Michael Spence (academic)

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Michael Spence

Vice Chancellor of the
University of Sydney
Assumed office
11 July 2008 (2008-07-11)
Preceded byGavin Brown
Personal details
Born(1962-01-10)10 January 1962 (age 57)
ResidenceSydney, New South Wales
Alma materUniversity of Sydney
University of Oxford
ProfessionUniversity vice-chancellor, academic, priest
WebsiteUniversity of Sydney

Michael James Spence AC, FRSN (born 10 January 1962) is the Vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Sydney, a position he has held since 2008.[1]. Dr Spence is internationally recognised as a leader in the field of intellectual property theory and is also an ordained Anglican priest, one of only two practising ministers of religion to lead the University [2]. He is credited with strengthening the University of Sydney's standing as a leading educator and research powerhouse in Australia and the world, with a focus on multidisciplinary collaboration and engagement with industry and community organisations.[3] The University of Sydney is ranked in the top 50 universities in the world, including first in Australia and fourth in the world for graduate employability [4] It remains the top preference for school leavers in the state of New South Wales commencing tertiary studies in 2020.[5].

Early life and education[edit]

Michael Spence's father was a high-school headmaster and his mother was a manager of the Bjelke–Petersen School of Physical Culture.[6] 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.[7] Before leaving for the University of Oxford in 1988 to undertake doctoral studies, Spence lectured in law at the university and worked for the Australian Copyright Council.

At Oxford, Spence obtained his DPhil degree in law and became a fellow of St Catherine's College. In the 20 years he spent at the college, Spence lectured for the University of Oxford from 1992, obtaining a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology from the university as well.[8]

Spence is currently undertaking a Diploma of Language Studies in Korean at the University of Sydney. His other languages include French and Chinese and he also plays the oboe.


At Oxford, Spence worked in the field of intellectual property (IP) theory. His work includes articles and books on both IP law and the law of obligations, with a focus on ethical and economic justifications of the existing regimes. He also worked as a consultant to the London law firm Olswang and served as a World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Arbitration and Mediation Centre Panellist. He lectures on intellectual property-related topics around the world, holding a number of visiting appointments in Boston, Munich and Siena, while also twice being a Parsons Fellow at Sydney Law School. He is an honorary professor at Beijing Normal University [3].

Spence served as head of the law faculty at the University of Oxford and would eventually head the Social Sciences Division, one of the four divisions that made up that university. He oversaw significant growth of research activity and funding in the social sciences and strengthened links between the various social science departments and between them and the University.

One of Spence's priorities at Oxford was actively to encourage fundraising and 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 research units, including the James Martin 21st Century School and the Oxford-Man Institute for Quantitative Finance.

In 2008, Dr Spence returned to Australia to take up the position of Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney. At that time, the University was a run-down, complex and unwieldy institution that had lost its strategic focus and faced financial challenges.[9] Over iterative strategic plans, governance and decision-making structures have improved and administrative processes simplified, to achieve efficiencies and to ensure the strategic use of resources. The campus has been transformed with billions of dollars of investment [10] and the faculty structure simplified from 16 to five.

During his time as Vice-Chancellor, Dr Spence has also embedded diversity, inclusion and cultural competence as bedrocks of a values-driven culture, where respect and disagreeing well are the norm.[11]. In May 2019, the University of Sydney was voted Australia's 13th most attractive employer by Randstad.[12], a testament to the positive culture fostered by the University leadership and workplace policies and programs that support staff and their careers. In September 2019, the University of Sydney was one of 13 Australian institutions recognised for their efforts to improve gender equity and diversity, receiving Athena SWAN Institutional Bronze Awards as part of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative.[13]. In 2016, Spence began a process of cultural renewal [14] at the University's residential colleges, led by former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick AO.

Spence leads an academic community that is influential in the important social and cultural debates of our time and himself been a participant in Australia's higher education policy debates.[15] The University has taken an active role with government and in the press to encourage a more measured debate about Australia's relationship with China. Spence has been unapologetic in his support for continued institutional engagement with China and the benefits of more diverse student body.[16]. Similarly, in debates such as those concerning free speech on Australia’s campuses, the University of Sydney has been seen as a reasonable and influential voice in this robust public conversation. [17].

