The
Inspiration
Project

WITH BRENDAN CORR

GUEST Michael Spence

Episode 21

Dr Michael Spence: Episode Summary

On this episode of ‘The Inspiration Project’, Brendan Corr talks to Dr Michael Spence about running The University of Sydney, plausibility structures and the intellectual rigour of the Christian faith.

Among other things Michael shares:

  • The tension between living in the moment vs. long-term goals.
  • Trusting that God is working everything toward a good ending.
  • The key to being a great teacher over just a good one.
  • How culture is embedded in language.
  • How the Christian account is more intellectually plausible than others.
  • What the role of higher education should be.
  • What Christians will be doing for all of eternity.
  • How life is a comedy.

Dr Michael Spence: Episode Transcript

Sponsor Announcement
This podcast is sponsored by Australian Christian College, a network of schools committed to student wellbeing, character development, and academic improvement.

Introduction
Welcome to The Inspiration Project, where well-known Christians share their stories to inspire young people in their faith and life. Here’s your host, Brendan Corr.

Brendan Corr
Good morning, everybody. Welcome to another episode of The Inspiration Project podcast. I hope that you’re enjoying the conversations that we’ve been able to bring to you and are hearing some of the things that our guests have learned. Delighted to welcome to The Project today Dr. Michael Spence. Dr. Michael Spence commenced his tertiary studies with a bachelor of arts with first-class honours in English, Italian, and Law. He progressed to take some studies at other institutions, and became a specialist in the field of intellectual property theory, headed up Oxford’s law faculty and Social Science Division before taking his role, following his Ph.D., to the Vice Chancellorship of the University of Sydney since 2008. In that role, Dr. Spence has allowed Sydney University to rise to be the number one ranked university in Australia, and the fourth-ranked university in the world, in terms of graduate employability, and a regular position in the top 50 universities in the world. Dr. Spence, thank you so much for giving us your time today. And I welcome you to The Inspiration Project.

Dr. Michael Spence
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to have the chance to talk.

Brendan Corr
I must say, as we run through that sort of an account, it’s very appropriate for you to join this particular conversation. It’s rather inspiring to hear of how you’ve been able to continue to pursue so much success in a world that is very competitive, the world of academia. What was it that led you to invest the obvious time and effort that would have been required for you to reach the heights of success, in that field that you have?

Dr. Michael Spence
So I think, for me at least, life happens, and happens in a slightly less structured and intentional way, and that various opportunities arise. When they arise, you pray over them, and think through them, and try and see where God might be leading you. Test various sorts of doors and see which ones look like the right way to go. So, and I think that’s really important to remember, because quite often, I do a lot of work with students, and there are some students who know when they’re five that they want to be a doctor, or an engineer, or a management consultant, or whatever it might be, and are very directed towards a particular professional or life goal. But for most students, when they enter university, they don’t have much idea of what they want to do at all. Sometimes that’s a source of great anxiety and a sense that they ought to be much more directed. And I think it’s really important just to try and do well the thing to which you are called at the moment, and to let tomorrow’s troubles look after themselves, and things sort of unfold. And I suppose that’s the way that I would say that my career has developed.

Brendan Corr
Is that a natural tendency that you have, to be a person in the moment, and it’s about just the next step? Or are you somebody that sets long-term goals and has definite ambitions?

Dr. Michael Spence
So I really think there’s wisdom when Jesus says, each day that every day has…

Brendan Corr
…worries enough for its own.

Dr. Michael Spence
“Has sufficient evil for the day thereunto,” or whatever it is. And that living in the moment makes a lot of sense. Obviously, there has to be a certain amount of planning, and a certain amount, I was thinking of the future, and a certain amount, but I think we can spend way too much living either in the past, or living in the future, and miss out on what’s happening now in the present.

Brendan Corr
That’s good. I’ll come back to that in our conversation in the future. Can I ask you, Dr. Spence, when did you realise that you were good at learning and that you loved it enough for it to become the basis of a career?

