Reopening College Campuses During COVID-19


Part 6: Clayton Spencer, President of Bates College

Bates College President Clayton Spencer discusses how COVID-19 has impacted the value proposition of liberal arts colleges. She also explains the key elements of Bates' fall reopening plans and shares her primary concerns and leadership lessons from the return to campus. (Recorded Aug. 11, 2020)

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Bates College Fall 2020 Planning


 Read this episode's transcript

Philip Rogers: Support for this podcast series comes from Jenzabar, who for over 30 years has been working with higher education leaders on over 1,350 campuses to provide creative enrollment and digital transformation solutions. Jenzabar, the smart choice for higher education. Thanks for listening to Engage Conversations, in this special mini-series focused on leadership and higher education in the midst of COVID-19. I'm your host, Philip Rogers, and today's dialogue is part six in our series, where we'll be unpacking the value proposition of liberal arts education in these uncertain times. And we'll talk about how one small private institution, in particular, is developing a strategic approach to reopening and the leadership challenges that come along with doing just that. My co-host Sherri Hughes is with us today and Sherri, I'm sure that this conversation is certainly near and dear to your heart as a former provost of a similar type of institution. So glad to have you back with us.

Sherri Hughes: Well, Philip, it is great to be here and you're spot on. As a graduate, a faculty member, and a provost at small private colleges, I have a real affinity for how those communities transform the lives of students. But those institutions are facing some tremendous challenges and many of those have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. So I know that in my conversations with leaders of these institutions, they are working really hard to preserve as much of that transformative experience as they can. So I'm really looking forward to this conversation. So I'm eager to jump right into the dialogue. Today, we are pleased to welcome in as our guest, Dr. Clayton Spencer, President of Bates College, who also happens to be a long time member of the ACE board and is chair of our public policy committee. So Clayton, welcome to Engage Conversations.

Clayton Spencer: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

Philip Rogers: Well, we're glad to have you here, Clayton. And I have to ask you before we really get started into the meat of the conversation. I know we're all trying to social distance here, but you're really doing just that. Something tells me you have a pretty nice view that you're looking out over Maine as you tackle these challenging times. So give us a little sense of the peace and maybe a little bit of jealousy that we can experience and paint that picture for us before we dive in.

Clayton Spencer: Well, the best part of running a wonderful liberal arts college in Maine is being in this beautiful State of Maine, where even before I came to Bates, our family had this house on a lobstering Island called Swan's Island. It does not in any way resemble Nantucket or Martha's vineyard, it is a bunch of lobstering families and a tiny little general store. And I am socially distanced except from my friends, the deer who were out to my left through the windows in the woods, the porpoises who go by in schools, and the ocean right in front of me and the eagle who occasionally does a flyover for dramatic flair.

Philip Rogers: Well, that's quite the site and we can certainly imagine it. And the silver linings of this situation are important to remember time and time again. And as we jump into our dialogue, we'd love for you also to paint the picture for our listeners of your institution that you'll be going back to in a couple of days and your background as a leader. So give us a sense of what Bates is like and your journey to the institution.

Clayton Spencer: So Bates is a New England liberal arts college located in Maine, specifically in Lewiston, Maine, which is the second largest city in Maine, at 34,000 people. We're in one of those nice, undense States during the COVID era. Some of the key characteristics in the contemporary era are, we're known for academic rigor. All of our students do senior theses, or a similar experience we're a nationally recognized leader in community-engaged learning. And we have a very distinctive approach to thinking about life and career that is grounded in the liberal arts called our purposeful work program. So with that, I'll stop my Bates infomercial, but it's a pretty special place.

Philip Rogers: And Clayton, you came to Bates by way of Capitol Hill and have tremendous experience in public policy. And that's an incredible value add to ACE. So we want to thank you for your contributions there.

Clayton Spencer: Sure. I'm trained as a lawyer and had the incredible privilege of working with Senator Edward Kennedy in the Senate, who was chairman of what was then called the Labor and Human Resources' Committee that was in charge of education. And I was chief education council, so I got to run any legislation that involved higher education. And we think first of all, of Pell grants, the whole student financial aid system, NSF, big pieces of the research enterprise as well. So that was a wonderful experience, and early in my career. And then after that, I was the vice president for policy at Harvard and worked on the senior team of Harvard for 15 years in the university, and then went to Bates in 2012. So I'm entering my ninth year.

Sherri Hughes: Clayton, as you know at ACE, we talk a lot about the need to affirm and strengthen the public's trust in higher education. And this feels like one of those moments where we could really rise to the occasion, or maybe not. So how do you see the impact of the pandemic on the value proposition of the liberal arts?