Spence prioritised philanthropic fundraising and, in May 2013, launched the major INSPIRED fundraising campaign.[18] In early 2019, this campaign reached the unprecedented milestone of $1 billion raised, making it the largest philanthropic campaign in Australian history,[19] and later in 2019 became the winner of the Best Practices in Fundraising Platinum Award from CASE and himself to be considered for the CASE Asia-Pacific Leadership Award.[20]

These philanthropic efforts have funded the Charles Perkins Centre, a research and education centre that aims to tackle obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease;[21] built the John Grill Centre for Project Leadership; brought much needed resources to life-changing medical research; and provided more than 2000 scholarships and education initiatives for new and existing students.[22] This campaign also accepted donations from philanthropist Chau Chak Wing to build a new museum complex for the University.[23] Chau is a Chinese-born Australian citizen with links to the Chinese Communist Party.[24]

The key elements of the University's 2016-20 Strategic Plan[25] include efforts to increase the number of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds,[26] greater participation in the university for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,[27] and an overhaul of the University’s undergraduate curriculum and experience.[28] In this final objective, the result has been to reduce an unwieldy mix of 122 undergraduate degrees to variations of 25, create multidisciplinary institutes dedicated to real-world problem-solving (where "ideas come together and rub shoulders"), and seek active collaboration with companies such as Microsoft and universities such as Harvard to provide industry-aligned research projects and active learning.[29] In this spirit, the University of Sydney (through its Westmead APplied Research Centre) was awarded $1 million by Google to develop a customised digital health program powered by artificial intelligence (AI), aimed at reducing the risk of heart attack. The funding is part of Australia’s inaugural Google.org AI Impact Challenge, an open call to non-profits, social enterprises, and research institutions around the world to submit their ideas to use AI to help address social and environmental challenges.[30]

In November 2018, Spence and the Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, announced that the University of Sydney was in negotiations with the state government to establish a second independent campus as part of a leading international health, education and research precinct in Western Sydney.[31] This campus precinct, including a $1 billion upgrade to Westmead Hospital, is projected to create more than 20,000 new jobs, inject more than $13 billion to the state's economy and generate $3 billion in exports by 2050. It would furthermore generate an additional 450 science and research jobs at the university and 3500 jobs in healthcare, education, biotechnology, manufacturing and other high-value industries.

In March 2019, the 2018 Excellence in Research for Australian evaluation rated all 22 fields of the University of Sydney's research as above or well above world standards. The 2018 Australian Research Council Engagement and Impact Assessment rated 96 percent of the University's research as 'high' or 'medium' for engagement and impact.[32] This result came shortly ahead of the University being ranked 25th in the world in the inaugural April 2019 Times Higher Education University Impact Ranking.[33] More recently, in July 2019, the University of Sydney moved into second place in Australia according to the 2019 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings.[34]

Vice-Chancellors in Australia and abroad have faced criticism in relation to their salary packages.[35], including from their staff.[36] His aim to improve the University's long-term financial sustainability alienated some students and staff in 2014.[37] Further back, in 2012, Spence led efforts to cut expenditure to address the slowdown in international student enrolments across Australia.[38] Critics claimed that the push for savings was driven by managerial incompetence and indifference,[37] fuelling industrial action during a round of enterprise bargaining in 2013 that reflected Australia-wide concerns about public funding for higher education.[39] An internal staff survey in 2012/13 found widespread dissatisfaction with University management.[40]

In 2014, Spence repeatedly called for maintaining equitable access to the University while arguing for fee deregulation to address consistent underfunding by the government sector in higher education.[41][42]

In April 2015, Spence established a taskforce on academic misconduct to investigate incidences of cheating and managerial misconduct.[43]

Personal life[edit]

Spence trained for ordination at St Stephen's House, Oxford, an Anglo-Catholic theological college,[44] graduating with a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology.[45] He was ordained in the Church of England as a deacon in 2006 and as a priest in 2007.[44] From 2006 to 2008, he was a non-stipendiary minister in the Parish of Cowley, Oxfordshire in the Diocese of Oxford.[44] He continues to minister part-time as a priest in an honorary capacity.[46] He is fluent in French and Italian.[46]

Spence met Beth Ann Peterson at the University of Oxford, where Spence was reading for a DPhil and Petersen, originally from 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 a 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 until her death in 2012, aged 47, from bowel cancer.[47]

In January 2015, Spence married artist Jenny Ihn at St Philip's, Church Hill, where she had served as an assistant minister. They have three 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.[48]

In 2018 the Reverend Dr Spence was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales (Estd 1821) and was gazetted as such in January 2019 by the then Governor, His Excellency the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC(Rtd) in the NSW Government Gazette.


