Get to know our new President & Provost, Dr Michael Spence, in conversation with UCL alumna and broadcaster Vivienne Parry.
President & Provost, Dr Michael Spence, in conversation with UCL alumna and broadcaster Vivienne Parry talk about his background, family, and what it is about UCL and its community in particular that made him want to join.
Hear his thoughts about UCL’s future and the crucial part he believes we can play in shaping a post-COVID world.
university, ucl, people, institution, students, important, community, pandemic, sydney, london, australia, thinking, world, position, graduates, korean, question, deep, bilateral agreements, employable
Michael Spence, Vivienne Parry
Vivienne Parry 00:06
I'm Vivienne Parry, writer, broadcaster and most important of all, a UCL alumna, and I want to introduce someone rather special to you. This month, Dr Michael Spence joins UCL as the university's new President and Provost. He took up the role after moving to London from his home in Australia, where he was Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney for 12 years. Michael, a very warm welcome to you in this freezing cold London.
Michael Spence 00:34
Thank you very much. It's great to be here, London even turned on snow for us, which is great.
Vivienne Parry 00:38
And we've not only got snow, of course, when you accepted the job, you never expected to be here in the middle of a global pandemic and land in London with four of your eight children in the middle of lockdown. I mean, what has that experience been like? And, you know, how was it? What was your impression of London when you arrived?
Michael Spence 00:57
Well, actually, it hasn't been too bad. It's given my family and I an opportunity to have a rather more measured start than we might otherwise have had, we've gotten into a bit of a routine. So I am spending all the hours God gives on Zoom. But we're not rushing off to do this, then the other thing and the rest of the time. So that's been a rather nice start.
Vivienne Parry 01:16
Can I start by asking you a rather obvious question. But why did you want to be Provost and President of UCL?
Michael Spence 01:23
Because it's an extraordinary institution. You know, London's first university, its most comprehensive university, and a university located in a city that right now has to reaffirm its global identity, its global importance in a kind of post- Brexit, post-COVID, post-Imperial world. What an extraordinary opportunity to be, in just the right institution, at just the right moment of history and just the right place. It's a tremendous opportunity.
Vivienne Parry 01:51
And what was your impression when you first arrived at the UCL community?
Michael Spence 01:55
It is incredibly dynamic. It's just a community of very clever people with endless numbers of ideas and deep commitment to excellence. And I was incredibly impressed, by the way that the university had responded to the pandemic, there's no doubt that a crisis tests the mettle of an institution and the deep commitment to students, the deep commitment to maintaining quality and research, the deep commitment to the communities that UCL serves, it was all sort of evident in spades. And it was a tremendous privilege to arrive at a time when I could see that quite so clearly.
Vivienne Parry 02:30
I want to come back to the pandemic response a bit later. But tell me about your family first of all, this is going to be the interrogation bit. But we know your family is really important to you. Your wife and children often come to university event, how have they found the move? And eight children? Tell me about that?
Michael Spence 02:50
So yes, I have eight children, they range from 28, down to two, I had five children with my first wife who passed away after just a month's illness in 2012. I remarried in 2015. And unexpectedly, my wife fell pregnant on our honeymoon. And I thought, and we thought, well, he probably needed a little friend. So we had another one. And then this other one came a couple of years ago, we don't know quite where from, but we think that's it, we think, you know, like the television show eight is enough.
Vivienne Parry 03:25
How are you finding – I mean, again, this is a kind of personal question. But I know how many of the academic community are really struggling with homeschooling, and having kids running around the house while also trying to get on with their work? How are you finding that?
Michael Spence 03:39
One of the problems of a job like the Provost of UCL is that you can come to believe your own rhetoric, and you can become a little self important. And so in the middle of some meeting, where you think that you know, things may be going well, and whatever, to have your two year old run in and drool all over you, it rather deflates your self importance in a way that's probably good for the quality of your work. But it is, it is tough, there's no doubt that there's only so much parkour on the furniture that your toddlers can do before everybody starts to get a bit cabin fever. And balancing homeschooling, you know, we've also got a 15 year old with us. And she's just started in a new school and my five year old has just started school for the first time online. And so juggling all of that, it's tricky.
