, which is fantastic progress. If you think about it, if you have 500 students doing funded summer work—funded either by the employer or by Bates—then that would mean you’re effectively giving every Bates student a crack at a funded opportunity. So we’re making significant progress in that direction. The core employer program in purposeful work has worked very well, where we’re now up to close to 70 core employers who are employers we have relationships with. Maybe we have a Bates grad on the inside who says, “I can’t guarantee that I can offer a Bates student an internship, but I will guarantee that I will work hard with you to get a Bates student into the competitive process, etc.” The other thing about the internship piece is it’s a summer cohort experience. So there are a lot of purposeful work interns. This last summer it was 119. But they’re online as an online community. Then the other piece is practitioner taught courses in Short Term. They’ve gotten rave reviews from students. I don’t want to vouch for them. I’ll just tell you the reviews have been great. Then there are purposeful work infusion into regular courses where circular ties to potential career options, purposeful work unplugged, which is where we bring in people. It feels like, to me, the program was extremely well thought through when set up by the faculty originally. There’s a working group, probably before you guys got here, the first year I was here, they sort of said what are the principles that we want to work with. I would say that almost all colleges have realized that to get their students launched on graduation, it’s really critical that they develop an experience. I don’t think many colleges have thought it through as fundamentally as we have and tied it to mission. The last thing I would say on the overall mission of purposeful work—I see it as the third leg of the equity promise. So we bring in students from a wide range of backgrounds. We do our best to support students for success and we’re making a series of strides there to improve that. And now we’re saying, but it’s not enough to say here’s your degree now good luck with the rest of your life. We’re doing that bridge to life and work after college. And for students particularly from families who don’t have strong professional networks, that is critically important. So, I also see it as deeply embedded in the equity mission of Bates.
Can you talk a little about Athletic Director Kevin McHugh retiring and what the hiring process might look like?
First of all, I have enormous respect for Kevin and what he’s accomplished. He will be finishing his tenth year this year. I think he strengthened our athletic program competitively. Obviously we had a national championship in rowing. We’ve had increasing success in a variety of sports, including post-season play. We have our highest standing ever in the Directors Cup, which is the Division III lineup overall. But much more important are Kevin’s personal qualities and the way his commit[s] to the educational mission of sports. Personally he is beloved by coaches. He knows student athletes. He’s at every game. If half of life is showing up, Kevin is that guy. And he is very well liked and respected by the faculty for his determination to try to situate athletics within the educational mission of Bates. So I think his contributions have been enormous and he gives us a strong platform upon which to build with the next athletic director. So about that: we’re currently in the process of putting together a search, which I expect we will hire an outside… We’ll have a committee that includes faculty, coaches, and, I hope, students and will figure out a careful selection process for people with the right kinds of representation and experience. Then I think we will hire a search firm. The first thing any search firm does is come up on campus and get a sense of the place. That’ll happen, I would say, within the next period of probably six weeks, where it will constitute the committee, hire a search firm, have them come and begin interviewing people. And it’ll be important to interview not only athletes, and staff and others in the athletic department, coaches, but also how other people see athletics, how the faculty see athletics, how’s the interface there. How does athletics interface with admissions, etc. So we will do that and I never put an end date on a search because you never stop the search until you find the right person. But the goal is to have the next athletics director identified before Kevin leaves so that it is a smooth transition.
What did we want to accomplish with the new dorm buildings at 55 and 65 Campus Ave? And how do we evaluate their success?
