Dr Michael Spence's farewell oration

19 November 2020
Vice-Chancellor farewells Sydney
Dr Michael Spence AC is currently the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney. He is leaving Sydney next month to take up the role of President and Provost of UCL in London. This is a copy of his farewell oration.
Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney Dr Michael Spence

Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney Dr Michael Spence

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Gadi people. I’ve taken to pointing out in these acknowledgements that I was born on Cammeraygal land. That’s partly because for much of my time in Sydney this time, I’ve lived in Woollahra, and I have to say, I never really felt quite at home. And then we moved back to the land of the Cammeraygal, to the fabulous bushlands and to the incredible bird and animal life of that part of the city, and I knew what it was to have been born in place. And I think the University needs to know what it is to have been born in this place, in a place that was and always will be Aboriginal land. So I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

I have to say that it was particularly gratifying to get to do that acknowledgement, probably for the only time in my role as President of UCL, when I was speaking at a UCL conference virtually, and I could say that I am very pleased to be speaking to you from Cammeraygal land.

As I come to the end of my time at Sydney there is so very much for which I am incredibly thankful:  but most thankful of all for the tremendous partnerships that I have enjoyed; partnerships with you who have joined us this evening and with so many in this city and beyond, and partnership with the staff and students of the University of Sydney.

While it is invidious to single out any amongst my many colleagues, it is certainly the case that my time at Sydney would not have been as enjoyable, nor would I have known whatever success I have had, without my partners in crime, Professor Garton and the two Chancellors with whom I have worked. I am and will always be indebted to Professor Dame Marie Bashir for taking a punt on me, appointing someone who had not had a role on this scale and supporting me in my first years at the University. Stephen has been the model deputy, capable of doing my job in a heartbeat, but more keen to support me in doing it, and to work together with me, than to compete.  We have very different strengths, but have been absolutely joined at the hip in the strategic projects of the last 12 years and that has made for the most fun, and effective, team of which I have been a part.  I am so pleased that he will be looking after the University in 2021.   The current Chancellor has made an incomparable contribution to the University since her arrival in 2013.  She came for a voluntary gig that someone told her would be not quite two days a week, works more hours for us than a normal person is awake, understands how universities work better than a great many people who have spent all their lives in them, but brings to our work the clarity and drive of her commercial background.  She has been a mentor and a friend whom I shall miss very much in my new role.

Well, it is traditional, on leaving the University, for a Vice-Chancellor to pontificate in an academic kind of way on the nature of the institution and the challenges that face it.  And so, I crave your indulgence for my learned (or not so learned) take on the three most important questions facing research-intensive universities such as the University of Sydney.  These questions are more basic than questions about the current funding model, or our relationship with the current government, or the future of the international student market; but how we answer them will shape our response to those things, and to many of the other issues current at any given time.

Whatever your morning read, whether it is the Guardian, Green Left, the Australian, the Herald, Crikey or one of the endless news blogs, the message that you will receive about Australia’s universities is apparently univocal.  They are in crisis and the people who run them are greedy, incompetent, misguided, or usually all three.  In this role I became very good at quickly putting on a troubled expression when someone at a party, informed by their news source of choice, would look at me sympathetically and say ‘You have had a very hard week at work’. I would usually have no idea of what they were talking about, the week having seemed to me to be just business as usual!

But you can’t just blame the media.  Many politicians are convinced that the sector is doing poorly and will share their opinion with anyone willing to listen.  I have also had lectures from businesspeople about why the sector is going to wrack and ruin and could be so much better run.  And we ourselves, who work in universities, love to join the chorus.  Whether it is on the size and shape, the composition of our student body, of academic freedom, of financial viability and the effectiveness or appropriateness of the ways in which we manage ourselves, of our commitment to quality education and research, of the threat that we pose to national security, both the left and the right are convinced that things are in a parlous state and that something needs to be done about Australia’s universities.