Vivienne Parry 04:25
So that work life balance thing is something that you really understand, because I know that it's a big issue for a lot of UCL academics.
Michael Spence 04:32
Yes, and I'm in the fortunate position where my wife has taken a time out of her work. And so we're in a really very lucky position. And I know a lot of people are juggling two careers and children and education all the time at the moment. And in particular that in the UK they've been doing that for a very long time indeed. And I was very aware coming in that we had a community that was in lots of ways exhausted and while I'm very keen to think about the future and to help the community think about the future. They didn't need some bloke coming in from Australia with a million bright ideas, but somebody who could come in and listen to where the community was at right at the moment.
Vivienne Parry 05:20
Tell me a bit about your own academic background, because it's very much languages and social sciences, you graduated from the University of Sydney with first class honours English, Italian, and Law. Why, particularly those subjects and what is it that you love about them and about languages because you also then went on to take a diploma of languages and Korean studies. So you're fluent in Italian, studied Chinese and French. So those things clearly mean a lot to you.
Michael Spence 05:49
I love learning languages, I love the capacity that that gives you to begin to see the world through other eyes. In fact, I took Italian because I really wanted to do English, I did a double degree arts law. And I really wanted to do English and my girlfriend at the time was doing Italian and that seemed like,
now we get to she
Michael Spence 06:10
gave it up after two years. And I did it for four years. And the diploma of language in Korean is because my wife is Korean and we're raising our children bilingually. And so I thought, pretty soon my four year old's Korean is going to be better than mine. So I at least to be able to understand what's going on in the kitchen around the kitchen table. And my parents in law are great. And they give us a lot of help. My mother in law has come here for six months to help us settle in. And they're much more comfortable in Korean than in English. So that's how I came to learn Korean.
Vivienne Parry 06:38
So then you went to Oxford, you headed up the university's Law Faculty and Social Sciences Division, and you specialised in intellectual property. Why was that shift? And what are your reflections on your time at Oxford?
Michael Spence 06:53
So I loved Oxford, it was a great place to live and work, you know, there aren't many country towns where you can live close to open fields. And yet nevertheless, also hear world class music and be only an hour away from London. I studied intellectual property because I'm fascinated by property theory. You know, if I wear your shirt, you can't wear it. So it's pretty obvious that we need rules to decide who can wear what shirt, but if I sing your song or use your invention, you can still use them. And so it's not immediately obvious that should ever, ever be able to stop anybody else from singing your song or using your invention and so on. And if you think you should, you either tell a story about the economics of the production of intangibles, you know, we have to provide incentives for people to spend the time writing books, or you tell a story about the relationship between a creator and the things that she creates. And neither of those stories is entirely plausible. Neither of them is plausible all the time. And yet in various ways they've shaped the law. And so part of what I find fun is to pick apart the ways in which the justifications for intellectual property that are still shaping the law have been used and abused in the history of intellectual property law.
Vivienne Parry 08:08
And while you were at Oxford, you're ordained as an Anglican priest. And here you are at an institution, which has famously been described as a godless institution in Gower Street. How do you bring those two things together?
Michael Spence 08:24
So this was this was also a question that was often asked at Sydney because Sydney was founded in 1850, as a part of the same great educational movement that involved the foundation of UCL. In fact, there's a competition amongst University historians about whether or not UCL or Sydney is the first institution to admit people without a religious or property tests, and the Sydney claim is that it was the first university because UCL was a college, and the UCL claim is that it was 24 years earlier than Sydney was founded, and Sydney is barred by statute from having a faculty of theology. So it was even a more significant move. I think universities are places where people are engaged in the big ideas. And I've always found a university a place where it's easy to talk about the sorts of things that my theological interests mean are important.
