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Spencer ’77 Making Policy at Harvard

Williams Trustee Clayton Spencer ’77 is making more policy at Harvard.

A. Clayton Spencer, since 1998 associate vice president for higher education policy, becomes vice president for policy, a new position. In this capacity, she assumes “a broader role overseeing the work of the president’s office” with the aim of ensuring “a more integrated approach to activities that entail cooperative efforts with other departments or schools.” Spencer, a lawyer and trustee of Phillips Exeter Academy and Williams College, has worked on such issues as creating the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and enhancing financial aid for lower-income students. She has also served as liaison to several schools and staffed decanal searches. Citing Harvard’s “ambitious goals,” she said, “[A]s we move forward, the emphasis increasingly will be on effective execution.”

Spencer is an interesting trustee because she is one of the very few permanent trustees on the board without an obvious source of significant wealth. Perhaps she was already wealthy (from family or marriage or a successful pre-Harvard career), but, otherwise, her trustee position at Williams is somewhat anomalous.

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#1 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On November 27, 2005 @ 8:20 am

With your “Gee, she isn’t wealthy” gibe, you’re implying that a Trustee’s only duty is to give money to Williams. While that’s sometimes part of the job, a Trustee’s ultimate duty is to give guidance and set parameters for Morty and others in the administration (e.g., “Williams can’t start building a new library until it has raised X dollars for the project.”) Having someone knowledgeable in educational policy and strategy serve as a Williams Trustee is a good thing. These days, someone with that level of expertise is a lot rarer that someone with a million dollars in the bank.

Clay lived in Dennett House when I was at Williams and I don’t recall her family being wealthy. However, she had an educational background even then — her father was president of Davidson College.

#2 Comment By David Kane On November 27, 2005 @ 2:35 pm

“you’re implying that a Trustee’s only duty is to give money to Williams.”

No, that is not what I implied. What I have documented is that the vast majority of permanent trustees are very wealthy. We are not talking about “someone with a million dollars in the bank.” The median wealth of the 15 permanent trustees at Williams is at least 7 figures and might be close to 8.

I have no comments on what the duties of a trustee are. I am making an empirical claim about their wealth. If you have evidence that contradicts that claim, please provide it.

Judging by the biography of Clayton Spencer’s father, it would seem that she does not come from a wealthy family. That would suggest that she was selected to be a trustee for her knowledge about “educational policy and strategy.” Perhaps. It is interesting to note that she was selected in 2001. I wonder if Morty influenced this choice? By next year, she will probably be the only non-mega-wealthy permanent trustee at Williams.

By the way, the exact status of Spencer on the board of trustees is a bit mysterious to me. The College told me that she was a permanent trutee. But Eph Notes reported that:

The Williams Board of Trustees heads into 2003-04 with three new members. Jonathan A. Kraft ’86 and Ava Clayton Spencer ’77 were each appointed by the board to a five-year term, and Steven S. Rogers ’79 was elected to a five-year term by Williams alumni.

Hmmm. Perhaps Spencer started as a term trustee and then was moved over. Or perhaps Eph Notes is just wrong.

#3 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On November 27, 2005 @ 8:33 pm

But if you weren’t attempting to make an editorial comment on wealth, why dwell on the obvious? “Spencer is an interesting trustee because she is one of the very few permanent trustees on the board without an obvious source of significant wealth.” Wealth for most Trustees of institutions of higher learning, museums, etc. is a given. That’s the way the world works.

A much more interesting point would be that she’s one of the few with a higher education background. The peripheral discussions I’ve had about and with Trustees seem to indicate that there is some attempt to have a well-rounded Board that can bring specific expertise to the college’s current issues. There’s always a lawyer, almost always a doctor, typically a CEO, sometimes a professor, and a mixture of generations.

Focusing on wealth is too one-dimensional. What mix of expertise does the college look for goes much more to the heart of the question, I think.

#4 Comment By David Kane On November 27, 2005 @ 9:46 pm

Again, I agree that there is evidence, especially in the term and alumni trustees, that the College strives for a well-rounded board. I know that trustee wealth is a given in our society, but I think that many readers, especially current students, may not be so aware. I wasn’t at age 18.

“Focusing on wealth is too one-dimensional.” Perhaps. But are you so sure that the College doesn’t do exactly that? What process, do you think, caused the College to add Laurie Thomsen ’79, Stephen Harty ’73, Robert Scott ’68
and William Oberndorf ’75 to the ranks of permanent trustees in the last few years? Hint: It was their money and their affection for Williams. Now, perhaps Thomsen et. al. also have a great deal of “knowledgeable in educational policy and strategy.”


I’d bet you big bucks that the College appoints permanent trustees who have the most money/affection. Period. Nothing else matters much. Now, you might believe that the College should follow some other algorithm. Perhaps you are correct. But my claim is that, empirically, I have described how the College actually behaves today. If you have evidence to the contrary, please provide it.

And I think that this is the right thing to do, at least in terms of the permanent trustees.

#5 Pingback By Spencer ‘77 Trustee Status » EphBlog On February 23, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

[…] also answers some questions that I raised here. I am still a little confused, but have already spend enough time on this topic. It would be handy […]