Of course, all this is despite the very clear evidence to the contrary.  Australia’s universities are very highly ranked internationally, and our own performance in the rankings has steadily grown over the last decade.  The quality of the education that we offer attracts students from 140 countries currently to this university alone; education is arguably Australia’s only value-adding export.  At Sydney our research has recently unlocked the genetic sequence of the COVID19 virus; commercialised the world’s only effective end of life plastics recycling technology, a gel that heals open wounds without any scarring, a system for controlling quantum technology and much more; has radically revised our understanding of the history of the ancient city at Angkor in ways that provide lessons for contemporary environmental control; and contributed to the formulation of public policy in fields as diverse as planning and adoption. Our staff-engagement, reported student satisfaction, net promoter scores, and all the other metrics used to measure the health of a community, are at levels about which we fret, but that would be the envy of virtually any other type of organisation.  Recent polls rank universities very high in public trust, way higher than the journalists, politicians and businesspeople who are so quick to offer us advice.

One of the interesting things about the current conversation regarding universities is the way in which common themes often represent widely divergent concerns and expectations.  For example, both the left and the right are currently convinced that academic freedom is under imminent threat in our institutions.  But for the left, academic freedom often seems to mean the freedom of academics entirely unhindered to do, or not to do, just whatever they please in their teaching, research, public commentary, or any other aspect of their work. For the right, it seems to mean the freedom to express conservative views on issues such as the costs and benefits of empire, the termination of a pregnancy, or on human gender and sexuality, without attracting either formal, or informal, sanction, and sometimes even criticism, from staff and students.  A concern that initially seems shared, turns out on closer inspection to involve quite different understandings of how academic freedom should work, and the threats that it faces.

In all this, it is no wonder, as one recent journalist kindly pointed out, that protest is often directed at Michael Spence, and the solution offered that he should leave the University.  When the debate is so confused, and the apparent problem so poorly articulated, it helps to have an easy target.  Well I am going, but I don’t think it is going to help!  As the same journalist pointed out, it just means that someone else’s name will be on the t-shirts. And it was particularly gratifying to me that in today’s protest at the University, they were chanting the name of Stephen Garton!

What would help, I think, is if universities, and the community, could have a clearer understanding of where we sit in relation to three crucial questions. I want to explore those questions and argue for where I think we should, and have been trying to, position the University of Sydney in relation to each.  Much of the current anxiety about universities could be resolved if we had more clarity about our answers to these questions.

It is important, incidentally, to point out that each of these questions may be answered in legitimately different ways by different institutions, and that answering them therefore involves making choices.  There is an unhelpful tendency in this debate to assume a hypostasis of the ‘university’, a kind of Platonic form of which individual institutions are more or less reflective shadows.  This is why so many mouth the title of Newman’s little book The Idea of a University, though few have actually read it, and even fewer found it useful. People like the idea that there is a single ‘idea’ of the university.  But as my predecessor pointed out in his farewell oration, the university as an institution has been constantly, radically, and sometimes rapidly evolving over time.  I would add that the character and mission of institutions called universities varies widely even within a given country, something to which successive Australian governments have tried, valiantly but on the whole unsuccessfully, to respond.

We turn then to these three institution-shaping questions.  The first is the question of the nature of the university as an institution, and its necessary modus operandi.  The second is the question of what, or whom, the university serves, and whether any particular purpose or group has priority in its work. The third is the question of how domestic or international in its focus the work of the university should be.

The nature of the university as an institution

As for the nature of the university as an institution, many academics have a clear vision of what kind of organisation a university should be, and of how it should work; we might even call it the traditional academic vision.  Adherents of this view see the university as essentially a self-governing community of scholar-teachers, with freedom to explore their research interests and a passionate commitment to training future generations in the methodologies of their disciplines, and in the core skills of critical thinking and effective oral and written communication.  In this vision the university is all gemeinschaft and the job of those paid to administer it is to do no more than to provide an appropriate environment – physical, digital and financial – in which academics and researchers can get on with their work.  On this view the university is, according to political philosopher Ronald Dworkin, a theatre for ‘the exercise of the independence of the mind’ and its core role is to foster and promote the autonomy of thought that is essential to the effective functioning of a liberal democracy, both by equipping its students with that intellectual attribute, and by modelling free thought to the political community of which it is a part.  Those who adopt this view of the university are often sceptical of notions around ‘strategy’ and ‘planning’, especially at an institution-wide level, because they argue that the frontiers of knowledge are best seen by those immersed in a discipline and that the most creative and innovative things happen, often almost by accident, when academics are given the freedom to follow their interests and to experiment, whether or not that leads to any particular outcome.  This vision assumes that most academics are intrinsically motivated by a passion for their discipline, and for excellence, and that formal systems of accountability are either otiose, or worse, risk chilling the creativity of their work. They don’t deny that there may be the odd person who abuses the freedom that the university offers, but believe that the cultural cost of taking action against such people far outweighs its benefits.  Because this traditional view is essentially ‘bottom-up’ in its approach, it is often highly individualistic: it celebrates the hero researcher, the hero teacher, and best of all the hero researcher-teacher, whom it sees as the central actors in the life of the university.