Vivienne Parry 09:27
Now, we'd started by saying about the pandemic, and it's had an extraordinary impact. I mean, UCL has had an extraordinary impact itself on the pandemic through all sorts of different disciplines. But there will be some big issues afterwards, as you suggested. What are your thoughts on on how you UCL's handled things so far? And what do you think the really big challenges are for leadership in the post-pandemic area?
Michael Spence 09:56
I think UCL has handled the pandemic very well. I think now we're at a point where students are really keen to get back to campus. And the immediate challenge for me is that I don't think 2021/22 is going to be an entirely normal year, I think it'll be sort of 22/23 before we're completely back to something that looks like business as usual. And so the challenge is partly keeping the community going through the long haul. But the challenge is also about thinking about what we've learned about really what works online and what doesn't work online for the post-pandemic world and thinking about how we shape our educational offerings around that. And I think one other particular challenge for UCL is that in the future, I have little doubt that the competitive advantage for an institution like UCL, as far as students go, is really going to be in the quality of student life, and in the extent to which the institution can help students leverage the social capital of the institution and the social networks of the institution for their own careers and to make a contribution to the world more generally. And I think that the pandemic has demonstrated that student appetite for a rich student life is really huge. UCL has a great student tradition, but it hasn't really invested in student life and in student experience. And I think that the the universities with $40 billion endowments, they're going to continue doing what they do. Many of the teaching intensive universities, I think will go online. But for the large, comprehensive metropolitan universities, having a really rich on-campus student experience is going to be important. And the challenge is how we create that for students in an environment where perhaps there's been under investment and also in an environment where we are city bound with both the tremendous opportunities that that offers, but also with the constraints that it offers.
Vivienne Parry 11:50
I think perhaps in the past, we've been guilty of seeing, you know, London as the experience, whereas actually, it needs to be the university as well. I wonder as well about our position within our community because we're in one of the poorest boroughs in London, certainly with the campus of UCL East. There's a lot of deprivation there. How can UCL help build communities? Its community, post-pandemic?
Michael Spence 12:19
It's a really good question. And one of the things I've been very encouraged by is the extent of the relationship that's been built up with the Camden Borough Council, and in particular, during the pandemic, the way in which that relationship has been strengthened. And one of my first activities as Provost was to sign a new agreement with the Camden Borough Council and to hear council officials talk very warmly about the university and the real difference that its research and engagement activity had made in the borough was really encouraging. I think similarly, UCL East presents enormous opportunities for us, you know, activity there in the in the cultural industries, that's going to be alongside four of Britain's major cultural institutions, activity in the new technology and the new industries, that's going to be there on that post industrial site. And I think part of that has to be helping people in East London, but more importantly, East London as a community to think about its future, and the way in which it engages in those new industries going forward. So I think UCL has a tremendous role there. But if I can say so, I think one thing we have to really do is make sure that the university is fully turned outwards. Universities are such exciting, intense environment, that they can become something of echo chambers. And I think making sure that we as a community are really listening to the communities that are around us and to the communities that we serve in different ways, is really important.
Vivienne Parry 13:53
Yes, I was thinking about how UCL can help kids in the area catch up, who've missed out so much. And also, you know, UCL Health of the Public, and all those kinds of things that we have our expertise, it's drawing other people in and as you say, looking looking outwards. Let's stick with students. Because while you were at Sydney, one of the things that you said was the most important priority was graduate employability. Why do you think that this is such an important priority?
Michael Spence 14:25
Well, you know, it's a bit of a platitude, but things are changing very quickly in the fourth industrial revolution, and that we know that many of the jobs that our students will have haven't even been invented yet. And so the question for universities is, how do you prepare students to be resilient in a very changing labour market? Now fortunately, all the research and all the talking that I've done to employers both, you know, in the UK and Australia, in China, in the United States and elsewhere, has suggested that the things they really need, the skills that will really make students resilient, are the things that actually universities are a pretty good at. Teaching critical thinking skills, teaching effective oral and written communication. Teaching people not only a deep disciplinary knowledge, you know, you have to know something about something to know something about anything, but also the capacity to step outside their discipline and think from a multidisciplinary perspective, that capacity to work in teams to solve a problem. And I think we really need to focus on those fundamentals to make students employable in a resilient way. You can talk about employability in a sort of naff, how do you tie a tie and make sure that you turn up on time to a meeting and all of those things are important. They're not the work of universities. But what makes you really employable in the future are the core intellectual skills that happen also to be the core intellectual skills involved in research that you learn at a great research university like UCL.
