The man, the myth, the manager

Max Chalmers profiles the evolving career of Michael Spence.

On a sunny March morning last year, a small group of picketers stood together at the University of Sydney’s Ross Street entrance and tried to halt the traffic. Using a long, homemade banner as a makeshift traffic gate, they blockaded the inbound lanes. Hand-painted, the sign was decorated with two guillotines and an image of a dowdy looking man. Capitalised text spelt out the visual metaphor: “SPENCE, THE ONLY CUT WE NEED”.

It has now been almost six years since Dr Michael Spence became the University of Sydney’s 25th Vice-Chancellor. In November last year – just one month after the National Tertiary Education Union voted to end its industrial campaign – the man depicted in the makeshift mural joined me in Taste Café. In spite of my request, Dr Michael Spence arrives accompanied by his head of Media and Public Relations, Kirsten Andrews.

It’s a Friday, and hundreds of students are graduating, celebrating the conclusion of their tuition by drinking champagne and orange juice on the Quadrangle lawns. More than 30 years ago Spence was working towards completing his own degree. While a student at the University of Sydney he achieved a bachelor’s degree in law and two separate honours degrees, first in English and Italian, then in law.

I ask if it is true, as I have been told, that he was a quiet, studious, and very religious student. He laughs with a forcefulness intended to answer the question.

“I don’t think anybody who knows me would describe me as quiet … Outside university I did music, I organised a church choir and band and stuff and was very involved in my local church and had a wide circle of friends,” he says.

With a busy life beyond the sandstone halls, Camperdown was a place of intellectual preparation rather than cultural enrichment for the young Michael Spence – a fact some use to explain his testy relationship with student organisations, vividly demonstrated during a hostile but ultimately thwarted effort to take over the University of Sydney Union’s bars and food outlets in 2011.

It was not until his time at Oxford in the late 1980s that Spence was embroiled in the non-academic side of university life.

“[My time at Oxford] gave me a concern when I came back to Sydney for the large numbers of students that there are at Sydney who were people just like me – that is, kids from the suburbs who aren’t part of the already established Sydney debating scene, or the music scene, or the drama scene,” Spence recalls.

For most of the conversation Spence leans over the table and rests his head on his right hand, like a schoolboy in an interminable afternoon class. His posture is casual, off-guard and surprisingly lackadaisical. It’s only at moments of contention – for example when discussion moves to last year’s Dalai Lama incident – that his head jolts into an upright position and his hands become animated, his shoulders rigid.

When I ask Spence if he ever took illegal drugs during his university days, Kirsten Andrews glances at her boss with intrigue and slight concern. He continues to lean on his right hand.

“I didn’t because I didn’t need them to have fun,” he responds, unfussed. “One of my peer groups at school were really into the drug scene quite heavily and so I’d actually had the chance to see firsthand what heavy involvement in the whole drugs world leads to and I got sick of going to parties where I was the only one who wasn’t lying in the bath drooling.”

Answering questions like this has always been a loaded game for Spence. Since being unveiled in 2008, he has faced suspicion about his religious background and position as an Anglican Reverend, leading to accusations of puritanism. During his spat with the USU, for instance, a rumour swept through the student body that he was planning on turning Sydney into a “dry campus”.

But one source who has worked closely with the Vice-Chancellor and remains deeply critical of many of his decisions, says their initial suspicions about his faith proved unfounded. “I have never seen any evidence that his religion affected his role as VC,” they told me.

One student involved in the USU took a different view. “It really annoyed me how he was a huge supporter of USU initiatives such as the interfaith council, but couldn’t give a shit about things like Verge [festival] or the revues,” they commented.

I ask Spence how deeply his religious faith and, specifically, the Bible influence his sense of morality.

“What I would hope to say is that my understanding of God and His relationship with the world affects everything I do. So, for example, I hope it means that I don’t invest ultimate value in things, but in people,” Spence says.

“I hope it means that in my day job I am not seeking to serve the University of Sydney for the glory of Michael Spence, but seeking to serve the University of Sydney for the benefit of the University of Sydney – the staff and the students of the University of Sydney. So, yeah, I hope it informs sort of everything I do really.”

* * *

But Michael Spence is not a servant, and his leadership style has alienated and enraged a significant portion of students and staff, many of who will no doubt be infuriated that he has the temerity to make such claims.

Yet when Michael Spence became VC in 2008, his rhetoric echoed similar sentiments.

Claiming a “radical rethink” was needed; Spence spoke of slashing student intake and transforming Sydney into an elite, research-intensive university, not dissimilar to the one where he spent his joyous postgraduate days.

