President-elect Clayton Spencer’s first remarks to the Bates community (2011)

The following are remarks by President-elect Clayton Spencer on Dec. 4, 2011, following her introduction by Mike Bonney ’80, chair of the Bates Board of Trustees.

Wow. Thank you so much. Mike, thank you for your overly generous words — I was sitting backstage with Meg Kimmel desperately looking around to figure out who Mike could possibly be talking about!

And I want to personally say thank you to Nancy Cable for the extraordinary effort she’s gone to organize this event today and to do wonderful things on the campus all fall. And I also want to thank all of the people I know I haven’t met who have killed themselves to put this event together. I also particularly want to thank members of the search committee, students, faculty, staff, community members who have turned out on a Sunday afternoon at one of the busiest times of the semester to show up in support and solidarity for Bates College. It’s a real testament to the college, to the job Nancy has done, and to the job the trustees have done and are doing that you’re all here today. What better start could I have than to be welcomed by you?

For those of you here who are Maine natives, I have a confession. I am a Maine “summer person.”  I know that, by your lights, I will always be “from away,” but I hope that with your help I can, over time, become a credible year-rounder. I first came to Maine with my husband 25 years ago, and I’ve never looked back. For me and my family, there’s no place on earth we would rather be. I very much look forward to working with all of you in the community and the state in ways that will be mutually enriching and productive.

Finally, I want to thank my son and daughter, Will and Ava, my sister and her husband, and my loyal band of friends who’ve trooped up to Lewiston to share this occasion with me and with all of you.  It is wonderful that you are here.  I’m hoping as well — and, here, I want to look right in to the camera if I can find it — that my parents in Davidson, North Carolina, have figured out how to get online, because they would certainly be here in person if they could. So, hi, Mom and Dad.

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I am honored and humbled to be asked to serve as the next president of Bates College.  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.

The two Michaels have described how the search unfolded from the college’s point of view. I thought I would share with you how it felt on my side.

For me, it was not a search at all.  It was a case of “love at first sight.”

Any college that leads its mission statement with an affirmation of the “emancipating potential of the liberal arts” is a place I want to be.

Then there’s the fact that from your earliest beginnings you welcomed women and African Americans into the full standing of the scholarly community when it simply “wasn’t done.”  I love a place that does what is right, rather than what is expected.

In your course catalogue, you describe yourselves as a community of people who love “ideas, artistic expression, good talk, and great books.” Who wouldn’t want to be at that party?

And your faculty and students are serious enough about the intellectual heart of the enterprise to convene the Mt. David summit each year, celebrating academic accomplishment as the Big Ten celebrates football.

Which is not to suggest that you are not serious about athletics. On the contrary, as far as I can tell everyone here is engaged in some sort of athletic or fitness or outdoor endeavor.  And I would of course never be tacky enough to mention that this year you even beat that NESCAC football powerhouse from the purple valley in Massachusetts.  I’m sorry, Williams — I had to do it.

Finally, based on my limited, but statistically significant, sample of faculty, trustees, staff and students during the course of the search and preparations for this occasion, and based on my interactions over the years with the Bates alumni with whom I have been fortunate enough to cross paths, this is an extraordinary community of people. Your faculty are engaged and serious; your students talented and motivated; your staff wonderfully dedicated to serving this institution; and your trustees committed to the best future of the college. Out in the world, when you run into a Bates alum, they light up when they talk about their experiences at the college. I keep asking myself how I could have gotten so lucky as to have as part of my day job the task of getting to know all of you. What could be better?

So, there is clearly much to love about Bates College — and I realize that I have only barely, infinitesimally scratched the surface.

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But there are also very real challenges — for higher education and for the residential liberal arts college in particular. This kind of education is expensive for institutions to provide and for families to afford, and it does not help that we have a slack economy and challenging demographics.

Furthermore, large forces — fundamental shifts in the organization of knowledge, the ubiquity of technology, and the fact of global interconnectedness made so apparent by the financial crisis — are changing both the context for what we do, and, in important respects, the content and texture of the educational experience itself.

All institutions need to engage these forces and adapt.  But we also need the courage to claim the power and importance of what we do.

More than ever, we need the frameworks provided by the liberal arts — to link values and knowledge to  a life of what historian Nancy Koehn has called “right action.”  To carve understanding and wisdom out of the welter of information bombarding us from all directions.  To learn, and relearn, how to live authentic lives in a world of images and constructed identities. To serve with passion and rigor purposes larger than ourselves in a culture rife with instrumentalism.

As Peter Gomes said it better than anyone could, always, we need to learn “to live in the full implication of our human gifts.”

But we also need the mindset and flexibility to deal with uncertainty.  The past decade has brought us 9/11, Katrina, tsunamis, the earthquake in Haiti, and the ongoing financial crisis. As institutions, we need to be organized to carry on the day-to-day activities of housing, feeding and educating our students, while also being nimble enough to respond to the predictably unpredictable events that seem to reframe with disturbing regularity the context in which we do our work. Bates, and colleges like it, are durable institutions. Yet we are forced increasingly to acknowledge the contingent nature of our place in the world.

In the project of enacting a serious, forward-looking, and engaged model of the liberal arts, Bates is already out front. Your academic structure recognizes the movement of knowledge and scholarship toward greater interdisciplinarity; your general education program takes account, among other things, of problem-based approaches to learning; and the Harward Center not only stands for the importance of social responsibility and service to others, but also embodies our growing awareness in the liberal arts of  the power of uniting theory and practice.

Part of the task ahead is, therefore, to embrace with energy and confidence what the college already does so well, even as we challenge ourselves — always — to do better.  We also need to strengthen our resource base so that we can more fully support a vibrant campus community and open that community as broadly as possible through financial aid.

And, finally, we need to make sure the world knows what we’re up to.  More people need to understand what a serious, distinctive, and wonderful education Bates has to offer.

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I grew up on the campuses of two different liberal arts colleges, and I learned very early to prize the special alchemy of people and ideas that communities like this make possible. Later, I lost my heart to Maine. You can’t imagine the joy it brings me to knit together these two deep passions, right here, with you, at Bates College, in Lewiston.

For the next six months, before I report for duty on July 1, Nancy Cable will continue to lead the college in her extraordinarily capable and generous way.  She and I will also have a great deal of fun and time together working on issues and plans that carry forward into the next academic year.

Meanwhile, I would like to take this interim time to get to know as many of you in the extended Bates family as possible. I have everything to learn about Bates, and a lot of listening to do. I want to understand what you care about, what frustrates you, and what your ambitions are for yourselves and for the college.

I am thrilled to be here, I am daunted by the responsibility, and I can’t wait to get to work.

Thank you so much for this incredibly warm welcome.