When Dr Michael Spence arrived at the University in 2008 as its new Vice-Chancellor, he could see a singular opportunity: to prepare Australia’s first and most prestigious university for a rapidly evolving educational and economic landscape; one where government funding had been steadily dropping.
Spence was well prepared for the challenges in his new role. He himself had studied at the University, gaining two degrees – law and arts - with honours. His law studies continued with a doctorate at Oxford University and adding a Postgraduate Diploma in Theology (he was ordained an Anglican priest in 2006 and had pastoral duties in Oxford).
Oxford was also where he began taking on responsibilities that would prepare him for his later roles. Over 20 years in that august establishment he became a lecturer in law, head of the law faculty and head of the Social Sciences Division, one of Oxford’s four divisions.
At Oxford, he also encouraged fundraising and sponsorship from benefactors and corporates; an interest that later stood him in good stead at Sydney as he captained INSPIRED, the most successful fundraising campaign ever run by an Australian university. More on that later.
The story of what happened as Spence went to work at the University of Sydney quickly becomes a record of change on a grand and often seismic scale, both physically and culturally.
Physically, the campus has been transformed and modernised, with 13 major new building projects including the soon to open Susan Wakil Health Building and the newly opened Chau Chak Wing Museum, plus four student accommodation buildings and two new sports facilities.
No less impactful has been the cultural transformation. To help guarantee the longer-term viability of the University, Spence prepared it for a world rapidly changing both technologically and economically.
He transformed the University from a collective of 16 independent faculties into a unified institution. With this breaking down of silos came a new focus on ways in which different disciplinary perspectives could be brought together to solve pressing real-world problems, leveraging the extraordinary breadth and depth inherent in the University.
A sweeping modernisation program saw investment in multidisciplinary research environments like the Charles Perkins Centre which tackles modern diseases like diabetes and heart disease; the Brain and Mind Centre, which brings together patients, support groups and carers with scientists and clinicians to research mental health and neurological diseases; and the Sydney Nanoscience Hub, purpose built to research the extraordinary possibilities that exist at the atomic scale.
Under Spence’s watch, the University introduced a new undergraduate curriculum further leveraging its depth and breadth, better preparing students for a rapidly changing world. In this curriculum, cultural competency, real-world experience and digital literacy stand alongside the more traditional graduate attributes of critical thinking, problem solving and communication.
That focussed framework is now in place and producing graduates ready for more fluid and productive careers.
One particular goal reflected Spence’s personal values. He wanted to promote gender equality, and under his leadership, almost half the University’s senior executives and Senate members are now women, and there’s been a significant increase in the number of female professors.
Always a strong believer in the value of international diversity in universities, Spence has regularly pointed out how the higher education sector is Australia’s number three export industry. He also emphasises how a truly international student body enriches the learning environment for everyone.
In talking about the many issues facing universities, Spence has helped reshape how the sector talks about itself, at the same time helping the community to understand its importance. He has been an articulate champion of universities in many times of crisis.
Indeed, his willingness and talent for engaging with people helped drive the University’s record-breaking INSPIRED fundraising campaign. A significant proportion of the $1 billion raised was directly linked to Spence’s ability to enthuse donors about the University’s mission and make them want to be part of it. The funding generated by INSPIRED has underpinned the building program and the growing ambition and success of our research.
Spence will take up the position of President and Provost of UCL (University College London) in January 2021, leaving this University in December. Though he announced his departure before the onset of COVID, he leaves the University strengthened by blue-sky thinking and well prepared to engage with and rise above the challenges.
It is now outward looking and future focussed, regularly ranking in the world top 50. We are ranked 1st in Australia and 4th in the world for graduate employability by QS World University Rankings, and second in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings because of the value of our work in tackling the problems of the age, including climate change, health and poverty.
This has all been achieved during the tenure of Dr Michael Spence. It is by any measure a legacy to be proud of.
Written by George Dodd. Collage by Fábio Dias.