Dr. Michael Spence
Well, again, I think it was something that just sort of unfolded. From the age of 15, I had lots of part-time jobs, and for the last couple of years at university, or the last year and a half, I worked more or less full-time in a law firm as a clerk. And I got to see how professional lawyers worked. Then I did some work for a government lobbyist, and I got to see how government lawyers worked in one way or another. And then the British government was prepared to have me go and do a PhD in Oxford. That seemed like a good idea. So again, I think what I did was try out various sorts of things, and thought, actually, “This is the thing that really fits. This is the thing that excites me.” And so life unfolded itself. And I think that, I do think for me, it’s been very much a matter of responding to the opportunities that have arisen as they have arisen, and trusting that God’s got the future sort of sorted, one way or another.

Brendan Corr
That’s wonderful. So you talked about this stepping into the things that excite you, that interest you. Was school exciting for you, if I could take you back to that 15-year-old lad, and you knew when you were 10?

Dr. Michael Spence
Yeah, so I enjoyed school very much, and it’s a time when there’s a lot going on in your life, and all the rest of it, but yeah, I enjoyed school very much.

Brendan Corr
Any particular memories of that time? Were there any teachers that really set you on a course of enjoying academics?

Dr. Michael Spence
Yeah, so my fifth class teacher, my English teacher in high school, there are various people who inspire you to learn. And I think that’s a real talent that a teacher who doesn’t just give you information, but actually helps you explore other views. It’s a real gift that some people have, and yes, I was fortunate enough to have teachers like that.

Brendan Corr
That’s great. Hopefully, some of our listeners do also get encouraged along that way. So you moved into the law as a particular area of interest, both at your undergraduate level…

Dr. Michael Spence
I think that’s putting it up far too high. So I wanted to do English at university, but like many young people in New South Wales, I had all these ATAR points, and they feel like frequent flyer points, and you sort of got to spend…

Brendan Corr
…cash in somewhere.

Dr. Michael Spence
So, cash them in somewhere. So arts-law sounded like a posh thing to say that you are doing at parties, then just arts, although I’m not sure that’s a good reason for making a decision. So I sort of tumbled into arts-law. And then it was at a time where I met with paying, I was paying fees in those days. So I did an honours year in English, and then an honours year in Italian, and then finished off the Law degree. So I wouldn’t say that I had a particular passion to be a lawyer. I wanted to study. I knew that I liked texts, and arts-law seemed like a good thing to do, and something that kept my options open.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, to balance it out, you focused on English literature. Was that the focus of your undergraduate?

Dr. Michael Spence
That’s right.

Brendan Corr
And you added Italian to that, in your undergraduate studies?

Dr. Michael Spence
Yeah, I did Italian, because my girlfriend at the time was doing it, and that seemed good.

Brendan Corr
Very good reason.

Dr. Michael Spence
I was also interested in the Renaissance in English literature, and so, Italian seemed like a good complement for that interest, given the important influence that Italian literature had during that period, so I took it up, and she dropped it at the end of the second year. And I did four years of it, so there you go.

Brendan Corr
It seems as though that language must have taken a bit of a place in your heart or your passions. You’ve added a few languages since then, French, Chinese, Korean.

Dr. Michael Spence
Yeah, so I was at Oxford, and we were setting up a university-wide centre for Chinese studies, and it seemed to me to be important to learn a bit of Chinese. So I did that and really enjoyed that. And it’s been useful for my work. It gives you a remarkable insight into that sort of fascinating culture. And then my wife is Korean, and we’re raising our children bilingually, so …

Brendan Corr
Wonderful.

Dr. Michael Spence
I’m learning languages in Korean at the university, which means that my Korean is rather bizarre. Because it’s either household Korean, “Do you need a nappy change?” and “What’s for dinner?” and that kind of stuff, or the Korean at university was Korean for academic purposes. So it’s either very highfalutin or very every day.