So let’s start with the end question. In my experience, students vote with their feet. We will have housing lotteries. If nobody’s choosing those dorms, they’re not working. If people are choosing those dorms, they are working. But we have a lot of other kinds of information. We have the whole res life staff and program. The different housing options on campus… I like to think of it as a system of housing options—you can live in a small house. You can live in a traditional dorm. You can now block into Smith. Different people have different tastes. In some houses, the living room is never used. In some dorms the common room is never used. In other places, it’s just naturally, organically used and there’s a great social space and great feeling gets going. Sometime it varies year to year. So we’ll see. I think of it as very existential and organic, how a building comes to life. And I wouldn’t want to presume. So my fervent hope is that this year beauty and respectfulness of those buildings… let me tell you a little bit about how it came to pass. We hired architects who spent a lot of time interviewing people all over Bates, I think students, faculty, staff, then there was a big committee. They took a million pictures. They looked at rooflines. They looked at brick. They looked at the color of the windows. And they wanted to design buildings that were contemporary but that reflect the vernacular of the campus. So you’ll see the roofs are hipped. The brick was made in Auburn in a particular size that matches, I think, the Chase brick. There’s lots of touches that are a new Bates for a new era, respectfully knitted into existing Bates with its history, values, and sense of community. The particular approach we took rather than just look at these as two buildings, we did an analysis of all the rooms on campus and said do we need more doubles? Nobody likes triples. Do we need more doubles? Do we need more singles? And I think the word came back that we actually need more singles, so that the upperclass students could get single rooms. And I distinguish the architecture of dorms from the sociology of dorms. So you can put four singles together and let isolated people lottery into them. Or you can put four singles side by side in one of the new dorms and let people block into them as a group of four. And I think they’re experimenting with both the sociology and the architecture all over campus. And finally I would say on social spaces, theres been a lot of suggestion that when Smith was chalk full, overloaded, a lot of sense that there weren’t informal spaces for students to gather, just hang out, play games, watch TV, study, talk, work on a project. So you’ll see that those buildings have a lot of that space built in. And also, the post-and-print and bookstore. The theory there was to enliven the street life there and create a much more attractive space, but also, the whole campus goes to post-and-print, and the whole campus goes to the bookstore. So it’s also a way of drawing more students in to feeling comfortable using those spaces. We’ll see if that happens, or if it feels very proprietary to the dorms. But that was the theory.
What will he fate of Chase Hall be?
It is up for grabs. So we have a couple of questions. What is the best use of the now vacated space? What is the long-term future of Chase? And then, how do you think about casual social space in the campus as a system, right? So the institutional planning report says we at least ought to consider enlivening Chase as a real campus center. And that could be done in the same way the Den and the OIE have been done, which is to go into the space, make it cool, but you’re not doing some hugely expensive renovation. So you could go into that vacated bookstore space and say okay what’s the next thing that goes in here? Should it be student facing, to keep loading more life and more student facing functions into Chase? I think that’s the impulse. If we move towards a comprehensive fundraising campaign, there’ll be a lot of competition for resources, so we have to make sure there’s plenty of money for financial aid, plenty of money raised for endowment, some money raised for facilities. So there’s been some talk, so do we want to renovate Chase and make a fancy student center? Well that might compete with a science building. So this is all really to be sorted out. And I think it’s to be sorted out very much in a dialogue with students, as has been the case with the campus culture working group. So to me it’s like a fun… I mean, people go in and they’re like, “Oh, I know what I’d do with that space.” I think it’s going to be a fun and very collective, collaborative process to figure that all out.
Asked about timeline for Chase Hall
I’m not aware of a firm timeline yet. I think we just sort of got through the move. I think we’d rather do it right than fast, but it probably needs to be right and fairly expeditiously so that we’re not leaving space …
How does Bates address parents pressure to avoid or question the liberal arts with regard to its ability to prepare students for a competitive job market upon graduation?
I think, so, personally, that the liberal arts have never been better aligned with the needs of the world. Technology is replacing repetitive jobs, jobs that don’t require creativity, flexibility, commonsense, rigorous analysis, etc. And so, the skills we’re teaching… Technology is moving up the job ladder. And the jobs that require what the liberal arts quintessentially teaches are the jobs that are the most secure. And I think people are seeing that. And you’re starting to see more and more the press write about that. So I think we have to do a very good job of delivering output what we say we do. We really do need to offer rigorous education that understands how to work across differences in ideas and human beings. And that’s something that a residential liberal arts college does best. So I would say, the liberal arts has never had higher value than it does now. We can’t rest on that. I think we then have to say, well how do we make sure the world understands that? You can’t just keep explaining it. I think purposeful work is one example. How do you actually embrace the notion that we’re preparing our students for the world of work, as well as life, as well as social contribution. Well we do that by kind of putting a pin in it and doing it really well. So the other thing I would say is it used to be that if you were at Bates versus a big research university, let’s say, Harvard, Harvard had Widener Library to do your thesis, we had our little library. Maybe you could do interlibrary loan, wait three weeks and get the materials that you need. But now there’s broad, almost universal access to content. So we are in the best position the liberal arts have ever been in. We’ve lost the disadvantage we had relative to larger universities. But we still have the advantage we’ve always had, which is you’re working with tenured faculty members on your thesis, and the R1 people are in huge classes, probably not getting to do a thesis or working with a graduate student. So I consider this the golden age of the liberal arts.
A recent announcement letter from UChiago explicitly eliminated safe spaces. How do we at Bates balance intellectual discourse and open exchange of ideas with some sort of sensitivity towards topics such as racial micro aggressions, cultural appropriation, sexual assault triggers, etc.?
