The Provost’s Record on LGBTQ+ Support Sinks to a New Low

Rebekah Wright

N.B. The Cheese Grater has reached out to Michael Spence’s Office for comment, but is yet to hear back from them 

Michael Spence is UCL’s supreme leader – as our President and Provost he’s at the forefront of UCL’s national and international image (even if the vast majority of students have no idea who he is). But like all people in positions of power, Spence is not without his controversies. 

Spence – who was previously employed as the Principal and Vice-Chancellor at University of Sydney (USyd), received a vote of no confidence whilst in this position which was  ‘overwhelmingly’ supported by his fellow staff members. Charging USyd over AU$10,000 to fund his personal membership to the Oxford and Cambridge Club, to demonstrating that he had no idea how the process of reporting sexual harassment worked at USyd whilst his own institution called accusations of inaction against endemic sexual harassment on campus ‘untrue’, it’s clear what led to such a decision. 

Also relevant to Spence’s role in the spotlight are his non-UCL-related public activities. This might include, for example, his little-known role as an ordained Anglican priest or, as was recently brought to the attention of The Cheese Grater, his role as a trustee for the Christian international charity Mercy Ships. 

Mercy Ships currently operates two hospital ships that provide free surgical operations for communities in Africa that would otherwise have limited access to proficient healthcare infrastructure. As with many charities and with Spence himself, Mercy Ships is not an organisation free from scandal.

It would be unfair not to acknowledge that Mercy Ships does engage in extremely important and life-saving humanitarian work that has undoubtedly impacted the lives of many people living in Africa. Those working aboard the hospital ships, including the doctors and nurses, are volunteers who give up their own time to help others. 

Like most charities, Mercy Ships has a Code of Conduct. This is, unsurprisingly, heavily influenced by Christian teachings and doctrine which, whilst not everyone’s cup of tea, is understandable. However, one clause highlighted to The Cheese Grater by a member of the UCL community is slightly more problematic given Spence’s role as UCL’s Provost. Under the subtitle ‘Sexual Immorality’ it states:

“Mercy Ships will not tolerate any form of sexual harassment, pornography, or immoral act (defined as any sexual contact between individuals who are not a legally married man and woman.”

This is only a small clause, but Mercy Ships’ belief that homosexual marriages and relationships are illegitimate and immoral clashes starkly with UCL’s persistent rhetoric promoting diversity and inclusion. It also infers that relationships between those of the opposite sex outside of wedlock are immoral. In signing his name to a charity with such draconian conceptions of immorality, there is an evident and major conflict of interest with Spence’s affiliation to both Mercy Ships and UCL. 

The obvious defence of the clause is that a rule invalidating homosexual marriage is in place because all five of the countries in which Mercy Ships claim they work have homophobic laws and cultures that would place members of the LGBTQ+ community at risk. 

Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Senegal and Cameroon. Being gay is legal in Guinea, Madagascar, and Benin, but gay marriage is illegal and a culture of homophobia is still largely prevelant. If you’re docked at a country’s port, you’re subject to their laws. Additionally, members of the LGBTQ+ community would likely be subject to discrimination in these places, where being gay is not widely accepted.

However, that does not excuse the existence of the clause in the format in which it is written. The language itself is incredibly problematic. It dubs same-sex sexual activity and marriage as ‘immoral’, instead of articulating that the clause is in place to protect LGBTQ+ volunteers who might be interested in volunteering with Mercy Ships. The phrasing of the clause insinuates that LGBTQ+ individuals would be unwelcome in the charity.  

Similarly, by employing the term ‘immoral’, the clause places same-sex sexual activity and marriage in the same bracket as sexual assault or paedophilia. This heavily plays into some of the most common, long-standing, and vicious stereotypes that have been used to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community for years.

Spence’s association with Mercy Ships is ultimately inconsistent with UCL’s stance on diversity and inclusion. Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, the link to UCL’s ‘Equality and Diversity Strategy’ document on the University website is broken, and leads only to a screen reading ‘404: page not found’. 

Nonetheless, the University Spence heads is openly pro-LGBTQ+ and is proud of its inclusion of gender and sexual minorities. Such pride is demonstrated through the existence of an Equity and Inclusion Sabbatical Officer, a Trans Officer, an LGBQ Officer, the LGBT+ Network, and UCL’s occasional flying of the pride flag over the Portico. This is evidently irreconcilable with Mercy Ship’s denotation of homosexuality as immoral. 

A closer examination of UCL’s Disclosure of Conflict and Declaration of Interest Policy finds that it asserts that:

Conflicts of interest are not discouraged and recognising a conflict of interest doesn’t imply 

improper conduct or lack of integrity.”

It’s important to recognise that Spence’s association with Mercy Ships doesn’t imply he is homophobic. Although, given UCL’s withdrawal from Stonewall under his tenure and his 2017 proclamation that the USyd would not publicly support the legalisation of same-sex in Australia, his record supporting LGBTQ+ students leaves much to be desired.

UCL’s policy on conflicts of interest also states that:

“[Conflicts of interest come about] often through circumstances entirely beyond [someone’s] control or which could not be foreseen”.

This aspect of the clause is far less favourable to Spence since he has been Provost of UCL since 2021 but on the Board of Trustees for Mercy Ships since 2022. One would expect, then, that he would have read the Code of Conduct before he joined and so would have been aware of the clause.

Obviously, however, Spence either did not fully read the Code of Conduct of the charity he would be guiding or he did and did not find the clause problematic. Both options reflect poorly upon him. As the figurehead of the UK’s biggest in-person university his role is inevitably a public one. This means that the personal views he chooses to espouse (or remain silent about) do matter. 

The signals he sends by helping lead a seemingly homophobic charity, by presiding over UCL when it left Stonewall, or by refusing to institutionally support a national same-sex marriage referendum at USyd are significant for UCL’s LGBTQ+ students. 

These decisions leave open the risk that Spence is seen not to care about LGBTQ+ issues. Moreover, the nature of his relationship with both Mercy Ships and UCL demonstrates that he sees no problem with a conflict of interest over such a significant issue.

The existence of this conflict of interest, whether by oversight or indifference, shakes the trust placed in Spence as a leader that will stand up for all students at UCL, regardless of their sexuality. As the University so continuously exhibits its appreciation of its LGBTQ+ students, Spence’s conflicting associations risk isolating the LGBTQ+ community and undermining the institution’s commitment to inclusion. 

The centring of yet another problematic story related to Spence further underscores the need for greater transparency and consistency within UCL. Otherwise the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion that are so vehemently preach risk being washed away as rhetoric with no leader willing to substantiate them.