Vivienne Parry 15:52
That's very good to hear you say because sometimes people think of employability in a kind of instrumental way. It's law, it's medicine, it's whatever. And of course, we are also a great arts university. And arts make you extremely employable, especially if you've got UCL on the top of your CV, people!
Michael Spence 16:13
That, that said, There's no doubt about that. In my last institution, we did some work on, you know, graduate careers and all the rest of it. Philosophers do phenomenally well. So there is no doubt that our graduates are eminently employable and in fact, arts graduates in most jurisdictions have better employment outcomes, then STEM graduates for a reason we don't quite yet understand.
Vivienne Parry 16:39
How about that other question of diversity and inclusion? It's such an important issue at the moment. I know that you were very committed to this at Sydney. What do you feel that you can do to take this forward in UCL?
Michael Spence 16:53
This is a really complex issue that you need to think about in many different ways and at many different levels. And that sounds platitudinous, but it is very easy to lump the whole thing together and to lump together the experience of students from disadvantaged groups and the experience of BAME students and the whatever it might be. And of course, all of those different groups have very different experiences. But the important thing for me is that Britain needs to understand what it means not to be a host community with a whole lot of visitors and other people who are allowed in and tolerated, but a genuinely multicultural and diverse community, both in terms of cultural and linguistic diversity, but also in terms of gender and religious belief and sexual orientation and all the rest of it, how we make sure that we are a community that is genuinely a place where people can flourish, and where they can be and bring their whole selves to everything that they do. Universities have often reflected the weaknesses of the dominant culture. And there are ways in relation to diversity that UCL reflects the weakness of the dominant culture. And I think what we have to do with both our staff and our student communities is think about what do we want London to be like, as a place where everybody can flourish and be and bring their whole selves? And how do we begin to model that in UCL?
Vivienne Parry 18:32
Under your leadership at Sydney, the university didn't take a public position in relation to Australia's same sex marriage referendum in 2017. And you just said about your commitment to diversity. You know, why was that? And what do you see as the university's role in the free speech debate?
Michael Spence 18:52
I have a very strong view of the role of the university in a liberal society. And it's effectively the view of the political philosopher, Ronald Dworkin, who called the university a theatre for the exercise of the independence of the mind. I think the university ought not to be a participant in the big public conversations, but a host for the big public conversations. Now, of course, our academics and our students should be out there fighting for the causes that they think right. And in a healthy university, you'll have people fighting hard on both sides. But I think it has a chilling effect on the conversation in the university if the university adopts an official position in relation to important matters of public debate. And that's why we didn't take a position in the same sex marriage referendum. We had staff and students who were passionately arguing on each side of the debate and we wanted to host that conversation, not only for the university community but also for the community more broadly, without as it were the referee becoming a player. Now, you might say, well, then how is that compatible with building a diverse community? And I think the point is that while I don't think that the university should be a participant in public conversations as an institution, the university does need to make moral choices about the way in which it conducts its own business. And so for example, you know, while we didn't at Sydney join universities for climate action, we were very proud of the work that we did in relation to sustainability in the university and the way in which we worked to manage the university and our endowment more sustainably. While we didn't take a position in the same sex marriage debate, we're very proud of the work that we did to make sure that people of all sexualities and genders could bring their whole selves to work and of the work that we did with our ally networks and with staff and students who identified as having a diverse sexuality or gender. The other thing I think that becomes really important as a kind of corollary of this general position on the function of the university is one role the university does have is to both make sure internally but also to help model for the community more generally, what it means to disagree well, what it means to listen to the person that you regard as the other, what it means to choose language commensurate with a goal of increasing understanding, what it means to look for evidence and to make sure that you're open to changing your mind. So I see the university as as not an advocate, but as a forum for the discussion of really difficult ideas, where the role of the university is twofold, both to make sure that the conversation is carried on well, and also to make sure that it conducts its own life in ways that the university community regards as morally appropriate.