So I’m very familiar with the Chicago letter which I thought was tone-deaf. There were two very interesting things that followed on. There was an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by the President of University of Chicago, which was better nuanced but then there was a letter by a group of faculty from Chicago who wrote back … they wrote their version of what the letter should have said. And there’s also a recent grad from the University of Chicago who wrote a blog and he said this. He said, yes the University of Chicago is about free speech, any college or university should be. But guess what? I couldn’t have gotten through University of Chicago if I hadn’t had the benefit of the multicultural center, where I could go, unwind, talk honestly with my friends, etc. But he said, it wasn’t as though ideas weren’t debated. All ideas were debated. Ideas are challenged, but my humanity is not. So I think it’s a false dichotomy, and I think the discourse is freer, more open and richer, if you’re also in a sensitive way taking account of the diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, etc., and some of that needs to happen in places where you have the freedom to explore. So I think it’s a false dichotomy. I like to think of it not as free speech versus limits on free speech, but free speech and utter respect for the humanity of every one of our students and every member of our community. If you keep both of those principles in mind, I think you can navigate through in a way that serves both parts, both parts more fully.
This year marks the fourth year President Clayton Spencer has been at Bates. As a way to understand where we are currenly and where we are headed, The Student sat down with the President for an interview. We addressed some of the issues that arose last year, particularly last spring, at Bates. This article has been edited for clarity and length.
The Bates Student: Some of the frustration last year surrounded the lack of communication between the students and the administration regarding institutional changes. This is still a lingering concern after some conversation with the students. What steps have you taken to address this lingering concern and how do you think the administration has improved the line of communication?
Clayton Spencer: First of all, I think it’s a hugely important issue. It was clear that we didn’t have it calibrated right last year. The big step is the new Dean of Students who came in last year, Josh McIntosh. Josh put together a new organization and a new staff that has much better communication across all aspects of the college. And then we have had a number of very consultative processes that we’ve run on the Campus Culture Working Group, which has students on it. Institutional Planning has students on every team, not just the student centered team. The team that’s mostly focused on faculty issues has students on it and the team that’s focused on infrastructure issues has students and resources. It’s provided an opportunity for students to be involved in all aspects of the college.
Josh himself and I have totally amped up the amount of time we are personally engaging with students. I have regular office hours now. I think I had about seven sessions of them in the fall, and I’m having six of them this winter. Students sign up, and you don’t have a particular reason to sign up. Some students want to just come in and chat, some want career advice. Some have a particular issue and they’ll organize around that particular issue. This has given me a lot more constant contact. I’m very open and direct, so if something’s on my mind and we think we’ve got a bright idea of something we’re going to do, we’ll share it.
Josh has people over to his house all the time. The President’s Advisory Committee, which is a student group, is headed by Audrey Zafirson. They meet with me on a regular basis. Audrey has organized lunches so I can just have lunch in Commons with a small group of students. I would say by pervasively trying to stay finger on the pulse through contact with students, I feel like I have a much richer sense of what’s on students’ minds coming toward me. I also feel like it’s a great opportunity to share both formally and informally what ideas we have.
BS: Given the recent restructuring of administrative staff last year [within the Dean of Students Office], what was the end goal of these changes in leadership?
CS: The point of the exercise was to make sure that we are taking a more proactive, design-oriented approach to educating the whole person. In other words, we’re not just being reactive and waiting for students to end up in academic trouble, mental health trouble, or whatever else to come in, but rather saying, how do we think about social life? How do we think about students who may need more time on tests? How do we think about integrating with professors in a timely way that has appropriate documentation and structure? How do we think about aspects of the student conduct system? It’s really to take each function and get on the front end of it.
Another example would be orientation. We took a very intentional approach and said it’s really not good that students get dropped off in different hunks: the students going to AESOP, the athletes, the international students. Let’s get all students here on the same day. Why should we make students and their families wait in the hot sun for two hours to get their photo ID made when you can get those done over the summer and have a smooth process? Let’s make sure every family is greeted and stuff is taken up efficiently into the dorms. I would say across the board we’re taking a much more intentional, better designed, and better organized approach to a variety of things.
BS: As you mentioned, we are trying to think about how we think about social life. Some of the questions that arose last year surrounded changes to Bates culture in terms of traditions. Do you envision a new Bates culture, and how will the new dorms or some other changes contribute to this new culture?