He also acknowledged that academics were being forced to work longer hours than desirable – “more hours than God gives”, as he put it – and reflected: “I will count my time at Sydney a success if the University is performing well on all the standard metrics, but also if it is a place over which working academics feel a sense of ownership and where they can participate in decisions about the strategic direction the University is taking.”

Those words appear to have been more than lip service.

“He dove straight into reform with the university Green Paper,” a figure from the National Tertiary Education Union involved with the process told me. “It gave us a good opportunity to be involved in ideas about the university and not appear entirely as adversarial.”

But since outlining his early vision of a New Oxford, Spence has backpedalled. The number of students is now 53,300, up from 48,000 when he first arrived. One by one, the goals he outlined in 2008 have fallen by the wayside.

Initially conceding that teachers were under the pump, Spence later moved to introduce the much-despised “teaching only” roles, seen by academics as career suicide. After the GFC – and an accompanying slowing revenue growth – he pushed a plan to cut 100 academics, and move 64 to teaching only positions. One year later a new Enterprise Agreement presented to staff had been stripped of a number of key provisions, including the 40:40:20 rule, which guaranteed a balance between research, teaching and administrative duties.

It’s important to note that university policy is not simply rolled out from the VC’s office – multiple personalities work together to shape the future direction of the institution. But Spence does bear ultimate responsibility for these changes, and he has enthusiastically supported them in the face of robust criticism.

Spence frames the shift from his early rhetoric as one forced by necessity. “When I arrived the university was financially unsustainable, it just was. Year on year it was spending more than it earned,” he tells me.

Critics take a different view, however, and say the push for savings has been driven by managerial incompetence and indifference to the impacts of cuts on both staff and students. Like the homemade banner stalling traffic during the strike, these attacks have become personal, linking Spence’s wealth with an alleged failure to sympathise with staff.

“Who is Michael Spence?” the rally chant asks. “Michael Spence is the one per cent!”

In fact, the chant is an understaemen. If you look at Spence’s pre-tax income, it puts him closer to the top 0.1 per cent of Australian earners. It’s an awkward fact for a man who has called for spending restraint and a tighter grip on staff wages and conditions.

Spence is upfront when I ask whether he considers himself rich.

“Yeah, of course I do,” he says. But then a qualifier comes in the form of one of his favourite rhetorical devices; a series of self-posed questions and predetermined answers.

“Do I earn a very big salary? Yes I do. Do I have significant assets? No I don’t, because most of my career I’ve been supporting a wife and five children on an academic salary. Do I think any employed person of reasonable income in Australia is hugely wealthy by global standards? Yeah.”

Spence rejects the idea that his personal wealth prevents him from empathising with students who struggle financially, or sympathising with staff facing unemployment and tough working conditions. He says his “moral imagination” allows him to overcome the difference of circumstance.

“I can abhor and fight racism, sexism, and homophobia without having ever been of minority ethnicity or sexuality or a woman,” he asserts. “Can I say with 100 per cent certainty that I totally understand what it means to be the victims of those kinds of behaviour? No, I can’t. But I can say I try and imagine what it would be like.”

* * *

In a spectacularly puffy profile in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012, Spence showed he was aware that in spite of his powers of moral imagination, a shift in the popular perception of him had taken place.

Quoted as identifying two archetypes associated with his job, ‘’the academic’s academic” and the “managerialist bastard”, Spence said he had been recast from the former to the later.

Combatting this image, Spence has consistently portrayed himself as a consultative figure who believes in institutional transparency and democracy.

In our interview he says collective governance, rather than hierarchical leadership, is the best model for university governance.

“That’s why the first thing I did as Vice-Chancellor was to give up the reserve powers of the Vice-Chancellor,” he says. Since Spence took the position, a fortnightly consultation meeting has been established in which Deans and members of the Senior Executive Group meet to discuss the university’s travails.

The Deans who made themselves available to be interviewed all praised the Vice-Chancellor for the openness of the bi-weekly forums, and agreed that his voice is not allowed to outweigh others.

Kathryn Refshauge, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, claims Deans at other universities have to beg to get access to their Vice-Chancellors, unlike at Sydney. “We are heard,” she says. Deans Joellen Riley (Law) and Archie Johnson (Engineering and IT) expressed similar sentiments.

Refshauge also praised the new University Economic Model (UEM), introduced in 2011 to provide more precise measurements of each faculty’s income and expenditure. By providing such information, the UEM increases transparency, she argues.

