Pit Stop #17: Bates College

For as long as I can remember, the trio of fine liberal arts colleges in Maine — Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby — have been in my consciousness. This morning it was my pleasure to personally visit Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Here’s a geography quiz for you: How far is Lewiston from its twin city of Auburn, Maine? Answer: about 100 yards, right on the other side of the Androscoggin River.

"Hopeful" sign
Lewiston’s optimistic sign at Bates Mills No. 5

With an enrollment of about 1,800 students on a beautiful urban campus, Bates ranks 22nd in the latest USNews & World Report ranking of national liberal arts colleges. For those of you who are new to the whole ranking business, that’s right up there – the highest ranked institution I will visit on this trip, although not, of course, the highest in New England. It was my privilege to meet with Bates President Clayton Spencer in her home right on campus.

Pull up a chair!
The redoubtable Dr. Benjamin Mays

Founded in 1855 by textile tycoon Benjamin Bates and abolitionist statesman Oren Burbank Cheney, Bates was the first coeducational college in New England and among the first to admit African American students, even before the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. Benjamin Mays, a name I know well from my time in Atlanta, was the son of freed sharecroppers in South Carolina, a Bates student, and the graduation speaker at the Bates 1920 Commencement. Mays went on to serve as President of Morehouse College, was a powerful civil rights leader, and delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bates’s history is a source of great pride for President Spencer and rightfully so, although she was quick to add that their origin tale is mostly a white story and the issues of structural racism that plague this country are also, of course, present at Bates.

Clayton came to Bates after serving Harvard for fifteen years, ultimately as Vice President for Policy.  While I can’t say her college presidency was pre-destined, Spencer certainly came by it honestly. Her father, Samuel Reid Spencer Jr., served as President of both Mary Baldwin College and Davidson College and Clayton grew up on academic quads and fields. After study at Oxford, she began her professional career as an attorney, having left a doctoral program at Harvard for law school. Her foray into the education space was as Chief Education Counsel to the  U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, working for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Quite the resume!

When I asked President Spencer about her aspirations for Bates after almost a decade in office, she reflected back to her start at the college. She noticed then three things which have remained a Bates’ constant for her today:

coed walking across quad
  • First, the academic seriousness of the faculty and the students, with almost 90% of the students completing a thesis before graduation.
  • Second, the commitment to an egalitarian culture, derived from its very origin as a co-educational institution and the fact that the college was never home to any Greek organizations.
  • Finally, the climate of experimentation which has always characterized the Bates community. Here, she mentioned the Center for Purposeful Work, which helps students discover the joy and power that arise from aligning who they are with what they do

Bates is a very special place. You’ll enjoy listening to what President Spencer has to say.

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