CS: I do not. I do not have any aspirations for a new Bates culture. The distinctive, collaborative, nurturing, inclusive culture at Bates is one of the strongest features of Bates College and the Bates experience. And anything we do, looking at the total student experience, is building on that strength. So many people come here and say, “I got the vibe,” “that’s what I like about Bates.” The point of strengthening the different office functions and the programs is to actually make sure the Bates culture isn’t a hit or miss experience, like if you are lucky enough to land with a good friend group or if you are a particular kind of student. Rather, make sure we’re paying attention—the adults here—to having a more reliable and consistent experience of precisely the strength of the culture that’s already there.
BS: Looking back you’ve been here almost four years. What are some obstacles that you’ve had to face that you didn’t anticipate having to deal with coming into the job?
CS: I really have loved being here from the second I got here. I knew I wanted to do this job. I knew I loved Bates and everything it stands for. My first four years have not been an experience of obstacles. It has been an experience of being incredibly impressed with how invested students are in their experience here, how much they care about the place, how invested the faculty are in their teaching, and the quality of the academic experience. The fact that we have thesis. That fact that students here almost universally end up loving their experience here.
Even with the investment [in the Bates experience], there’s a real openness to change. Purposeful Work is a revolutionary way of approaching the set of issues around preparing students for work, life, and social contribution. There have been no obstacles there. The door has been wide open to take a very intentional approach.
I’ve hired a senior staff because of retirements and other things. A new head of fundraising changed the way we do alumni events—hugely positive response. We’ve been getting record crowds in all the cities: New York, Boston, etc. So in general it hasn’t been a feeling of obstacles. It’s been a real feeling of solidarity, taking what is a wonderful experience and making it even stronger.
A student said to me the other day when we were having lunch, “When you build the new dorms you’re going to increase the size of the student body.” No, no we aren’t. The whole point is to make sure that for the existing student body we’ve got a high quality residential experience for everybody, which we do by adding 230 beds. But I’m like, I must have said that fifty times that it’s not about expanding the student body. How do you figure how to communicate in a way that gets through clearly? I think our mismatches last year with the student body are a good example of that.
The other thing I think that’s striking about Bates is that people really do care about their experience and everybody has kind of a slightly different view of what their experience at Bates is. So you have to tread very carefully. And that’s something I had to really understand and realize just how important consultation and trust really are.
BS: One of the main points of your inaugural address was making a college education accessible to all students, even those who cannot afford it. What are some plans in place to address the rising cost of tuition nationwide and to make sure a Bates education is accessible to everyone?
CS: First of all, one of the first things I did was to limit the annual increase in tuition. We had assumptions in our financial plan because we don’t have a large endowment which I felt were too aggressive for families, so I pulled back. Tuition does go up each year because the platform of costs goes up for us, but we try to keep it in the most restrained way possible—so a long term strategy of restraining increases in cost.
Second, there’s a huge emphasis on recruiting students from a wide range of backgrounds, having a diverse and inclusive student body, and supporting students through generous financial aid. We spend $33 million a year on financial aid. Compared to our endowment and our operating budget, this is one of the biggest priorities of any institution in the country. As we go into a fundraising campaign, which we expect to over the next several years, fundraising for financial aid and for access to college will be huge.
Finally, let me just say the last thing that is currently in the center of the national conversation is student loans. We work very hard to limit student loans. Our students who have loans graduate with an average of under $14,000 in debt, whereas the national average is somewhere in the [thirty]-thousands. The other thing we do is when we admit students we meet their full financial aid. Some institutions might admit you and know that you needed $25,000 in a grant, but they’ll say, “Well, I’ll admit you and I’ll give you $15,000, you go figure out where you’re getting the other $10,000,” which can only be gotten through a loan or what your family is doing. We make every effort to meet the full financial need of every admitted student. Those are huge priorities, they’re fundamental. We spend a disproportionate amount of our limited financial resources on financial aid, and this is absolutely the right priority. I was in charge of federal financial aid for Senator Kennedy. I’ve been working on this set of issues since 1993, that’s almost 25 years, and I worked on issues of access and affordability at Harvard.
BS: Another point was the impact of technology on education. How will the implementation of the new Digital and Computational Studies program impact the Bates education and does it resemble what you imagined four years ago?
CS: I came in and realized we didn’t have a major in computer science and I thought that was a dangerous place to be in the 21st century. Let me take it from a few different slices. It’s really important to have digital and computational studies here, number one for intellectual reasons and curricular reasons. Many fields now are incorporating digital and computational methods into the field. You see it hugely in biology, genetics throughput. You see it in physics and all the astronomy data. You see it in political science in decision theory. You see it in neuroscience, you see it in economics, and on and on. If you talk to Margaret Imber, you see it a lot in humanities. There are all different kinds of digital humanities applications.