Against this traditional academic view, sit the reasonable expectations of most governments and, indeed, of most in the broader community. These are much more of the university as gesellschaft than gemeinschaft.  For them, the public makes investment in universities, either directly, through student fees, or in other ways, and it can legitimately expect outcomes, a return on that investment.  Moreover, those outcomes should be delivered over a shorter timeframe, and in a way more defined, than the rather amorphous benefits provided by a theatre for ‘the exercise of the independence of the mind.’  The research for which the public pays should be addressed to issues important to the public, and the education provided should equip students for the careers for which they are preparing.  Advocates of this view often stress that the problems the community are facing are inherently multi-disciplinary, and that universities need institution-wide strategies if they are to bring researchers and teachers together from across the institution to address those problems effectively.  Further, they point out that research and teaching are increasingly expensive to conduct and that a university will need to make choices about the fields in which it is seeking to make advances, and those to which it is not allocating resources.   In this vision of the university, strategy, not only for individual disciplines, but for the institution as a whole, is crucial.  Individual academics must certainly be free to follow their intellectual passions, but they must also work as part of an organisation, and be accountable for the outcomes that might reasonably be expected of them, both in terms of their quantity and quality.  Because this view is much more ‘top down’, it is often less individualistic than the traditional academic view and seeks to promote the interests of the university as a whole.  It emphasises that much modern research and teaching is a team sport, and that the hero researcher, the hero teacher, and particularly the hero researcher-teacher are usually figureheads for whole teams of people who support them.  It is open to the ways in which communities, rather than individuals, can discharge the dual missions of the university in research and teaching.

Of course, these two views are nothing more than caricatures.  But some version of each exists within the minds of those all engaged with universities and misunderstandings often occur when people within and without the university fail to recognise the model of institution that they are taking as axiomatic.  Each of these caricatures is built upon valuable insights.  It genuinely is the case that creativity demands space for the researcher and teacher to set the agenda for their work and to follow their intellectual passions, but it is also the case that research and teaching are increasingly activities that require coordination at scale and that an institution must have some capacity to set a course for itself in terms of the work that it will undertake and the outcomes for which it will be responsible.  Universities must, if they are to fulfil at least the function that Dworkin has ascribed to them, remain fora for debate and not participants in debate; they must never favour an academic who adopts a particular stance in their research or teaching, or direct her to investigate this, rather than that, line of enquiry.  But they can insist that academics undertake research and teaching, that they engage in debate in ways conducive to promoting understanding, and that their work meets certain agreed academic standards.

At the University of Sydney over the last decade we have been keen to find a way of being a university that charts a course between these two extremes.  Thus, we do have a strategy, and we have increasingly clear expectations of academic staff performance.  But our strategy is determined, not in the office of the Vice-Chancellor and his team, but through extensive consultation with the university community; and the strategy is agreed and implemented, and the university run, through regular meetings in which representatives of the faculties with different local leadership responsibilities argue for one or other course of action in the interests of the institution as a whole.  In this way an attempt is made to chart a course for the institution that is both academically driven and delivers the coordination of activity that is necessary in an institution of our size.  I would argue that that hybrid model has been why we have been so successful over the last decade in our ambitious agenda for the institution; in reforming the undergraduate curriculum, in pursuing large-scale multi-disciplinary research alongside growing excellence in the disciplines, in promoting our partnerships with external organisations and so forth.  My only real regret is that we have not yet found a way of making the input of disciplinary communities sufficiently granular in our day-to-day decision-making, that routine input below the level of Faculty has been hard to garner. Sometimes we need, for example, the perspective of ‘History’ and ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Chemistry’ and ‘Physics’ rather than just of ‘Arts’ or ‘Science’.  That is a challenge that I leave to my successor, but experiments this year with more frequent online meetings with a much wider leadership group have begun to show possibilities in this area.

