By Master Sgt. Michel Sauret
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — When he returns home from work, Benjamin Spencer doesn’t slump on the couch to watch television and relax. He goes to the kitchen, and he cooks. It’s a labor of love. He has mouths to feed: nine children and two adults – including his own – to be exact.
“The one thing I love about Ben is that he puts his family first,” said Marlette, his wife of 19 years.
“He works, puts his heart and soul into his job and comes home, walks through the door, doesn’t change his clothes … washes his hands and goes into the kitchen to start cooking,” she said.
Spencer comes from a lineage of firsts: His father was the first African-American chief judge in the Eastern District of Virginia, and previously the first African-American federal judge in Virginia. His grandfather was the first African-American professor at the University of Notre Dame. William & Mary is the first school where Spencer has served as a faculty member that has hired a Black dean.
He takes up his love of law after his own father, who was a prosecutor and passionate about defending the law, especially against corrupt public officials.
As Spencer became a more prominent voice and influence in law schools and academia, he saw more opportunities to promote equity in the hiring of prominent Black professionals. He was often involved in hiring committees where he was the only Black voice in the group. He challenged unconscious biases that permeated his surroundings. These biases were often subtle and unnoticed by others.
He remembers one hiring committee in particular where a Black faculty candidate was criticized for having work that was mostly “descriptive” – meaning it exposed a particular problem in law without offering a specific solution – but then witnessed the praise of a White faculty candidate for same type of work. The main difference between the two was the color of their skin, not the type of work they had been known for.
He spent more than a year to train physically to join the Army. He lost 27 pounds, and he shipped out to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he attended basic training with a bunch of young men and women in their mid-twenties, while he was over 40.
Months into the hiring process, he finally heard the news: He got the job.
“I was just elated, because we really didn’t have a good plan … We were just relieved to know what our future was and happy that it was going to be this,” Spencer said.
Now that most universities and schools look to balance physical and virtual classrooms to expand their learning environment, Spencer has a significant task ahead of him. He wants to build the William & Mary Law School to have the most influential faculty in the country, all in a time when COVID-19 brings new challenges to educational institutions, the economy and personal lives. Spencer, however, has no doubt he can tackle and overcome these challenges.