If you think purely intellectually, we’re going to want to be attracting professors in a variety of different fields that will feel like they have colleagues here whom they can engage with and can do their own work and research. We’re also going to need to make sure that students who want to go on to graduate work have the basic exposure to digital and computational methods in their fields. That’s the sort of intellectual, curricular side. Then there are the students graduating and going on to professional school and the world of work. Increasingly, workplaces assume that students have some exposure to programming. Some of the highest growth areas in terms of companies in the United States are the Silicon Valley digitally-based start-ups. In terms of widening the options that our students will be well-prepared for, that will be a huge help there.
BS: So you are seeing an interdisciplinary impact of this program?
CS: Yes. The program is designed to have two possible pathways. Every student could have an option of taking however many basic computer science courses they may want, like classic computer science, algorithmic thinking, some basic programming, etc. You wouldn’t have to be a major to do that, and you could take that just the way you’d take an economics course. And then a major could decide to double down on pure computer science, and we will have the ability to do that so you can get a very rigorous computer science degree from Bates. Also, a student has a different path available as we’ve designed the program, which is to say, “I’ve got my basic five introductory courses, but what I want to do my thesis on is an applied problem in sociology, economics, or neuroscience…” So even in your own experience here with research and thesis, you can make an interdisciplinary pivot. A lot of places have their computer science programs located within a math department—this is explicitly designed to be interdisciplinary from the very beginning. That’s why it’s called Digital and Computational Studies.
BS: As the president of a liberal arts college and a former student at a liberal arts college, what is your definition of and vision for Bates in the liberal arts context? What do you think are the benefits of a liberal arts education in the world today?
CS: I think a liberal arts education has long been and remains the most powerful and adaptive form of education you can have in a world that’s always changing. I don’t ever say “a changing world” because the world has always been changing. And so a liberal arts education educates the whole person in an integrated way. It gives you a set of skills that you have internalized and the capacity to deal rigorously with substantive material: curiosity, creativity, interrogation of assumption, and thinking in an evidentiary-based manner. It’s about actually applying some of those techniques to how you think about your own life and move through the world. I think that’s what Bates has always been about, and I think that’s what Bates continues to be about. There is a reason the graduates of liberal arts colleges end up as leaders in business, government, a variety of non-profit fields, and the academy. I think the liberal arts education is the most powerful integrative education there is available.
BS: How will all these changes that have occurred in the last year—whether the dismissal of staff, the implementation of the new program, or the opening of the new dorms—help get Bates closer in rank with all of our elite competitors?
CS: My number one focus is substantially, what kind of experience are we providing and are we doing an excellent job at it? The academic experience is governed by a certain set of intellectual values as determined and articulated primarily by the faculty. The student experience is the product of a culture that has grown up over a long period of time, and those have very little to do with rankings. Rankings are highly dependent on resources, and many are actually driven by ratios and dollars that have to do with the size of your endowment and the number of faculty members you have for each student. This is also dependent on endowment with faculty salaries and so on. So that’s not a needle we are going to quickly move far.
What I do think we are doing is improving the quality of the Bates experience and we are constantly improving our position in the marketplace as evidenced by admissions. We’ve had record admissions these past four years—the numbers of students applying and the quality of the student body. On the resources side, we have seen our fundraising go up. Two years ago it went from $12 million to $16 million…so that’s a third. The next year it went from $16 million to $21 million. We just raised $19 million for Digital and Computational studies. All of that will help but it’s a slow process, not a quick fix.
BS: What’s next? What can the incoming class expect of you and your administration?
CS: In their lifetime they can expect brand new dorms when they first get here that not only have the effect of giving everybody new dorms, but also of creating highly desirable dorms in Smith because those become doubles that you can block into with up to eight people.
They can expect in their time here an excellent Digital and Computational Studies major and continued innovation and experimentation in Short Term. We’re creating incredible experiences, like when students participate in course designs and redesigns with the faculty. It’s almost like a second thesis experience through a cohort experience. We’ll continue to have really intense practitioner-taught courses, and there will be more of them.
I want to see us make strides in science education. I want to see us have a very intentional approach to making sure that all of our students, and in particular our students of color, have full access to the Bates experience—that they succeed in it and find the atmosphere inviting. We’ve had some terrific discussions all year on that, so strides on diversity and inclusion.
During this tenure period that we are in, we will be recruiting about a third of the faculty new because of faculty retirements. I hope to see a highly talented and diverse faculty.