The difficulty of locating the University between these two extremes is, of course, that for some it will all too bafflingly seem to be abandoning the traditional academic model and running the risk of quashing the creativity of the University, while for others it may seem to be adhering to it too closely and to evince too little organisational discipline.  Getting the balance right between those two risks, is one of the joys, and distinctive challenges, of running a university such as ours.   

Who does the university serve

The second question on which we have tried to make explicit our approach over the last decade, relates to the issue of what, or whom, we serve.  Almost everyone has expectations of the university as an institution.  We are to solve the problems of the world; train students of character as well as intellect; meet their needs social, psychological and intellectual; drive the innovation economy and foster entrepreneurship; guard cultural traditions regarded as inviolable; create jobs; and ferment new ideas without creating too much fuss and protest.  Parents, students, politicians, community leaders, neighbours and many more have more or less reasonable expectations of us, and each assume that their own constituency ought to be that which the university primarily serves.   Sometimes universities have, almost inevitably, so disappointed these expectations that they have seemed primarily interested in serving themselves; academics conducting learned exchanges with one another, just publishing papers for other academics to read.

Over the last decade at the University we have worked hard to turn our work outwards, to engage much more deeply with the many communities that we serve.  We are incredibly grateful to so many of you in this room for the way in which you have worked with us not only to improve the work of the university, but together to have an impact in our broader community.  Whether it’s projects such as the Charles Perkins Centre bringing together researchers from across the University to tackle obesity, diabetes and cardio-vascular disease; the so-called ICPUs in our new undergraduate curriculum in which students work with companies and civil society organisations here or overseas to solve real world problems; our partnership with Aboriginal communities in our service learning in Indigenous communities programme; our community engaged research activity in the social sciences; our Inspired campaign in which we partnered with visionary philanthropists to meet real world challenges; or so much else besides; the focus has been outward, meeting our communities to share their learning and ours.

In this partnership, and given the huge expectations that universities sometimes create, we have learned the importance of being absolutely clear about what we can and cannot deliver, of ensuring that our partners know what we can and cannot bring to the table and that our contribution will primarily be in teaching and research.  Universities sometimes speak of community engagement as ‘third leg’ activity after teaching and research.  For us, there is only teaching and research, but an openness to community engagement has been shot through what we do in those core activities. This approach has been very powerful, and we have recently been ranked 25th in the world for the impact of our work.

It has been an exciting journey, and we have watched the ways in which these interactions have changed us as much as the communities with whom we engage.

We have turned outwards.  But that still leaves the question as to whether there is a priority amongst the different purposes or groups that the University serves: is there any purpose or group more important than the others?  And here my answer may seem rather surprising.  For all that the university should be externally engaged and producing work in both teaching and research that has impact in our community, I would argue that our ultimate loyalty must be to a purpose, to the unrelenting pursuit of the true, the good and the beautiful; whether that is knowledge that has immediate application, or knowledge just for its own sake, whether those are visions of the good and the beautiful currently popular, those long abandoned or those still seeking acceptance.  The University must be more than just a theatre for the exercise of the independence of the mind, it must be a place in which truth is pursued, and visions of the good and the beautiful rigorously debated and tested, by both staff and students.  The true, the good and beautiful must be pursued because those things are ends in themselves.  I cannot put a value to the utility of that activity.  But I can say that human society has been richer when it has had space for the relentless pursuit of these basic goods.  I can also say that students are more employable when they have the epistemic tools and virtues that enable that chase; employers tell us so, but so too does our regular ranking in the Top 5 globally for the employability of our graduates.  Nevertheless, this is often not understood. An Australian government economist once told me that there was not much value in doing research in in this country because, given our size, we would always be an innovation importing country: we could just buy-in whatever knowledge we needed, presumably funding the purchase by digging resources out of the ground and selling them.  He would, no doubt, have included education as well, beyond the mere transmission of technical skills.  Apart from the issue of the ready availability of knowledge specific to Australian problems and Australian conditions, the society he painted, of consumers interested only in meeting their physical needs and pleasures (though an often repeated mid-twentieth century caricature of life in the lucky country), was not a society in which many would choose to live, or one with much of a future.  We have progressed by knowing and by understanding, and the public good of the relentless pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful, deserves support as a precondition to the maintenance of a healthy society.  It is all the more crucial in our information overloaded, claims saturated, world, as are the epistemic tools and virtues that we teach our students. That is something that our best Australian leaders of the past (take Menzies or Whitlam depending on your tastes) have known very well.  It is something that politicians interested only in the next electoral cycle find hard to understand; indeed the value of a place committed to the unfettered and unrelenting search for truth, goodness and beauty may well be something the value of which you only truly understand if it disappears.

