Clayton Spencer Strikes Out On Her Own, Leaving Behind Long Legacy of Accomplishments

She says that even as she worked towards earning her J.D. at Yale Law School, she knew she wanted to enter the field of higher education. In her law school applications, she described her love for academia as her reason for wanting to study law.

“I always knew I wanted to work in the field,” Spencer says. “I was completely agnostic about what particular roles I might end up playing.”

After a brief stint working in a traditional law firm, Spencer moved to Washington D.C., where she found a job that combined her love for the law and devotion to academia. While she worked in the office of Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56, Spencer served as chief education counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources and helped to push through a slew of education policies.

In 1997, Spencer left Washington D.C. for Cambridge, where her then-husband was on the faculty of Harvard Kennedy School, and took a job as a consultant and advisor in Rudenstine’s administration.



Spencer has quickly ascended the ranks of Mass Hall to become what senior administrators have described as one of the most influential voices in the central administration.

When Spencer first arrived at the University she was tasked with helping to orchestrate the official merger of Harvard and Radcliffe. Though the University had become co-educational decades before, the schools were still technically two separate entities. After the integration was complete, Spencer assisted in transforming Radcliffe College grounds into the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study that exists today.

She also became a member of the search committees for many high-level deans. Rudenstine, who served as president at the time, describes her as one of his two “chief advisors.”

“I knew she would be very, very good,” says Rudenstine. “I don’t think I could have guessed the whole evolution—not because she didn’t have the talent, but because I didn’t know what role she wanted to play.”

In the years that followed, Spencer received a number of promotions and roles of increasing importance. In 2005, Spencer found herself in the role of Vice President for Policy, the position she holds now. In this role she worked on a number of important initiatives that have defined her legacy at Harvard and reputation in the world of higher education.

The Harvard Financial Aid Initiative, which greatly expanded and simplified Harvard’s financial aid offerings, is perhaps the most well-known of her efforts. Lawrence H. Summers had announced that Harvard would redo its financial aid policies in 2004 and Spencer’s expertise in analytics allowed administrators to crunch the numbers.

Faust says that figuring out how to use data most effectively is an important part of her role, and was a skill that was particularly crucial to HFAI.

“I think I can say clearly that I don’t think that our financial aid initiatives would have occurred in anywhere near the shape or form that they have without her and she was in on the ground floor from the very beginning,” Fitzsimmons says.

With HFAI, as with the many other projects she led, Spencer also played an influential role in winning over skeptics in the faculty and administration.

“Harvard is a very budget conscious place and there were many who didn’t want to spend money on a new initiative and Clayton helped to persuade them that they were wrong—helped persuade them that this was an important investment in Harvard’s future,” says Summers.


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