I’d love to see us get to some post-season play in basketball again. With lacrosse, we’re already off to a great start. Ahmed just won the national championship in squash for the [second] time. There’s strong support for athletics, the arts, and so on.
The next year alone will bring some drastic changes to the Bates community and curriculum. The Student will continue to monitor what’s next on Spencer’s agenda.
To the Editor,
I write in response to a letter printed last week in The Bates Student raising concerns about the enforcement of our alcohol policies as we begin the academic year. I appreciate the letter’s invitation for open conversation because that is the first step toward finding solutions.
The next step, as I indicated last spring and in my recent community letter, is for the college to form a working group to tackle in a structured and comprehensive way the broad set of issues that affect campus culture and define the student experience beyond the classroom. These issues include, but are not limited to, concerns about excessive and underage drinking and the use of other drugs. Joshua McIntosh, our new Dean of Students, will put together the working group over the next several weeks, and its members will include students, faculty, and staff. The work of the group will involve deep and wide-ranging consultation with students and other members of the college community, providing a forum for the full airing of student concerns as well as a platform for the consideration of strategies for making progress toward a more consistently safe and positive campus culture.
Meanwhile, we have already begun to institute some changes, including developing a clearer and more consistent approach to enforcing our existing policies that address unhealthy and disruptive behavior; better education on these issues during orientation; and a more collaborative relationship between Athletics and the Dean of Students Office that allows deans and coaches to coordinate efforts to address issues of concern.
I take pride in the sense of community and the mutual caring and concern that characterize life on this campus, and I look forward to working with all of you to make this version of ourselves a more consistent reality.
In early December, The Bates Student printed an open letter asking the Bates administration to announce the measures we will take to protect the rights and status of undocumented students and seek “official status as a sanctuary campus for undocumented immigrants living at Bates and in Lewiston.” Although the letter referenced a petition to be delivered, I have not yet received it. Because the open letter was published in the Student, however, I want to take advantage of the first issue of the new term to respond.
I appreciate the initiative taken by students in surfacing issues relating to undocumented students, and I fully support the call for a vigorous defense of our fundamental values of inclusion and equality and for specific actions to protect the safety and security of all members of the Bates community. I also applaud the solidarity expressed throughout the letter with the refugee communities in Lewiston and Auburn.
I am pleased to clarify once again how our policies and practices with respect to DACA and undocumented students unequivocally support the goals set forth in the open letter. And, as I stated in my November 30 message to the community, I will continue to speak out against any present or potential encroachment on the rights of any individuals—including, but not limited to, undocumented students—in our community.
With respect to undocumented students, some of whom currently enjoy the protections of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, we do offer, and will continue to offer, the follow actions and protections:
- We will continue to welcome applications from all students without regard to their immigration status, and applications for admission from DACA and undocumented students will be treated the same as those from domestic students.
- We will continue to offer DACA and undocumented students institutional, need-based financial aid, and, as with all students, we will meet the full demonstrated financial need of any admitted student.
- We will not release any information about students’ citizenship or immigration status to any third party or government agency unless legally compelled to do so.
- We will not take any voluntary action that would put any student at risk solely because of their immigration status.
- We will continue to work with colleges and universities across the nation in collective action aimed at upholding, continuing, and expanding DACA and its associated protections.
- We will continue to work with our state and local communities to support, and counter discrimination against, local residents who are immigrants to our community.
- We will continue to operate by the following protocol with respect to our Department of Security and Campus Safety: our officers do not and will not inquire about any student’s citizenship or immigration status. This is a long-standing policy that will continue in force.
With respect to the request that we declare Bates a “sanctuary campus,” I feel strongly that the college should take a nuanced approach. As noted above, I fully endorse the concerns that lie behind the sanctuary campus request, and we will continue to address these concerns in our actions and policies. I do not, however, think that it is wise of prudent to declare Bates a “sanctuary campus” in explicit terms.
Having carefully studied this issue and consulted with legal counsel, I am mindful that the term “sanctuary campus” has no legal definition or standing and may in fact provide false assurances to members of the campus community. On one hand, the term may suggest that we are willing to act without regard for our legal obligations, which we are not empowered as an institution to do. On the other hand, it may suggest to individuals on our campus or in our local communities that the Bates campus, as a physical space, has a special protective status apart from the law. This is not true, and to suggest otherwise could potentially cause adverse attention and harm to the very individuals we wish to protect.
Accordingly, in my considered judgment, our community is better served at this time by a clear exposition—as outlined above—of specific policies and commitments than by the adoption of a symbolic designation that could be misleading to those who count on the college for meaningful action. That said, we will continue to monitor this set of issue closely, and adapt our stance, as appropriate, if there are relevant changes in law or policy that warrant further action.
