Michael Spence (academic)

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The Reverend Michael Spence
Vice Chancellor, University of Sydney
In office
2008 – present
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 alienated and enraged a significant portion of students and staff[4] with an internal staff survey finding widespread dissatisfaction with how the University is being managed.[5] Some staff whom have worked closely with the Vice-Chancellor remain deeply critical of many of his decisions. Spence argues his religious beliefs strongly influence his decision making stating “What I would hope to say is that my understanding of God and His relationship with the world affects everything I do"[4] Spence has overseen development of the university's current strategic plan, following widespread consultation across the university community.[6] During his time at Sydney, Spence has continued to prioritise philanthropic fundraising and, in May 2013, he launched a first major fundraising campaign,[7] at that time the biggest fundraising drive of its kind in Australian higher education.

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.[8] Critics argue the push for savings has been driven by managerial incompetence and indifference.[4] He has been vice-chancellor during five strikes at Sydney, the most industrial action taken at the university in its 150 year history.[9]

At a "town hall meeting" held in the Great Hall on Monday, 25 August 2014, an audience of students, staff and alumni expressed opposition to the deregulation of university fees. A majority of the 500 in attendance indicated their support of an informal motion put forward by Edward McMahon, a director at the University of Sydney Union, which stated: "This gathering condemns the education reforms announced at the 2014 budget. In particular we condemn the cuts to university funding, the proposed interest rate on HECS debt and the deregulation of fees. We call on all bodies of the university, including you Michael Spence, to campaign against these measures and for a government-funded quality education system for all."[10]

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.[11] He is fluent in French and Italian.[11] A sample of Dr Spence speaking in Chinese can be viewed in a video released in October 2013 on the University of Sydney alumni webpage.[12]

Spence was married to an American, Beth, with whom he had five children James, Phillipa, Oliver, Lucinda, and Felicity. Beth Spence died in 2013, aged 47, from cancer.[13]


  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. ^ a b c Max Chalmers (10 March 2014). "The man, the myth, the manager". Retrieved 10 March 2014.
  5. ^ Kirsty Needham (9 June 2013). "Sydney Uni staff rank as most dissatisfied"
  6. ^ Andrew Potter (4 August 2010). "White Paper spells out University's future directions". Retrieved 10 May 2013.
  7. ^ Sarah-Jane Collins, Daniel Hurst (6 May 2013). "Uni campaign turns to public". Retrieved 10 May 2013
  8. ^ Stephen Matchett (12 March 2012). "Academics argue VC has not made his case". The Australian. Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  9. ^ Barnsley, Kate (22 March 2013). "FAQs for Strike Day - March 26 and March 27". Retrieved 2013-03-24. 
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ a b Simon Holt (9 August 2011). "Sydney Uni's vice-chancellor has lunch with the editor". Inner West Courier. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  12. ^ http://sydney.edu.au/alumni/sam/october2013/video.shtml
  13. ^ "Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese, 13 Sep 2013"