While all three changes grabbed headlines this year, the woman who organized them is virtually unknown outside the Harvard administration.
Though she shies from the limelight, behind the scenes A. Clayton Spencer is one of the most influential officials at Harvard.
Her nondescript title, vice president for policy, belies a wide array of accomplishments, from helping orchestrate the 1999 merger of Radcliffe and Harvard to pushing through the launch and expansion of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative.
But she prefers anonymity, declining repeated interview requests, which a Harvard spokesman attributed to a desire not to garner publicity during University President Drew G. Faust’s first year, and only consenting to an interview when asked for this profile.
Modest about her influence, Spencer frequently lists the names of other Harvard officials when describing her own duties, the word “colleagues” peppering her language.
But Spencer has the most far-reaching portfolio of any Harvard administrator, from coordinating academic planning across the University to assisting with high-level personnel searches to managing presidential projects, like the two recent financial aid initiatives.
When asked about Spencer’s role, Faust describes the vice president’s duties as so expansive that they parallel her own.
“That’s like asking me what my day-to-day duties are,” Faust said.
Aside from her concrete accomplishments, Spencer also may be the Mass. Hall person closest to the new president.
She and Faust became friends long before the president’s appointment. Nearly a decade ago, Spencer helped in the selection process that brought Faust from the University of Pennsylvania to Harvard. Spencer then served as Faust’s acting executive dean at Radcliffe, helping the newly-arrived leader get her feet on the ground. As the years wore on, the two continued to work closely, former University President Neil L. Rudenstine said.
“From the moment Drew was chosen [as Radcliffe dean], Clayton really became the strong connection at the staff level between Mass. Hall and Radcliffe,” Rudenstine said in an interview from his home in Princeton, N.J. “She and Drew really worked together on a lot of things, and she got to know Drew very well.”
Now in Mass. Hall, Faust counts the vice president as one of her closest advisers, and for virtually all of Faust’s signature initiatives—the task force on the arts, the upcoming capital campaign, the search for an executive vice president—Spencer serves as the president’s eyes and ears.
Above all, colleagues credit Spencer with an uncanny ability to get things done, and her duties, from all appearances, are designed to harness that talent. Though Harvard describes her charge as “oversee[ing] the work of the President’s office,” it is perhaps best characterized by her sole published quote on assuming the post: “As we move forward, the emphasis increasingly will be on effective execution.”
THE HIGHER ED EXPERT
Ava Clayton Spencer was born in December 1954 in Concord, North Carolina, the daughter of Samuel Reid Spencer Jr., a Harvard-trained historian who spent his career at colleges in the South.
Spencer’s immersion in higher education began early—her father served as president of Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. from 1957 to 1968 and Davidson College in North Carolina from 1968 to 1984.
Spencer’s own education is extensive: she prepped at Phillips Exeter Academy, whose board she serves on, before attending Williams College, where she studied history and German; Oxford, where she read theology; and Harvard, where she studied religion. She received her final degree in 1985 with a J.D. from Yale Law School.
Though her studies don’t immediately suggest the career she would pursue, U.S. District Court Judge Rya W. Zobel ’53, for whom Spencer clerked in the mid-1980s, said Spencer left law school with her mind on education issues.
After briefly practicing law, including a stint at the elite Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray, Spencer became the chief education counsel in the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, where she staffed Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56.
On Capitol Hill, she helped push through a slew of education policies during the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, displaying a relentless drive to shepherd legislation through the halls of Congress, according to Suzanne Day, who worked next door to Spencer and later came to Harvard at her urging.
“She doesn’t spin her wheels waiting for things,” said Day, who was a staffer for Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and a close ally of Kennedy. “There are groups where people care about things but nobody is willing to do the work. Clayton is willing to do the work.”
Spencer’s writings, while thin, show her to be an astute observer of political trends and their impact on educational institutions. Her decade-old analysis of education issues in Congress seems eerily prescient given the criticism wealthy colleges have received of late.
“Charles Schultz’s Snoopy captured it about as well as anyone: ‘I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.’ Today, the public and political leaders love ‘education’—it’s colleges and universities they can’t stand,” Spencer wrote in 1999, just after arriving at Harvard.
The two book chapters she penned on the subject reveal a fierce commitment to expanding access to higher education for students from low-income families, a goal reflected in many of her projects at Harvard.
“Much of the inequity in participation, persistence, and degree completion throughout the educational pipeline can be explained in financial terms alone,” she wrote.
Spencer would soon bring this conviction and drive to Harvard, where she has also taught a course on higher education policy at the Graduate School of Education.
“She’s very ambitious—not about herself, but about what she’s affiliated with,” said Day, who now directs federal relations for Harvard. “I think that was true about Kennedy and it’s true about Harvard—how can it be a better place? Can we do better on aid? Her ambition for issues is really phenomenal.”
And even with her Senate days behind her, Spencer said this week that Harvard has provided ample opportunities to change higher education policy, pointing to the domino effect of other schools reacting to the financial aid initiatives she helped implement.
“Once we made that move a lot of colleges and universities started moving money out of merit aid to low income,” Spencer said. “It sort of became the priority.”
A DRIVING FORCE
Spurred by this conviction, Spencer became a driving force behind Harvard’s two landmark financial aid programs as well as the end of early action. William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Harvard’s veteran dean of admissions and financial aid, said Spencer was “indispensable to the success of all three initiatives.”
From the beginning of her Harvard career, Spencer took on responsibility for the biggest organizational change in Harvard’s recent history—helping shepherd Radcliffe through the transition from independent college to institute for advanced study.
As the presidents have changed, so, Spencer said, have her projects.
“I’m following the lead of whoever the president is in terms of setting priorities,” she said.
But throughout, she has maintained a focus on improving access to education, implementing programs like the Crimson Scholars, a three-year-old program that aims to prepare local high school students for competitive college admissions.
“From idea to execution, [Crimson Scholars] just went without causing ripples, without causing problems,” Zobel said. “The organization and the implementation of it was under her direction. This is the sort of thing she does.”
Spencer, characteristically understating her own role, attributes Crimson Scholars to University President Lawrence H. Summers’ desire to “have a pipeline program that reached out to high school students.” But other high-profile changes at Harvard, like the end of early action, originated with Spencer and not others in Mass. Hall, according to admissions dean Fitzsimmons.
“I had had continuing discussions with Clayton Spencer,” Fitzsimmons said. “We went in to see [then-Interim University President Derek C. Bok] within the first few weeks of his return and we proposed the early action change.”
In her efforts, colleagues say she studiously avoids imperiousness. Fellow trustees of Williams College, on whose board she has served for five years, say that Spencer is an exceedingly modest “coalition-builder,” experienced in organizing support in the ego-dominated halls of both Washington and Cambridge.
“It’s not Clayton’s style to hold herself out as ‘I know more than you do,’ said Williams trustee Michael Keating. “She’s very careful to say, ‘Based on what I know, I have this point of view.’”
This spring, when two U.S. Senators made headlines by requesting information on finances from wealthy universities with the implicit threat of future legislative mandates on endowment spending, Spencer was Mass. Hall’s point person in organizing a response, Day said.
But if her influence persists, so too, it seems, will her desire for anonymity.
When discussing her schedule Monday as an example of her daily duties during a 20-minute interview that afternoon, she expressed a desire to avoid future encounters.
“That’s a fairly typical day,” she concluded. “Except for meeting with you guys, which I try to keep to a minimum.”
—Staff writer Clifford M. Marks can be reached at email@example.com.