Michael Spence (academic)

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The Reverend Michael Spence
Vice Chancellor of the
University of Sydney
Assumed office
Preceded by Gavin Brown
Personal details
Born (1962-01-10)10 January 1962
Residence Sydney, New South Wales
Alma mater University of Sydney
University of Oxford
Profession Lawyer, priest
Website University of Sydney

Michael J. Spence (born 10 January 1962) is an Australian academic and Anglican priest. Spence began as the 25th Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney on 11 July 2008. On 19 September 2012, he was reappointed for a second five-year term to commence on 1 July 2013.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Spence is an alumnus of the University of Sydney, having graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree with first-class honours in English and Italian in 1985 and a Bachelor of Laws degree with honours in 1987.[2] Before leaving for the University of Oxford in 1988 to undertake doctoral studies, Spence lectured in law at the university and also worked for the Australian Copyright Council.

At Oxford, Spence obtained his DPhil degree and continued to develop his career over the next 20 years. He became a fellow of St Catherine's College and a lecturer of the University of Oxford in 1992. He also obtained a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology from the University of Oxford.


During his time at Oxford, Spence worked in the field of intellectual property theory. His work includes articles and books on both intellectual property law and the law of obligations, with a critical focus on suggested ethical and economic justifications of the existing regimes. He remains a consultant to the London law firm Olswang and serves as a World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Arbitration and Mediation Centre Panelist. He has lectured on intellectual property-related topics around the world, and held a number of visiting appointments in Boston, Munich and Siena. He has twice been a Parsons Fellow at the Sydney Law School.

Spence served as head of the law faculty at the University of Oxford and was head of the Social Sciences Division, one of the four divisions which made up that university but never achieved the rank of professor.[3] He oversaw significant growth of research activity and funding in the social sciences and the strengthening of links between the social science departments and between them and the university more broadly.

One of Spence's priorities at Oxford was actively to encourage fundraising and substantial sponsorship from benefactors and corporate groups. He was a driving force behind the establishment and financial support of a number of Oxford's new research centres and institutes, such as the Oxford Centre for Educational Assessment and the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. His responsibilities included oversight of some of the University of Oxford's most innovative research units, including the James Martin 21st Century School and the Oxford-Man Institute for Quantitative Finance.

As the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Spence has continued to prioritise philanthropic fundraising and, in May 2013, launched a major fundraising campaign,[4] at that time the biggest fundraising drive of its kind in Australian higher education. The INSPIRED campaign passed the $400 million milestone in mid 2014,[5] and philanthropy has underpinned some of the major strategic initiatives of Spence's tenure, including the Charles Perkins Centre, a research and education centre that aims to tackle obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.[6] Other key elements of the university's current strategic plan, developed in 2010 following widespread consultation across the university community,[7] include efforts to increase the number of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds[8] and greater participation in the University for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[9]

The Australian newspaper ranked Spence as 21st in its 2014 list of the most influential people in higher education:[10] "As the corporate university asserts itself as the dominant model, Michael Spence is something of an anachronism — an old-style academic leader who believes in the old-style university. He brings a curious mix of characteristics to his role — deeply held convictions about integrity, fairness and inclusion, lofty ideals about the role of the university in modern society and even loftier ideas about the power of persuasion to bring unbelievers around to his way of thinking — not always successful."

Action initiated by Spence to improve the financial sustainability of the University has alienated some students and staff.[11] In 2012, Spence led efforts to cut the university's expenditure to address the financial impact of a slowdown in international student enrolments across Australia. This included redundancies of a number of university staff and faculty, though some at the university argued that the institution should cut back on building programs instead.[12] Anonymous critics argue the push for savings has been driven by managerial incompetence and indifference,[11] fuelling industrial action during a round of enterprise bargaining in 2013 that also reflected widespread concerns about public funding for higher education.[13] Protesters' views have been reflected in an internal staff survey in 2012/13, which found widespread dissatisfaction with how the University is being managed.[14] Asked to rate their level of agreement with a series of statements about the university, just 19 per cent of those surveyed believed “change and innovation” were handled well by the university.

Concerns about public funding for higher education were reflected again in 2014 following the federal government's proposal to deregulate student fees. The university held a wide-ranging consultation process, which included a "town hall meeting" in the university's Great Hall 25 August 2014, where an audience of students, staff and alumni expressed deep concern about the government's plans and called on university leadership to lobby against the proposals.[15] Spence took a leading position among Australian vice-chancellors in repeatedly calling throughout 2014 for any change to funding to not undermine equitable access to university.[16][17]

Personal life[edit]

Spence is an ordained Anglican priest, having trained for the priesthood at St Stephen's House, Oxford, and ministers part-time in this capacity.[18] He is fluent in French and Italian.[18]

Spence was married to an American, Beth, with whom he had five children James, Phillipa, Oliver, Lucinda and Felicity. Beth Spence died in 2012, aged 47, from cancer.[19] In January 2015, Spence married artist Jenny Ihn at St Phillip's York Street Anglican Church, where she had served as an assistant minister.


  1. ^ http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newscategoryid=8&newsstoryid=10098
  2. ^ Andrew Potter (19 September 2012). "Dr Michael Spence reappointed as Vice-Chancellor at Sydney". University of Sydney. Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  3. ^ Stephen Matchett (16 July 2008). "New voice has plenty in reserve". Retrieved 1 August 2008.
  4. ^ Sarah-Jane Collins, Daniel Hurst (6 May 2013). "Uni campaign turns to public". Retrieved 10 May 2013
  5. ^ http://inspired.sydney.edu.au/inspired-fundraising-campaign-soars-over-400-million-milestone
  6. ^ Heath Gilmore (6 June 2014) "Sydney University's Charles Perkins Centre a world first for collaboration". Retrieved 24 February 2015
  7. ^ Andrew Potter (4 August 2010). "White Paper spells out University's future directions" Retrieved 10 May 2013
  8. ^ Health Gilmore (6 February 2014). "University of Sydney leg-up scheme has ATAR system on ropes". Retrieved 24 February 2015
  9. ^ http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=9416
  10. ^ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/special-features/higher-education-top-50-most-influential-people-2014/story-fnqzriox-1227142333637
  11. ^ a b Max Chalmers (10 March 2014). "The man, the myth, the manager". Retrieved 10 March 2014.
  12. ^ Stephen Matchett (12 March 2012). "Academics argue VC has not made his case". The Australian. Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  13. ^ Barnsley, Kate (22 March 2013). "FAQs for Strike Day - March 26 and March 27". Retrieved 2013-03-24. 
  14. ^ Kirsty Needham (9 June 2013). "Sydney Uni staff rank as most dissatisfied"
  15. ^ http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/overwhelming-opposition-to-fee-deregulation-at-historic-university-of-sydney-town-hall-meeting-20140826-108btl.html
  16. ^ http://www.smh.com.au/comment/middle-income-families-the-losers-in-race-to-university-20140528-zrqgy.html
  17. ^ http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2014/s4075107.htm
  18. ^ a b Simon Holt (9 August 2011). "Sydney Uni's vice-chancellor has lunch with the editor". Inner West Courier. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  19. ^ "Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese, 13 September 2013.