Vivienne Parry 21:51
So a convener and an enabler.
Michael Spence 21:54
A convener and an enabler, but not an advocate, an actor, who, for example, has great policies in relation to supporting students who identify as having diverse sexuality or gender, but doesn't join in the same sex marriage debate as a as a kind of advocate in the public conversation.
Vivienne Parry 22:11
Understood. Hey, you mentioned endowment, and one of the things that you did at Sydney and spectacularly well was raised a billion Australian dollars through the Inspired philanthropy campaign, which was the largest campaign of its sort in Australia. And you come to a university, which has only found philanthropy relatively late in its career, I'm comparing it to Oxford and Cambridge, going back to 1300 or something. But how would you bring that experience to UCL because endowments of that becomes so much more important to university?
Michael Spence 22:50
I love fundraising. But I think you have to think of it the right way. Too often universities have thought of fundraising as a kind of begging where you ask people for money, they sign a cheque, and then you send them on their way and you spend it as you will. I think of fundraising as kind of venture capital raising, you know, there are people out there who want to cure cancer, we can help them do it. There are people out there who want to unlock the secrets of the classical world, we can help them do it. And if you think of it as a financial, but also an intellectual partnership with people who inevitably, because of their passions, know a huge amount about a particular area, then all of a sudden, you don't just have the money, but you have this great cheer squad of people who believe in the value of what the university does, and who are rooting for your success. And I've seen the way in which researchers and teachers get a real fillip from understanding that there is not just people who think what they do is terrific when they happen to read it about in the paper, there are people who believe in what they do, and enough to put their hands in their pocket and support them. And I think if you can get the whole university community excited about working with its supporters, to solve the problems, and to deepen the understanding that the researchers or the teachers are working on, then that's just just magical. You know, when you have donors who have a passion about seeing disadvantaged young people receive the finest education, and then you see the difference that that makes in the lives of those young people, it's breathtakingly inspiring. And I think if we can get that excitement going and ditch the begging notion, then universities will be very successful in the fundraising area.
Vivienne Parry 24:32
It's certainly something, fundraising, that a lot of Brits feel very uncomfortable about, I know. But one of the other things that you did with Sydney, which I think is really impressive, is that you transformed it from a collective of, I can describe it like that, of 16 independent facilities into a very unified institution. And I suspect actually the philanthropy and this idea of a unified institution, an institution that feels really confident about itself, is an important part of your philosophy. But how did that unification change the culture of both the students and the university as a whole?
Michael Spence 25:11
When I arrived at Sydney, the institution was facing some difficulties, it was pretty convinced it was the richest to invest in Australia. But in my first year, there was a month where they said they didn't think they could pay the salary bill. And we had in the first research assessment exercise, we didn't do well, because a third of our academic staff refused to submit returns. And the problem was that the university wasn't a university, it was 16 universities and the 16 faculties of the university, either ignoring one another, or in a kind of tension over resources. So what we did was said, we'll only coordinate in a meeting of representatives of all the faculties and at the same time, we'll invest in multidisciplinary research and teaching to remind people why it's exciting to work in a comprehensive university. Because the problems our community are facing require the harvesting of the intellectual resources of the whole university to address them, they are inevitably multidisciplinary, rather than just in a Research Institute for the Study of the Fruit Fly. It doesn't mean that the study of the fruit fly isn't incredibly important and you don't need deep disciplinary expertise. But the distinctive value add of a university is that it brings those disciplines together. You know, I think after two or 300 years of increasing specialisation, the increasing dissection of knowledge and understanding, what we're realising is that actually, bringing a lot of that back together is really important. I guess what, it also happens to be the case that universities are more efficiently run if they're less fragmented and more effective in presenting what they do to the world. So this idea of becoming one institution, again, was important to me at Sydney. And I actually think it's an important issue for UCL to come to terms with as well.
