Michael Spence (academic)

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The Reverend
Michael Spence
Vice Chancellor of the
University of Sydney
Assumed office
11 July 2008 (2008-07-11)
Preceded by Gavin Brown
Personal details
Born (1962-01-10)10 January 1962 (age 53)
Residence Sydney, New South Wales
Alma mater University of Sydney
University of Oxford
Profession University vice-chancellor, academic, priest
Website University of Sydney

Michael James Spence AC (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 was born to a father who was a high-school headmaster and a mother who was a manager of the Bjelke–Petersen School of Physical Education.[2] He attended Knox Grammar and the University of Sydney, where he 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.[3] 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 D.Phil. degree in Law 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.


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.[4] 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,[5] 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,[6] 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.[7] Other key elements of the university's current strategic plan, developed in 2010 following widespread consultation across the university community,[8] include efforts to increase the number of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds[9] and greater participation in the university for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[10]

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] 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] An internal staff survey in 2012/13 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, 19 per cent of those surveyed believed "change and innovation" were handled well by the university. In the survey, 75 per cent of university staff indicated senior executives were not listening to them, while 22 per cent said change was handled well and 33 per cent said senior executives were good role models.[citation needed]

In the first week of semester, some staff passed a motion of no confidence in Spence because of concerns he was pushing staff to improve the budget while he received a performance bonus of $155,000 that took his total pay to $1 million, in the top 0.1 per cent of income earners in Australia.[15] Fairfax media reports Spence and other Uni bosses[clarify][tone] have salary packages worth ten times more than staff salaries and double that of the Prime Minister.[16]

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" at 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.[17] 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 while arguing for fee deregulation to raise course costs for the majority of higher education students.[18][19]

An investigation by Fairfax Media in 2015 revealed widespread cheating at universities across New South Wales, including the University of Sydney.[20] Spence established a taskforce on academic misconduct in April 2015 to maintain the university's leadership position in covering up incidences of cheating and managerial misconduct.[21]

Spence has been criticized in the media and by the Federal Education Minister for his high salary package of $1.4m last year which according to a report in The Australian [22] was without any proof of any pay-off in university performance.

Spence has also received criticism for his lack of judgement in awarding Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi with a Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa) in recognition of her efforts to help the Burmese people [23], a contribution which has widely questioned after her failure to condemn her country's military for atrocities against persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine state which has seen her stripped of a Freedom of Oxford award.[24]

Spence also accepted donations from Chau Chak Wing on behalf of the University of Sydney[25]. Chau Chak Wing is a Chinese-born property billionaire who is allegedly a key member of Chinese communist party propaganda organizations in Australia.[26]

Personal life[edit]

Spence trained for Holy Orders at St Stephen's House, Oxford, an Anglo-Catholic theological college,[27] graduating with a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology.[28] He was ordained in the Church of England as a deacon in 2006 and as a priest in 2007.[27] From 2006 to 2008, he was a non-stipendiary minister in the Parish of Cowley, Oxfordshire in the Diocese of Oxford.[27] He continues to minister part-time as a priest in an honorary capacity.[29] He is fluent in French and Italian.[29]

Spence met Beth Ann Peterson at the University of Oxford, where Spence was reading for a D.Phil. and Petersen, originally of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was reading philosophy and theology after studying and rowing at Smith College in Massachusetts. Spence and Petersen were married and had five children—James, Phillipa, Oliver, Lucinda and Felicity. Beth Spence was also ordained as an Anglican priest and served as an Anglican curate in the Cowley parish, at the churches of St. James and St. Francis from 2005 to 2008 and at a parish in Waverley, New South Wales from 2008 onwards till her death in 2012, aged 47, from bowel cancer.[30]

In January 2015, Spence married artist Jenny Ihn at St Philip's, Church Hill, where she had served as an assistant minister. They have two children together.

In 2017, Spence was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia for eminent service to leadership of the tertiary education sector, to the advancement of equitable access to educational opportunities, to developing strategic programs focused on multidisciplinary research, and to the Anglican Church of Australia.[31]


  1. ^ http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newscategoryid=8&newsstoryid=10098
  2. ^ Knox, Malcolm (12 May 2012). "Out of the box: lunch with Michael Spence". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Archived from the original on 30 April 2018. 
  3. ^ Potter, Andrew (19 September 2012). "Dr Michael Spence reappointed as Vice-Chancellor at Sydney". University of Sydney. Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  4. ^ Matchett, Stephen (16 July 2008). "New voice has plenty in reserve". Retrieved 1 August 2008. 
  5. ^ Collins, Sarah-Jane; Hurst, Daniel (6 May 2013). "Uni campaign turns to public". Retrieved 10 May 2013. 
  6. ^ http://inspired.sydney.edu.au/inspired-fundraising-campaign-soars-over-400-million-milestone
  7. ^ Gilmore, Heath (6 June 2014). "Sydney University's Charles Perkins Centre a world first for collaboration". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 24 February 2015. 
  8. ^ Andrew Potter (4 August 2010). "White Paper spells out University's future directions" Retrieved 10 May 2013
  9. ^ Gilmore, Health (6 February 2014). "University of Sydney leg-up scheme has ATAR system on ropes". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 24 February 2015. 
  10. ^ http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=9416
  11. ^ a b Chalmers, Max (10 March 2014). "The man, the myth, the manager". Honi Soit. Archived from the original on 30 April 2018. Retrieved 10 March 2014. 
  12. ^ Matchett, Stephen (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. ^ Needham, Kirsty (9 June 2013). "Sydney Uni staff rank as most dissatisfied". The Sydney Morning Herald. 
  15. ^ Adelpour, Adam (16 May 2012). "Michael Spence is the 1 per cent': the role of university management". Solidarity Online. 
  16. ^ McNeilage, Amy (23 August 2013). "Uni bosses earn 10 times more than staff". Daily Life. 
  17. ^ Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
  18. ^ Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
  19. ^ ABC website.
  20. ^ http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/the-lengths-university-students-will-go-to-cheat-20150811-giwjog.html
  21. ^ University of Sydney website.
  22. ^ Bernard Lane, Amy (12 September 2017). "No proof of results reward despite uni chiefs' huge salaries". 
  23. ^ "Honouring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi". 
  24. ^ "Suu Kyi stripped of 'Freedom of Oxford' as pressure over Rohingya grows". 
  25. ^ http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/sydney-university-receives-15-million-donation-to-build-new-chau-chak-wing-museum-20150922-gjsb8o.html
  26. ^ http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/big-political-donor-has-secret-beijing-ties-court-documents-say-20171006-gyvwd5.html
  27. ^ a b c "Michael James Spence"Paid subscription required. Crockford's Clerical Directory (online ed.). Church House Publishing. Retrieved 25 October 2016. 
  28. ^ "Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence". sydney.edu.au. University of Sydney. Retrieved 25 October 2016. 
  29. ^ a b Simon Holt (9 August 2011). "Sydney Uni's vice-chancellor has lunch with the editor". Inner West Courier. Archived from the original on 5 April 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  30. ^ "Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese, 13 September 2013.
  31. ^ "Companion (AC) in the General Division of the Order of Australia" (PDF). Australia Day 2017 Honours List. Governor-General of Australia. 26 January 2017. Retrieved 26 January 2017. 

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