Clayton Spencer: So it's really interesting. I think that the COVID pandemic has done more to underscore the intrinsic value of the liberal arts than almost any collective experience in my professional lifetime. If you think about it, you can't begin to understand this pandemic without understanding biology, chemistry, history, political science, economics, psychology, statistics, philosophy, ethics, you pick it. So in other words, implicated in the pandemic are all the disciplines we teach at the liberal arts. And what you realize as you try to navigate through the pandemic is how do you take all of the information we're being bombarded with, apply critical reasoning, and think critically from evidence, and make the connections to come to an understanding of what's going on and what do we need to do individually and collectively to respond? So that's the essence of the liberal arts project.

And I'll just give an example: We've learned again this summer, if you don't get the science right, you're not going to get the economics right. They are interdependent. So we can't think about having this student over here, hyper specialized in one discipline. The whole point is to use the college time in a liberal arts setting to make sure people have broad exposure, learn critical thinking, creativity, connectivity, so that people can develop a point of view and figure out how they want to move through the world. So I think it's a hard moment for liberal arts colleges, but it's a super important moment for the liberal arts.

Philip Rogers: I'm curious Clayton, before we jump into the operations piece. Is change like this, is this good? Is change like this good, is it productive? Does it lead us into a space that will ultimately make the liberal arts even stronger than it is today?

Clayton Spencer: I think change like this is good on many levels. I wish some of this change were not so disastrous for human beings on our planet. And I wish we were not having self inflicted wounds by what I think has just been a very deeply troubling lack of leadership on the national level. That said, I think what colleges have learned to do...we've always had the reputation of being slow moving, having a cumbersome shared governance system. And yet what you saw last spring was within literally about a 10 day period, almost every residential college in the country closed its doors, managed to get it's students home safely. We set up a whole travel bureau to make sure our students could get tickets, visas, et cetera, and then have spent the entire spring and summer adapting every piece of our academic program and every piece of our operations to be able to open in person in the fall. So I think we've shown that if there's a sense of urgency and a lot of collaboration and a lot of patience, we can actually move quickly. And I think that's a good lesson.

And I think most experiences, and certainly the pandemic is one of them, most experiences that make business as usual impossible, create openings. And the question is, are we going to step up and take advantage of those openings? I already see us doing that at Bates. I think our faculty's attention to pedagogy, because you got to figure out how am I going to keep this class interesting if I'm teaching remotely? What if some of my students are able to come in person to campus and some of my students are not? Well, then I may turn my lectures into prerecorded, and then I'm going to run the two, the class sessions for the week as really intensive discussion sections. And that's a classic flipped classroom concept, but not one that the liberal arts colleges are on the front end of adopting. So I think there's been organizational creativity, we had cross functional teams working to problem solve all year. We did a virtual commencement that we put on through our events team, from our advancement through our academic team, through our student affairs team, all working together to make this happen. And we've had a whole series of those. So I have found the period to be intense in a very good way, creative, sometimes relentless, but I think we will definitely come out the other end stronger and with our tool kit improved.

Philip Rogers: Yeah. Well, let's talk about the tool kit and the strength that's being built as a part of your planning and operations process, because cleaning for the unknown is really tough work. And we'd love to hear you reflect on how the fall is unfolding on your campus. I know you have students coming back in a couple of days, what percentage of your students are coming back and then what are you doing actively to make the campus a safe place?

Clayton Spencer: Right. So let me start with our students. Our students want to come back in person. It is of the essence of the liberal arts campus experience that you live and work and learn in community, that you make friendships that sustain you for life. And it's really hard to do that exclusively over Zoom. So the vast majority of our students are coming back, I would say somewhere between 85 and 90% of our students will be on campus. And we have literally turned ourselves inside out and upside down to make the campus safe. Let me just give three examples because health and safety is the nonnegotiable piece, if you can't ensure that you can't take another step. So the first thing we did, we've always had two standard semesters and then Bates has something called short term in May. That's like everybody else's winter term, we just happened to do it at the end of the year where you take one course intensively. But for the two short terms, I mean, sorry for the two semesters, we've always just had a four course load as the typical load for students.

This year, with a lot of planning and research, our faculty voted to carve the four course semester into two modules where each student just takes two courses at a time and does it more intensively. So you have the same amount of class time, but it happens in 7.5 weeks for the first two and 7.5 weeks for the second two. And we did that because we thought we might face a series of different contingencies. Suppose we were not able to open on time and needed to do a piece of the semester remote for starters, we could pick it up at the second two module. Or suppose we have to pivot at some point and send our students home, one thing we learned from the spring experience when they were doing four courses online on that emergency remote learning, it was very hard for our students to maintain the coursework and the classes and the concentration in four different courses. So that's one of the big engineering things we did. And I don't know how much you want to hear about our testing scheme, but it's a critically important piece. And without it, the whole system falls down.