But a key question when assessing Spence’s supposed commitment to collective governance is whom exactly he is consulting with. There are voices in the NTEU in particular who have put the Vice-Chancellor’s metamorphosis down to the influence of the Senate, which includes a number of high profile corporate members. Their accusation is that he fails to consult broadly.

When talking to those lower down the food chain than the Deans (or in some darker corners of “collective governance” nexus), a very different man is described. Perhaps tellingly, many staff feel too disconnected from Spence to provide an informed opinion. “Like most staff who do not hold a powerful position at the University, I have not met him. He doesn’t really get out and about among staff and I think that symbolises the remove between senior management at the university and everybody else,” one academic said.

This is not an isolated view. A recent internal survey found just 26 per cent of staff responded favourably to the statement: “the Senior Executive Group [The Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Deans and Directors] listen to other staff”.

Observations made by others who have worked with Spence also diverge from the view of the Deans. One former executive of a student organisation was damning.“He was often patronising, as he didn’t take student leadership seriously. He was so smug in meetings. He used to spend student consultative committee meetings on his iPad, cutting off his own staff whenever he felt like it,” they said.

Another source reported similar habits, claiming he would talk over others, though noting that he could also be charming and personable.

At Taste, Spence demonstrates a range of these characteristics. Passionate and rigorous, he does not interrupt me, but he does take hold of the conversation. During a discussion of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Sydney last year, it becomes evident he is extremely unhappy with the way the coverage of the story was handled.

“Now, here was a great Honi, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences conspiracy story of the University kowtowing to the Chinese and restricting academic freedom for the benefit of some. I mean, that was just, with respect, it was a charming story but it was just crap.”

Wanting to cram as much into our hour-long meeting as possible, I try to move the discussion on. My efforts are met with another polite chiding.

“It’s important that if you have any interest in the truth that you listen to the whole thing,” he says.

Here, his confidence, also alluded to by those who have worked with him, comes flowing out. There is an aggression to his argument that is authentic. It is brought to the surface at moments like this, when Spence appears to feel he has been hard done by, misconstrued, or targeted. It is clear he takes these incidents personally and in this case he shows considerable frustration.

* * *

Spence is not always so animated, however, and his propensity to appear cold and uncaring has plagued his leadership. This flaw was demonstrated in the deeply impersonal video used to announce the 2012 staff cuts. Staring down the camera, Spence told staff how pleased they should be about the university’s success and then, almost as an afterthought, mentioned many of them were about to lose their livelihoods. Though his arguments justifying these cuts changed over time, they initially put the blame on staff: some were not carrying their weight, he said.

As an editor of Honi in 2013, I was often frustrated by the carefully crafted evasions we received in response to our questions. In fairness, we were often adversarial. But the statements from the Vice-Chancellor, always mediated by Kirsten Andrews, were cool and unsympathetic.

One incident in particular left me frustrated, and I bring it up towards the end of our interview. I ask Spence why he hasn’t done more to investigate police violence against picketers during industrial action, given the seriousness of the injuries many of them sustained. In the course of last year’s strikes, one suffered a broken leg, another a cracked ribs, and dozens more complained of serious injury. One woman posted a photo showing a mosaic of dark bruises across her back, left by police boots, on Facebook.

Back in his upright position, Spence argues there are already channels of complaint open to those allegedly hurt. His legal background shines through and he emphasises the value of formal processes. He’s also evasive: if there is a problem with the fact that police deal with complaints against other police, how is that his fault?

In what becomes a heated discussion, we begin to go around in circles. Spence makes the case that, given an individual hurt by police during a protest in a working class suburb would be given no extra assistance, a university aiding students allegedly hurt during protests would be a kind of class discrimination. When I ask if a second injustice cancels out a first, we drop back into the conversation loop.

Spence’s reaction to reports of these injuries is emblematic of something far greater than his personal view of industrial action, legal process, or the role of police on campus. It’s a demonstration of his failure to sift through the criticism hurled at him and take on board those that deserve hearing. As a man who often faces hysterical accusations, it must be easy to dismiss serious criticism when it comes from outside the university’s more senior circles. But the outrage sparked after the attempted USU grab was heartfelt and well informed, as the cries about tightening working conditions, job losses and police violence have been. To pin these complaints on bogey groups – unions and “outside agitators” – is to ignore the material conditions that have brought such complaints into being.

This does not mean the long-term impacts of Spence’s reforms should be dismissed out of hand, and it will take some years to determine their impact. But right now, those changes are causing pain. After six years at the helm of Australia’s oldest university, it appears a confident Vice-Chancellor’s “moral imagination” has a long way to develop before he comprehends that fully.