Vivienne Parry 26:55
Now, you mentioned salaries there, but you were the highest paid Vice Chancellor in Australia, you've taken a big pay cut as well as coming to freezing weather and lockdown - why did you choose to do this?
Michael Spence 27:09
Because UCL is a great community. There's a lot of talk about Vice Chancellors salaries, there's a market for Vice Chancellors, the market sets a particular price in the UK, a different price in Australia, different price again in the US where they get paid more than in Australia for equivalent jobs. But what gets me out of bed in the morning is the opportunity to be a part of a remarkable academic community, and you don't do better than UCL.
Vivienne Parry 27:35
I couldn't agree with you more. So let's at that point, at that juncture, turn from the past to the future and your vision for UCL. What are you thinking about for your first 100 days of office?
Michael Spence 27:50
So my first 100 days is a lot of listening and, and helping the university to deal with the current situation, the current pandemic, and how we bring ourselves out of that. But the first 100 days is also getting ready for the writing of a strategy, I really want to write a strategy for the university beginning in the summer, but as a process that will involve input from – well, my first strategy in Sydney involved input from up to 10,000 people in one way or another, as we set priorities for the year 2022 to 2027. When universities write strategies, they often end up being sort of aspirational documents, you know, we will be the best university in the world in however many years, we will have the happiest students, whatever. I want to write something rather more pragmatic than that that says actually, this is what we're going to do. This is why we're going to do it. This is how we're going to measure whether or not we've been successful in doing it and how we're going to know on the way through whether or not it's working, because I think a university like UCL, is going over the next little while to need to make some important choices. If we just think about our estates planning, for example, it's not implausible that over the next little while, we may have around half the amount of money that we need to spend on new buildings. And so we're going to have to make choices. And not only there, we'll have to make choices in what we spend on IT, we'll have to make choices in all sorts of areas of investment. And I want to make those choices together as a part of a strategy process, where we're really gleaning the insight of the whole university community.
Vivienne Parry 29:20
And that's particularly important with government of course at the moment, where universities seem to be the whipping boy for all sorts of their concerns. And you know, we have an extraordinarily important part to play in the globe. There are lots of things to be negotiated post-Brexit, one of them is more bilateral agreements with different countries. Is that something that's high on your agenda?
Michael Spence 29:48
Yeah, I think that for a university such as UCL, the relationship with continental Europe is very important and going global does not mean abandoning Europe, and therefore thinking about how we and the sector are parts of those bilateral agreements with European countries is very important.
Vivienne Parry 30:10
I suppose, at this time, but when everybody is reassessing the future, is it a time to assess, really what universities are for?
Michael Spence 30:22
Yes, and no. There is this sense in the community at the moment that we are at various kinds of historic moment. For a while we were all talking about life after the fourth industrial revolution. And then we were talking about life after populist politics, and then we're talking about life after the pandemic. So there's lots of afters at the moment. One of the things about human beings that I think is simply remarkable, is our deep curiosity about the world around us. And we'll always be looking to understand the world better. And we'll always be looking to transmit skills and understanding to the next generation. And universities have actually been phenomenally adaptable and robust institutions, agile institutions able to ride social change since their foundation in the western form a thousand years ago, you know, people think of institutions as these staid, old, inflexible, constantly endangered, about to become irrelevant institutions. Actually, we've survived longer than almost anything else, the church, parliament, a few institutions that are in our community that are as old as the university. And I have no doubt that if we retain our core commitment to creating knowledge and understanding and to transmitting skills and understanding to the next generation, and to serving the communities that feed us, and I don't mean just financially, but that sustain us in so many ways, then we'll be alright.
Vivienne Parry 31:55
Michael Spence, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. Welcome to UCL. And long may your vision of what universities are for continue. Thank you so much.
Michael Spence 32:06
Not at all. Thank you very much.
Vivienne Parry 32:12
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