Again, I want to thank the students, faculty, and staff who raised these very important concerns and make clear that I and other leaders in the college are always open to conversation. As the next weeks and months unfold, and the new Congress and administration begin to take action on a variety of fronts, we will pay close attention to developments that affect the work of colleges and universities, and we will continue vigorously to defend the rights of all members of our community.
Meanwhile, I encourage all of us on campus to be mindful of the values that define Bates and inform our discourse and to work every day to ensure that each and every one of us is able to find a respected and respectful place in both.
Dear Members of the Bates Community,
Some recent events on campus received attention in last week’s edition of The Bates Student, on social media, and in other settings. I take the concerns of our students and the Bates community very seriously. Accordingly, I thought it might be helpful for me to share some basic facts about these events and to give you a sense of the principles and values that guide my thinking about how to honor what is most important about Bates as we work together to move the institution forward.
On Feb. 23, Dean of Students Josh McIntosh announced a set of organizational changes in the Dean of Students Office, designed to strengthen the support we provide our students across all dimensions of their lives; achieve greater coordination with faculty and staff colleagues across campus; and create more effective systems for meeting the broad set of medical, legal, and regulatory requirements that play an increasing role in student affairs in the modern era.
The plan involves creating greater clarity and definition around positions and responsibilities in the Dean of Students Office and addressing areas in which we need newly defined roles to be effective in the rapidly evolving field of student affairs.
Many on campus have greeted these plans as positive and long overdue. At the same time, some have expressed frustration about the departure of two long-serving staff members and the lack of advance consultation on the planned organizational and personnel changes.
At a meeting on Wednesday, February 25, the Student Government’s Representative Assembly made a decision to register their disapproval of Dean McIntosh and me in a vote of no confidence that carried 19-2. In a subsequent statement, these students acknowledged that the vote “carries no practical weight,” but was intended as a “powerful rebuke of the college administration by the student body and their representatives.”
I regret that the Student Government felt compelled to take this action, because it suggests a gap between the perceptions of a group of students and what I know to be widely shared aspirations for strengthening the Bates experience, even as we preserve the quality of community that is one of Bates’ most defining features.
Principles and Values
Bates is an extraordinary place because of the powerful personal connections that faculty, staff, and students form and maintain with one another — both in and beyond the classroom. At our best, we engage each other with joyfulness and respect, creating an ethos of mutual caring and concern that strengthens every aspect of this community. Our collective dedication to exploring, learning, and being together, and the historic principles that call us to hail our differences as a source of power and effectiveness, combine to make Bates an exceptional place, distinctive among liberal arts colleges.
An important part of what makes Bates distinctive is the principle, embedded in our mission, that no institution remains vital, or even viable, if it stands still. As a “college for coming times,” we at Bates have built our community not by hanging on fiercely to the status quo, but by challenging ourselves to engage each other, and the world, with rigor, energy, and confidence. From our founding Bates has been both a powerful community in the here and now and a progressive institution, inviting the future in as a source of strength and vitality.
My responsibility as a leader, and ours collectively as a college community, is to provide the best possible experience for every Bates student, now and into the future. This work involves building on Bates’ considerable strengths and having the clarity and courage to tackle areas that need to be improved.
Even in a community with values as deeply and clearly aligned as are ours, we will not always agree on the specific means by which the institution moves forward. But if we continue to approach each other, and our differences, in the spirit of mutual respect and jointly held principles we will enrich the experience of the current students and lay a strong foundation for the future.
Some Context on Developments in Student Affairs
With these principles in mind, let me share some context on recent events.
First, the changes in the Dean of Students Office were made with care and deliberation, though necessarily without explicit prior public conversation, given that personnel matters were involved. It is our legal obligation and ethical duty to honor the dignity, respect, and privacy of individuals, and these obligations dictate what information may be shared and not shared.
That said, we took care to announce the planned changes in February, several months in advance of their full implementation. No staff departures will take place until after the end of the academic year to ensure that there is no interruption of important relationships or services for current students. Moreover, students will serve as members of the search committees for the new staff positions, meaning that they are participants in the hiring process and at the table to help shape the future direction of the Dean of Students Office.