Is the mission of universities international or domestic? 

The third and final question to which universities currently need a very clear answer is the extent to which their mission is international, or essentially domestic, in its scope.  In one sense, of course, the answer is easy.  The University was built in Australia, to serve the Australian community.  Even that itself is a more complex claim than it may at first appear.  From the writing of our Wingara Mura Strategy, we have committed ourselves to the notion that in order to understand what it means to be an Australian university, we must understand what it means to live and work in a place with ancient traditions, and be a part of the healing that is needed between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia.  We have an overriding duty to serve our community and therefore, for example, to support research into issues of primarily domestic interest, and to maintain the teaching of locally important disciplines even where that teaching is not financially self-sustaining.

But in order to serve Australia well, a University such as ours can never be exclusively, or even primarily, domestic in its mission.  The great conversations of our age, the great chains of innovation, cross national boundaries and require the participation of universities, researchers and students, all over the world, both from countries with whom Australia closely shares political and social values, and from those less similar. The University must be a place that takes the best of our learning overseas and brings back insights from all over the world. This involves bringing students to Sydney from around the glove in order to enrich our classrooms and, when they graduate, sending out ambassadors for Australia in currently around 170 countries. It involves sending our own students overseas for some of their studies, before COVID more than any other Australian university both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of our student body.  We were shooting for our five-year strategic target that 50% of our undergraduates should spend some of their degree overseas.  

At the moment, of course, as geopolitical tensions rise and as nations are tempted to greater insularity and xenophobia, the morass of red tape through which we must cut our way in our collaborations with overseas researchers and educators is growing.  Even our hugely important ongoing project in quantum computing with Microsoft head office in the US – Microsoft believes the University is core to its efforts to develop the general-purpose quantum computer – has faced real hurdles of bureaucratic regulation.  But Australia will be left behind in the fourth industrial revolution unless our best scientists are working with the best from overseas in the free exchange of ideas.  Research is now not only a team sport, it is a global sport, and like the teams of the English Premier Football league, the very best teams involve the best players wherever they may be found.  Obvious though this may seem, how little it is understood was evident when a newspaper this year criticised one of our researchers for working with internationally recognised virologists in Wuhan on the source of the COVID virus as part of a project for which he was funded by the Australian government.  It is hard to imagine a better team of collaborators in a more apposite location and, in fact, the product of this work was that the genetic sequence of the virus was announced essentially enabling much of the work that is being done on vaccinations.

It has been my great joy to lead the University of Sydney these past twelve years.  It is a marvellous place.  It is not the tame, biddable producer of useful ideas and neatly skilled pliant graduates for which so many politicians might hope.  It is a roaring lion of a place.  It is somewhere between an academic collective and an institution capable of pursuing a coherent strategy; it makes an enormous impact for good in its research and teaching, but is equally committed to the relentless pursuit of the true, the good and the beautiful however apparently useless they may be; it is proudly Australian in its foundation and unashamedly international in its reach.  Long may it continue to be so, for the benefit of Sydney, Australia and the wider world.  With the leadership team that we have built, with partners such as you all, and with a resilient, proud and independent spirit, I am confident that it will.

Related articles