Brendan Corr
Unless you’re asking, “Where could the nappy get changed,” or something like that, anyway?

Dr. Michael Spence
Yeah, I see what you mean, that’s right. Yeah.

Brendan Corr
Let me ask you, as a little bit of a detour, before we circle back to some of those other issues. Having studied languages, I think that’s five I can count quickly. What do you think that the language provides as a window into different ways of looking at the world, or different approaches to life?

Dr. Michael Spence
I think language is a key to culture. I think people embed their cultural assumptions in their languages, and it really helps to understand a culture, to know something about the language. So Korean, for example, has five levels of honorific. If I say, “My father gave my grandfather a house,” it’s father, with a suffix to show he’s either the topic or the subject of the sentence, and which is the recipient of a gift, but not the normal one, one that shows that he’s my social superior. House, but not the normal word for “house,” one that shows that the person who currently owns it, my father, is my social superior, with a suffix to show that it’s the object of giving. Give, but not the normal word for “give,” one that shows that my father, who is the giver, is the social inferior of my grandfather, the recipient. And then, one of five different endings, depending upon my social relationship with you, the speaker.

Brendan Corr
Wow.

Dr. Michael Spence
We just don’t do hierarchy like that in English. I mean, we signal hierarchy in different ways, and that creates particular sorts of benefits and burdens for Korean culture, that awareness, that constant awareness of hierarchy, that have to be navigated. And I think it helps to have a window into the culture, to understand something of the language.

Brendan Corr
Yeah. That’s a very, very useful example of exactly how language does reflect the values of the society that it’s embedded in.

Dr. Michael Spence
Well, I’ve heard that kind of reinforces, as well.

Brendan Corr
Very, very true. Very true. Dr. Spence, you’ve mentioned a couple of times in our conversation already, the importance of God in your life, and of being prayerful and discerning, as He has led you through different stages. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you came to be a person of faith?

Dr. Michael Spence
I grew up in a Christian home, and I had that kind of experience of coming to understand what Christian faith meant, when I was about five or six, that I remember very clearly. But I suppose, for me, there have been various points in my life when I’ve had to say, well, sort of, “Is this a lot of hollybalolly?” How Christian faith seems like to some people, and a stumbling block to other people. It’s not immediately intuitive in our culture to believe that God has broken into human history in the kind of way that Christians believe that he has. And so, there have been various points at which I’ve thought, “Well, is this really for me?” And I suppose having a Christian faith is about partly continuing to make the decision that it is.

Brendan Corr
So that’s an interesting point, because you expressed earlier an interest in the Renaissance period, and pursued a career in university academics, which is focused on new knowledge. Many people would understand that those things were counter to one another - a life of faith and a life of knowledge. And particularly, the fruits of the Renaissance were anti-religious, or anti-faith, as such. You said you make the decision to continue to believe. What does that mean when you’re making a decision about faith?

Dr. Michael Spence
I suppose partly, it’s about being true to your experience of life, true to what makes sense of the world for you. So there’s a part where C.S. Lewis says, talks about the missing theme of a symphony, or the missing chapter of a book. He says, “But if something comes along and says, ‘This is the thing that makes sense.’ Then what you have to do is read it as a part of the whole, or hear it as a part of the whole, and think, whatever problems there may be with it per se, does it make sense of the whole?‘” To me, there are several core Christian intuitions that just make sense of the world. So when you look at the world, for example, it’s a marvelous and terrible place, and you’ve got to know what to do with the fact that it is a terrible place, and that there’s suffering and disease and deaths. And I suppose there are a couple of ways of handling that. You can either say, “Well,” the materialists will look, “It’s just the way things are. The way things are is the way things are.” And we have no rational reason, beauty over ugliness, or suffering over joy. Or you can say with some of the great Eastern philosophies, there’s a kind of complementarity between these things. Or you can do the kind of Judeo-Christian thing of saying actually, “The good and the true and the beautiful are somehow right. They’re somehow more authentic. They’re somehow more real, than the false, the ugly, and the untrue.” And that therefore, the world is a good place somehow spoiled, rather than a place that merely is, or a place where the pattern is a pattern of complementarity. Lose a friend, or when I see great suffering or whatever, that makes sense to me, I think, “This is wrong.” I want to be able to say, “This is wrong.”

