A. Clayton Spencer, Harvard’s vice president for policy, has served as the right-hand woman for four Harvard presidents.
She arrived at the University in 1997 during the final days of University President Neil L. Rudenstine’s tenure. She weathered the controversy sparked by President Lawrence H. Summers’ infamous comments about women. After Summers’ sudden resignation, Spencer stuck by President Derek C. Bok when he came out of a nearly two-decade retirement to lead the University during the search for Harvard’s new president. Under President Drew G. Faust, Spencer witnessed the University at its economic nadir after the endowment dropped nearly 30 percent during the 2008 financial crisis.
Through it all, she has been a key figure in Massachusetts Hall. When asked about what Spencer’s responsibilities entailed, Faust responded, “That’s like asking me what my day-to-day duties are.”
But now Spencer will be striking out on her own. She is set to leave Harvard next month to become the eighth president of Bates College on July 1.
According to her colleagues, she will be sorely missed at Harvard, where her contributions have included the implementation of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, the creation of the Crimson Summer Academy, and the integration of Radcliffe and Harvard Colleges.
“Anything good that’s happened in the time she’s been here, there is very little question [whether] she had a hand it in,” says William R. Fitzsimmons ’67. “If anything that happened that wasn’t good when she was here, you can also be almost guaranteed that she opposed it.”
While Spencer has played a crucial role behind-the-scenes at Harvard, she will now step out into the public spotlight at Bates.
“It was terrific working under four different presidents,” Spencer says of her time at Harvard. “I had the most amazing tutorial in university leadership that anyone could ever have.”
‘THE FAMILY BUSINESS’
Spencer describes higher education as “the family business.”
The daughter of a university president, Spencer grew up in a household where the logistics of running an institute of higher education was a usual topic of conversation at the dinner table.
Spencer says this proximity to university administrators has informed her role in Massachusetts Hall.
“I’ve seen that leadership in higher education is really the intersection of a kind of love for the enterprise, intelligence, data, good decision making, values, sound judgment,” she says. “That’s kind of what I grew up with.”
Born December 1954 in Concord, N.C., Spencer has spent much of her life earning degrees from various educational institutions. She studied at Phillips Exeter Academy, majored in history and German at Williams College, read theology at Oxford, and then returned to the United States to study religion at Harvard.
Spencer says she originally intended to become a traditional academic. “I fell in love with the study of religion, but then I decided I didn’t love it enough to make that my life,” Spencer says. “Then I went to law school.”