But Spencer also has firsthand experience with the importance of purposeful work. She pursued ambition, not purpose, when she became an assistant United States attorney in Boston, prosecuting drug rings, arson, and embezzlement. But it didn’t quite fit: she didn’t see the world in black and white, as a prosecutor must, and she wanted to fix problems with a team by looking forward, not try cases looking back. “Being a trial lawyer — and particularly a criminal prosecutor — was the wrong fit for me at a very fundamental level,” she said.
She then spent 15 years at Harvard working with four different presidents, thinking a lot about what, exactly, a liberal arts education is, and should be. She enjoyed staying in the background, until Bates called. If Harvard was an ocean liner, Bates is a Laser sailboat, small and nimble, with a rich history of bucking trends. And now she’s in charge.