Brendan Corr
Yes.

Dr. Michael Spence
The Christian account of the word allows me to do that, in a way that no other does. And I suppose, similarly, the Christian notion that if, that somehow, if that wrongness of the world is going to be dealt with, it needs to be dealt with by the person responsible for the whole show. That also makes sense to me, not least because so many of our attempts to put things right, good though many of them are, sort of end up going wrong in one way or another. So there’s just several points at which I think the Christian account of the world is more intellectually plausible, that it makes more sense of my experience of the world, and of the way that I see things. And that that’s true, even though it itself is not easy to understand, in some ways. But that then becomes a different exercise, the exercise of trying to understand the Christian account of the world, rather than a question as to whether or not the Christian account is ultimately the one you go with.

Brendan Corr
Your reflections, to hear those at the moment, there is as much intellectual integrity that you find in Christian faith, as much as a counterpoint to intellectualism, in carrying your faith into your space. Universities are about the pursuit of knowledge, understanding. Do you hold a different view? Or do you, in your understanding of the intellectual integrity of a Christian faith, that the nature of knowledge there, in your thinking, knowledge that is discovered? Or is there knowledge that we craft as humans, as part of our human endeavour?

Dr. Michael Spence
Well, I suppose I do, ultimately. But there is, partly it’s about the nature of things being revealed, as much as being discovered. But that’s a whole complex other conversation, but probably is more than I can do justice to in a couple of sentences.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, fair enough. The notion of regularly making, reaffirming that decision of your faith, has that been something that, being involved in a university, where there is the contention of ideas, has that contributed to you asking questions regularly of the validity of the beliefs that you hold?

Dr. Michael Spence
I mean, on the contrary, university tends to be a thinking environment. I mean, sociologists say, and I think it’s true, that most of us believe things because of what they call plausibility structures. So, fundamental untested assumptions about the nature of reality, against which we test things. And I think, the plausibility of our structures, those plausibility structures about culture just are not sympathetic to Christian faith. But I think that has a lot more to do with the assumptions underpinning every sitcom than as with the more reflective environment of the university. Now, I’d say the university is always an environment in which articulating a Christian faith is not easy. I haven’t found it a more difficult environment than other environments outside of the universities.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, that’s great to hear, especially for some of our listeners who might be aspiring to head to university. Having invested your life in university and carried faith, and the assumptions that brings to the pursuit of knowledge. What do you think the place of higher learning, institutions of higher learning are, or should be, in our society?

Dr. Michael Spence
It’s a good question. I think the institutions of higher learning should partly be about giving you a set of epistemic tools, and also a set of epistemic virtues. And I think we probably do better at this, at the former than at the latter. So I think there should be places that teach you to formulate questions, to gather evidence, to ask questions, to formulate offices, listen to the opinions of others, and all the rest of it. But I think they also should be places that teach you a certain amount of epistemic humility, a willingness to admit that you might be wrong, and openness to listening to the opinion of others, and a capacity to choose language commensurate with a goal of increasing understanding. I suppose that I think they also should be places that give you space to ask the bigger questions, and in particular, to form a vision of life, on which you want to build your future. I think that there’s a really sort of crucial period, when people I’ve met have left school, and are just beginning to think about what they want to do, and if what they want to do matches or doesn’t match the expectations of those around them. I think, in that context, it’s really important to have a sense of what you think life should be. And at best, universities should give you the time, and perhaps more than the time, to read some of those questions.