Philip Rogers: How often are you testing your students and other members of the community?

Clayton Spencer: We will test our students upon arrival and then twice a week thereafter. And we're partnering with the Broad Institute in Cambridge, which is a Harvard, MIT collaboration. And many of the New England colleges are using the Broad, that is best known for its genomics processing. What it's doing now with us is using some of that high throughput capacity that it uses for genomics, they're putting that to clinical use. And the testing strategy when you go to twice a week for students, is population testing, you're not waiting to find symptoms. And we know that in college populations, you might easily have 30 or 40% of your students asymptomatic anyway. But what you want to do is figure out what your baseline number of positive cases is. And then you need to monitor on an ongoing basis, whether the positivity rate is going up, because if the positivity rate is going up, it's telling you, all of your protective measures are not working, or they're not working adequately, and you're going to end up with an outbreak. So the testing and the quick response, Broad has promised us a 24 to 36 hour turnaround, but all of this testing is new for colleges and it's new for all the entities that are doing the testing.

The important thing for us about going with the Broad Institute is it has a different supply chain from the commercial labs that have now fallen behind, and it has a different processing platform. So we're optimistic that we've got a good solution there, because without that you're flying blind and in a setting, a residential community that's a disaster waiting to happen.

Philip Rogers: I know Sherri is going to want to ask about some of the challenges you anticipate as a part of this, but I do want to follow the trail quickly around positivity rate potential for outbreaks. And I was on a call talking with a national reporter earlier in the week and one of the areas he was really focusing on was, how do you tackle the big unknown of student behavior and how do you control that environment to the best extent possible prevent those types of things from happening? What is your experience in thinking about that approach?

Clayton Spencer: So what I would say is that we are trying to emphasize an affirmative front end public health approach, which means norming a particular set of public health practices. So there's probably going to have to be a little enforcement as well, because if you see students not behaving, that's endangering the community and we would have to respond. But the more we can upfront persuade our students, that if they want this semester to succeed, it depends on everybody on campus. And it is important not to stigmatize students in this sense, because we have employees on campus who will leave our campus and go out and do their grocery shopping or whatever. If they're not being equally vigilant, it is just as possible that they could bring disease onto the campus as going the other way. So we're working with our student leaders.

We have a design team that consists of students and student affairs staff working on creating a set of programs, incentives, et cetera to educate and train our students and to get the kind of buy in we need. And I'm sure there'll be gaps, these are 18 to 22 year olds who've been cooped up all spring, but I think they've all gotten the message. One thing we've done, and I know every college is doing this, we have really communicated about this. And we have said, "Folks, this is not going to be the college partying experience you've always dreamed of for first years, or you were used to the last three years you were on campus. This is going to be a very different reality where you've got to wear a mask in the hall of your dorm, and you have to socially distance, and you can't gather in large groups." So we've tried to convey that and if you're going to take that approach, which is, I would call a very clear, bright line approach, then you also have to say the students. "So if you don't want to do this, or you think you're going to be incapable of it doing this, you have a choice. You do not need to come to campus."

We can make sure... Every course we're teaching is offered in a hybrid mode. I mean, some courses are fully remote about 25%, but then most have in-person for the students on campus and remote components. So we've given students free choice to study remotely if they want to keep on their progress to degree or take a leave, or in the case of a high school student coming in, take a gap year. And we continue to honestly pound away on this message that this is not going to be college as we ever knew it, it's a matter of collective responsibility. And collective responsibility can only happen if individuals are making the right choices. Students want to come back, but they're looking at the fall with a little anxiety and trepidation, and frankly, college administrators are too. It's not how we'd like to run a college, but it's necessary and under these conditions.

Sherri Hughes: Well Clayton, what you've described is you've not only re-engineered several of your systems and structures, but you're having to re-engineer the community in some important ways. And I want to go back to something you said a little bit earlier, and you described, I think the situation as "feeling relentless." So can you talk a little bit about some of the biggest challenges that you faced in planning for the coming year?

Clayton Spencer: Every person across campus at every layer is making decisions every day. So this is a giant game of whack-a-mole if you are in a decision making role in the campus. Or the other metaphor I like to think about is the Russian matryoshka dolls, for every big decision has another decision inside it and then there's another one and then you finally get down to that little doll and you're like, please don't open anymore. So I think we've had to make multiple decisions every week at every level and communicate them.

And in a college, you guys know this better than anyone, colleges are not corporations where it's about positional authority, "I'm the chairman of the corporation so this is how it's going to go," they're cultures of persuasion. So you not only need to make the decisions, you need to communicate what the decision is, why you made it, and what the impact will be. And then you need to respond to the many people who don't like the decision. So the relentlessness is just, I've never had to make so many big and small decisions in any leadership role. I've worked intensively a lot of my life, particularly in the Senate and at Harvard, but the relentlessness comes from, I think the fact that there's always the next decision lurking around the corner and the sense of responsibility that whatever we do, we're doing with a fair, a high degree of uncertainty and trying to manage risk, but we can't eliminate it.