Second, the organizational changes in the Dean of Students Office were based on extensive conversation and consultation with students and other campus constituencies. I personally have been closely involved with students and with student issues since the moment I arrived on campus two and a half years ago. I have had countless conversations with students, parents, faculty, and staff about ways in which we as a college need to improve our structures and effectiveness in a broad range of areas, from academic support, to residential life, to funding for student extracurricular activities, to social options, to norms of behavior around alcohol and sexual interaction, to student health and safety, to questions of campus culture and student leadership.
Views on these issues are predictably wide-ranging. But not a single person has suggested that Bates is perfectly where it needs to be in the area of student life. It is a domain in which external legal and regulatory frameworks have changed dramatically in recent years, and issues with student life and campus climate present significant challenges on every residential college campus. Several heartbreaking tragedies in our own community within the past two years serve to underscore this point.
Under the circumstances, I am thrilled that we were able to attract a student affairs leader of the caliber of Josh McIntosh, who is deeply grounded in best practices, while also being engaged, action-oriented, and personally accessible to students at all hours of the day and night. In his first year here, Josh has spent many hours getting to know students informally, and he has worked with students, faculty, and staff to create a series of venues for structured, campuswide work on issues that have remained too long in the shadows.
Students are front and center in all of these efforts through, for example, participation on the Student Government Executive Council, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, the Campus Culture Working Group, the Orientation Planning Committee, the expansion of AESOP to serve more students, the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Campus Life, and the redesign of campus communications with students. Students will also participate as team members on the campuswide institutional planning process that will commence this spring and extend through the next academic year.
The goal of all of this work is to approach questions of student life and campus culture with greater intentionality and effectiveness, so that we have in place structures that more reliably support a successful experience for all of our students.
A Few Closing Thoughts
Recent events confirm what I know to be true — that students care deeply about this college, as do faculty and staff on campus, and alumni of every generation. Students also rightly want and expect to be included in the discussions and decisions that shape their own experience and the way the college moves forward.
On these fundamental points we are in wild agreement, as demonstrated by the many mechanisms described above for student participation in planning and decision making. Unquestionably, we have room to improve our channels of engagement and communication with students, and we are committed to working collaboratively to make progress in these areas.
Meanwhile, in all of this work — even when it gets personally uncomfortable — I am grounded by the fundamental values that define our sense of shared purpose, heartened by the solidarity I feel with the wonderful human beings who make up the Bates community on campus and beyond, and buoyed by the energy and creativity that are driving us forward.
Thank you for taking the time and care to read this letter, and thank you, as always, for the privilege of serving as the president of Bates College. I welcome any thoughts you may have.
With all best wishes,
Last Wednesday, the Representative Assembly voiced their frustration with a perceived lack of transparency between the administration and student body through a vote of no confidence towards President Clayton Spencer and Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Josh McIntosh. Members of the RA were concerned about the announcement that Assistant Dean of Students Keith Tannenbaum and Associate Dean of Students Holly Gurney would be leaving at the end of the year.
The following is a statement from the Bates College Student Government:
“On Wednesday, the BCSG passed a vote of no-confidence in President Spencer and Dean McIntosh. This action, while carrying no practical weight, should be seen as a powerful rebuke of the College administration by the student body and their representatives. It is clear that students have serious doubts about the direction President Spencer and Dean McIntosh are taking us, and we hope they will come to the table with us as partners. We students should be citizens at Bates, not subjects, and we hope Wednesday’s no-confidence vote will serve as a wake-up call to an administration that many students feel has been cavalier and out-of-touch.”
The final vote was 19 RA members in favor, two against, and one abstaining.
President Spencer also issued a statement concerning the vote of no confidence:
“We are working to create the strongest possible Bates’ experience for every student, now and into the future. This work involves building on Bates’ considerable strengths and tackling areas that need to be improved. Students have been instrumental in identifying these areas, and they are front and center in all of this work — the campus culture working group, the institutional planning process, and a range of initiatives including improving student advising, services for students with disabilities, student communications, and first-year orientation. Additionally, students will be involved in developing integrated leadership and peer education programs. I’m sorry about the vote, and I take it seriously because it suggests that there is a gap between this important work and the perceptions of a group of students on campus. I am confident, however, that in continued partnership with our students we will preserve what is most important about Bates while moving the institution forward.”
At its Sunday meeting, the BCSG passed an amendment proposed by Tomas Jurgensen that would allow the student body itself to vote on amendments proposed by students or the RA. In order for an amendment to pass via student vote, it would need two-thirds of student support and a minimum voter turnout of 300 students. The RA still has the power to undo, propose, and pass amendments. Members of the RA believe that Jurgensen’s proposal would heighten transparency and communication between the student body and student government, along with the administration. The Representative Assembly meets on Sunday evenings in Commons 221.