Brendan Corr
Interesting. Again, you’re talking about the role of a university to help you to ask questions, and maybe have enough experience to ask the right sort of questions. For many people, the whole notion of being a person of faith is not asking questions, but having the answers. Do you see a tension between what might be an apologetic view of faith, versus the task of pushing the boundaries of knowledge and understanding?

Dr. Michael Spence
So I think, if the Christian account of reality is right, we will spend eternity exploring the infinite mind of God. And I think if your faith becomes a kind of potted set of answers to every question, then it’s likely to be a very brittle thing. I think that there is something about the notion of faith seeking understanding, that you hold a certain core, a certain sense of core things about God, and the nature of reality, and how Jesus was. And then, you spend the rest of your life trying to work out what that means, in practice, for your life, and for a whole set of issues that you confront. And so, I don’t think asking questions is incompatible with faith. I think asking questions is a conditioned reason to having real faith.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, that’s good. And as you say, even eternity, exploring the infinite mind of God, is part of our experience now, that there is always something more of God for us to understand, engage and perceive, through his presence with us.

Dr. Michael Spence
I think that’s really right. I suppose I would, I’d point to two things. The first is that if God wanted us to have a neat set of answers, then the parallel exercise of the compilation of the Bible was a really dumb way of going about it. Because here is this rich and fascinating and varied and complex set of material at different times, message and historical accounts and prophecy and poetry. I think, similarly, when Jesus says, ”I am the way, the truth and the life,” he’s claiming, yes, of course, the truth is propositional, but the truth is also ultimately personal, that He is the truth, but a part of the intellectual project upon which we are all inevitably embarked. And more than the intellectual project, the project of life commitments upon which we’re embarked, is to get to know Him better, rather than simply learning off a whole lot of pieces of information in a way that I think you were alluding to.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, that’s good. Dr. Spence, you’ve obviously spent time moving through areas of responsibility in your academic career, from undergraduate student to postgraduate student, into the faculty, teaching others to understand the disciplines that you have become expert in. You’re now at the top end, vice-chancellor of the most successful university that Australia owns. Are you still a teacher?

Dr. Michael Spence
Without being too naff, I think you’re always kind of a teacher and a student, aren’t you? And that you’re always, in one way or another, whatever your vocation, involved in that process, both of seeking and of disseminating understanding.

Brendan Corr
So the role of vice-chancellor of a university is very complex. It involves a lot of…

Dr. Michael Spence
Well, partly, CEO of a $2.8 billion turnover business. Partly, I’m a chief worker in a worker’s collective, because universities have that kind of feel, part mayor of a small town, part headmaster of a big school. It’s a very complex role.

Brendan Corr
Yeah.

Dr. Michael Spence
But it mostly, I don’t actually teach. I spend my time running the organisation.

Brendan Corr
Yeah. So is it more of a CEO sort of role?

Dr. Michael Spence
So yeah, I suppose a CEO is probably the … Is a school principal a CEO, sort of and sort of not? So in the same kind of way, it sort of is and it sort of isn’t.

Brendan Corr
You mentioned that whatever particular functions you might be performing, everybody is somewhat of a teacher and somewhat of a student. How is it that you are? What are the things that you’re still learning?

Dr. Michael Spence
I’m learning a whole lot of stuff all the time, about how people work, about how organisations work, about how to make organisations work better, all sorts of things. But I think the core things that I want to learn is that, the Christian story, it’s ultimately a comedy, you know what I mean? It ultimately ends with the notion that the world is going somewhere, and that the going somewhere is good. And that the goodness of that, of the place to which it is going, is guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And I don’t think that we perceive to see that’s true. So the most common command in the Bible is not to be afraid. You know, “Don’t be afraid,” angels say it, and prophets say it, and God says, and Jesus says, everybody says, “Don’t be afraid.”

Brendan Corr
Yes.

Dr. Michael Spence
And I think that fear is the air we breathe, fear of all sorts, and ultimately, the fear of death.

Brendan Corr
Yes.