  1. ^ "News - The University of Sydney". sydney.edu.au.
  2. ^ https://www.smh.com.au/national/ecclesiastical-touch-in-the-secular-stone-20080602-gdsg5f.html.
  3. ^ https://www.smh.com.au/national/seven-children-university-boss-the-work-life-balance-of-michael-spence-20180920-p504xo.html.
  4. ^ https://www.smh.com.au/education/sydney-university-ranked-fourth-in-world-for-graduate-employability-20170911-gyeuk9.html
  5. ^ https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/uts-more-popular-than-unsw-in-2020-as-38-000-students-receive-university-offers-20191223-p53md7.html
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Potter, Andrew (19 September 2012). "Dr Michael Spence reappointed as Vice-Chancellor at Sydney". University of Sydney. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  8. ^ "Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence". The University of Sydney. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  9. ^ https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/world-university-rankings-2020-turning-juggernaut-around
  10. ^ https://sydney.edu.au/about-us/campuses/transforming-our-campus.html
  11. ^ [1].
  12. ^ "2019 Top 20 Award Winners | Randstad Australia". www.randstad.com.au. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
  13. ^ https://www.science.org.au/news-and-events/news-and-media-releases/institutions-recognised-work-eliminate-gender-bias
  14. ^ https://womensagenda.com.au/latest/liz-broderick-hands-report-college-culture-sydney-university/
  15. ^ https://www.theaustralian.com.au/commentary/opinion/security-the-only-cost-in-the-marketplace-of-ideas/news-story/863101b24337f80b5b78bb68cb422c9d
  16. ^ https://www.smh.com.au/education/china-debate-raises-spectre-of-white-australia-policy-says-uni-chief-20190823-p52k67.html
  17. ^ https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/sydney-uni-freedom-of-speech-20191023-p533de.html
  18. ^ Collins, Sarah-Jane; Hurst, Daniel (6 May 2013). "Uni campaign turns to public". Retrieved 10 May 2013.
  19. ^ "Mystery Picasso and grandfather's mega-gift help university reach $1 billion in donations". www.smh.com.au. 30 January 2019.
  20. ^ www.case.org https://www.case.org/awards/case-platinum-awards/2019/inspired-campaign-support-university-sydney. Retrieved 8 October 2019. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  21. ^ Gilmore, Heath (6 June 2014). "Sydney University's Charles Perkins Centre a world first for collaboration". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  22. ^ "INSPIRED! The University of Sydney announces $1 billion philanthropic achievement". The University of Sydney. Retrieved 20 March 2019.
  23. ^ Taylor, Andrew (22 September 2015). "Sydney University receives $15 million donation to build new Chau Chak Wing museum". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  24. ^ Bachelard, Michael (6 October 2017). "Big political donor has secret Beijing ties, court documents say". The Age.
  25. ^ "Strategy". The University of Sydney. Retrieved 20 March 2019.
  26. ^ Gilmore, Health (6 February 2014). "University of Sydney leg-up scheme has ATAR system on ropes". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  27. ^ "News - The University of Sydney". sydney.edu.au.
  28. ^ "University of Sydney launches new undergraduate curriculum". The University of Sydney. Retrieved 20 March 2019.
  29. ^ Baker, Jordan (21 September 2018). "Seven children, university boss: the work-life balance of Michael Spence". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 20 March 2019.
  30. ^ "University using AI to defeat world's biggest killer | The Educator Higher Education". www.theeducatoronline.com. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
  31. ^ "World-class Westmead Health and Education Precinct comes to life". NSW Government. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  32. ^ "State of Australian University Research | Home". dataportal.arc.gov.au. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
  33. ^ "University Impact Ranking". Times Higher Education (THE). 2 April 2019. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
  34. ^ "World Reputation Rankings". Times Higher Education (THE). 1 July 2019. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  35. ^ [2]
  36. ^ Adelpour, Adam (16 May 2012). "Michael Spence is the 1 per cent': the role of university management". Solidarity Online.
  37. ^ 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.
  38. ^ Matchett, Stephen (12 March 2012). "Academics argue VC has not made his case". The Australian. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  39. ^ Barnsley, Kate (22 March 2013). "FAQs for Strike Day - March 26 and March 27". Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  40. ^ Needham, Kirsty (9 June 2013). "Sydney Uni staff rank as most dissatisfied". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  41. ^ Spence, Michael (28 May 2014). "Middle income families the losers in race to university". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  42. ^ "Universities too reliant on international student fees". 26 August 2014.
  43. ^ Kennedy, Jean (13 April 2015). "Sydney University taskforce to tackle ghost writing services". ABC News. Retrieved 20 March 2019.
  44. ^ a b c "Michael James Spence". Crockford's Clerical Directory (online ed.). Church House Publishing. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  45. ^ "Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence". sydney.edu.au. University of Sydney. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  46. ^ 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.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  47. ^ Catholic Communications, Archdiocese of Sydney, 13 September 2013.
  48. ^ "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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