Philip Rogers: Yeah. So we have only Engage platform and beyond, since this is an open series to the public, a wide array of people at all different leadership levels, listening to this podcast and others in the series. And so we'd love to hear you talk about leadership in general, during a time like this. What are some of the key lessons, some of the big takeaways that you've learned about yourself, about your team, that you might share with others as a way to encourage and strengthen leadership in the field of higher education as a result of these challenging times? Yeah.

Clayton Spencer: I think my three big takeaways from leadership and thinking about leadership are collaboration, communication, and courage. So if it's a culture of persuasion, people have to have the information and they have to feel like their voices will be heard. And that leads naturally to communication. And here, I would just say, it's really easy as a leader to think communication is about telling people what you plan to do. And it is every bit as much about listening. And the psychology of COVID is very complex and people react to different situations in different ways. And one of the things I've had to learn is just to quietly listen to what someone else may be concerned about. Try to get people out of the zone of fear, to the zone of caution and handling, doing things cautiously that will protect the community rather than a kind of undifferentiated fear. And that requires really listening empathetically to what is on people's minds.

And the last thing is courage. If you're in the administrative ranks, you're not the president. You need the courage to speak up, if you think all these challenging decisions that were being broken off and made are adding up to a whole that makes no sense. So it was really important when we decided to go remote last spring and everybody was doing it, but it was a very fast process. I went to one of my most trusted managers, running an important part of the college and I said, "I just need to know what you're thinking." She goes, "We have got to close, this is crazy, we can't operate in this." That took courage and then if you're the leader or the president of the institution, you have to have the courage to express your doubt and the error bars when you're making and communicating decisions. And you also have to have the courage to reverse course if that's what is required, because authenticity in leadership is nonnegotiable. If you don't have it, it's going to be a disaster. And we could probably all think of examples.

Philip Rogers: Clayton, this has been a terrific conversation. I want to hit some of the key takeaways and highlights because I think it's important to wrap up with a summary that brings together all of these different pieces. First of all, you made an incredible case as others have on this series about health and safety being a nonnegotiable aspect of leadership and planning for this crisis. But you also impact a few minutes ago, the importance of collaboration, communication and courage. And by that, I heard a few key things that emerged around the importance of clear, bright line approaches to communication, collective community responsibility, and how much that matters in terms of stakeholder voices, and the ability for all members of the university community to be heard. I love the phrase around colleges being cultures of persuasion that really require intentional decision making and lead to a huge sense of responsibility in the way that you let your values lead and in making tough decisions for the institution.

Quiet listening, I think Sherri, that's a first one that we've heard in this podcast series. And this aspect of being able to move people from the fear zone to the caution zone is really a thoughtful way of framing engagement with the campus community. And then finally, something that we don't hear enough, the courage to speak up, the courage to express doubt. And as we've heard for some of our other guests, mistakes will undoubtedly happen in the face of uncertainty. And so the courage to be willing as a leader, to put yourself out there to reverse course when it's needed, that's real leadership. And Clayton, we are immensely grateful for your courage and for your leadership during this time. And we wish you the best of luck as you tackle the fall semester and want to thank you for being with us today.

Clayton Spencer: Well, thank you, Philip, and thank you Sherri. And Philip, you just said everything better than I ever could. So I'd love a transcript of your summary, but I've appreciated the opportunity. And it's really helpful to have these opportunities to actually think things through, as you're moving through. It creates a good zone of reflection for me in this period.

Philip Rogers: So this concludes our special rapid response episode part six of ACE Engage Conversations. You can listen to the other podcasts in this series at\conversations. And you can register on our Engage platform to listen to previous episodes of Engage Conversations and more, including plenty of content on COVID-19 at We want to thank you for your time joining us today, and we look forward to bringing you more interesting conversations on the Engage platform to help you learn and to lead in the flow of your work.

About the Podcast

A short podcast series from ACE focused on reopening college campuses this fall as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many regions of the country. Hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes talk with college presidents and chancellors and other members of the higher education community about how to ensure campuses are safe and workable for students—and when to make the decision to remain all-online. They unpack monitoring, testing, tracing, cleaning, teaching and learning, responding to the needs of faculty and staff, intercollegiate athletics—and the all-important question of how you get students to social distance in dorms, at parties, and everywhere they go. 

Part of ACE Engage Conversations. Sign up at to listen to past episodes.


This podcast series is generously supported by Jenzabar.

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