Dr. Michael Spence
And I figure that, because we don’t fundamentally believe that life is a comedy. So what I want to do is to learn more, in my bones, what it means for that to be true, and what it means to live that out, in the way that I do relationships, in the way that I do my work, in the way that I think at the moment.

Brendan Corr
That’s a beautiful aspiration for you to hold. And I’m into us all learning those lessons, and that’s terrific. Dr. Spence, without opening up another line of inquiry, I was interested to read in your biography, the expertise you hold in the area of intellectual property, and the law around those sorts of things. And I wonder whether that you, in the context of that, you have any reflections about, how is it that people can own ideas? Or should people own ideas? Is that a thing for it to be wrestled with, to be talked about?

Dr. Michael Spence
I mostly do intellectual property theory. So, and the intellectual property systems sort of work on this basis. If I wear your shirt, you can’t wear it. So we need rules deciding who can wear particular shirts, or who can live in particular houses, or drive particular cars. And broadly speaking that’s the law of property intangibles. But if I sing your song or use your invention, you can still do it. And so it’s not immediately obvious that anybody should ever be able to stop anybody from singing anybody’s song or using anybody’s invention. And if you think that they should be able to, you tell one of two stories. You either tell a story about the economics of the production of intangibles. So if we didn’t give you a particular period of the exclusive use of your invention or your song or whatever it might be, no incentive for you to invest in the time and energy that it takes to create it. Or we do a story about the relationship between a creator and the things that they create. And neither of those stories is wholly coherent. Neither of those works all the time. Both of them shape the law in various ways that are distorting and often conflicting. And so, the part of what I do in my work is to try and pick ways in which those different economic and ethical justifications for the law have both shaped and misshaped the law, in ways that we might think about.

Brendan Corr
Do you still get a chance to engage in that type of thinking, and that type of argument, in your role?

Dr. Michael Spence
Not really … or every now and then.

Brendan Corr
Or is it much harder?

Dr. Michael Spence
Every now and then I do something. So I wrote a thesis last year, or the year before last, on academic ownership of intellectual property, but I don’t get much chance to do it.

Brendan Corr
The notion of being able to be, or stay true to the things that excite you and your central passions, is that a tension in stepping into more and more responsibility obligations, rather than interests?

Dr. Michael Spence
Not really, because I actually really enjoy academic administration. I enjoy thinking about what makes a small political community work, and how it might work better, and helping an organisation to run. I enjoy that very much.

Brendan Corr
Dr. Spence, we’ve reached the time for our allocated conversation. I really want to thank you. I think there is the tendency, across the broad section of society, not to appreciate necessarily the contribution that institutions of higher learning contribute broadly to the culture that we enjoy, and even the economy that we are able to enjoy. And as one of the leaders of a significant part of that sector, can we thank you for the work that that part of our culture provides for us, and the work that you do, that people don’t understand or don’t see, that this does so much?

Dr. Michael Spence
Thank you. I appreciate that. I appreciate that very much.

About Michael Spence

Dr Michael Spence is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney. Under his leadership, the University has risen to 1st in Australia and 4th in the world for graduate employability. An alumnus of the University, Dr Spence has a BA with first-class honours in English, Italian and Law. He is recognised internationally as a leader in the field of intellectual property theory and holds a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Oxford. In 2017, Dr Spence was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours List for leadership of the tertiary education sector and to the Anglican Church of Australia. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 2007.

Photo of Brendan Corr

About Brendan Corr

Originally a Secondary Science Teacher, Brendan is a graduate of UTS, Deakin and Regent College, Canada. While Deputy Principal at Pacific Hills for 12 years, Brendan also led the NSW Christian Schools Australia registration system. Brendan’s faith is grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a deep knowledge of God’s Word. Married for over 30 years, Brendan and Kim have 4 adult children. On the weekends, Brendan enjoys cycling (but he enjoys coffee with his mates afterwards slightly more).