Provost’s update: Innovation, disruptive thinking and the culture of a university

UCL’s President & Provost, Dr Michael Spence, reflects on how UCL can remain true to its founding ethos as we approach our 200th anniversary.

Dear colleagues,

What does it mean to be true to our founding ethos as we approach our 200th anniversary? What does it mean to be ’disruptive’ as we were at our foundation, and as we so often claim to continue to be? Earlier this term, I spent time visiting industrial collaborators, philanthropists, partner universities, alumni and potential students in Asia, and was asked to reflect on this question in a speech at Osaka University.

In some sense, most universities make a claim to be ’disruptive’. After all, most universities claim to be ’research-led’, and to treasure the connection between research and teaching. That, of course, means that everybody in the university is engaged with advanced tools of critical thinking. The skills that our researchers use every day are the skills that we develop in our students, skills to ask the difficult and unexpected question, to think about problems creatively, tangentially, in a different way, to formulate hypotheses, to look for evidence, to propose answers and to defend them effectively both orally and in written communication. Those are the skills of disruptive thinking, which is the bread-and-butter work of universities and not unique to UCL.

So what about UCL is different? My response boils down to three words about the culture of a university if it is really going to be a place of innovation, concepts which were core to the foundation of UCL in 1826 and which we have constantly rediscovered and reinvented through our nearly 200-year history.

The first word is diversity.

When UCL was founded, to go to one of the two existing universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge, you had to sign the 39 Articles of the Church of England. In other words, everyone attending had to agree that they shared a foundational vision of the world. The presumption was that to build a strong intellectual community required a certain amount of ideological consensus. By contrast, the founders of UCL believed that they could build a strong intellectual and social community made up of people who thought what were regarded at the time as wildly different things. They believed that it was possible to live together well across difference, and that doing so would build a more creative intellectual environment.

But, of course, the more fundamentally different people are across an institution, the more fundamentally differently they understand the world, the more there is going to be profound disagreement between them. The real question for a modern, global, university is how to host the conversation between people in the university community and beyond in ways that permit passionate, engaged, profound disagreement that nevertheless is creative and constructive? What are the rules of engagement that the university needs to uphold in order to make sure that people who think radically different things are able to live together well on a university campus and that the work of the university is enriched by their difference and not merely an arid battlefield? It is a difficult path, but viewpoint diversity is fundamental to an institution and one of the implications of which we are working through at UCL.

From the beginning UCL was founded on the notion that to be innovative you needed to be a community that was very diverse. We now understand that to be diverse in terms of ethnicity and gender and sexuality and religion and disability, and all the other sorts of ways in which we normally think of diversity. But it must also mean diverse in methodology, diverse in outlook, diverse in a priori assumptions, and that, I think, is a seed bed for innovation.

My second word is power.

To be truly disruptive, a university must be marked by a particular culture of power. University cultures have often been dominated by a particular kind of status consciousness. In part, this is because of the very many ways in which excellence can be understood in the academic endeavour. Everybody knows what great work looks like in established areas, but great is very hard to define, and even more so when people are being asked to break new ground and to think things that nobody has ever thought before. In an environment in which conceptions of excellence are contested, status markers such as whether someone has earned the title ’professor’ can become enormously important, and academic environments can become very hierarchical. More junior academic staff, and professional staff, are often expected, however tacitly, to ’know their place’.

In the hierarchical cultures of the university as an institution, power has often been abused. That abuse of power impoverishes the work of an institution, by silencing the disempowered voice. It is no good being a diverse environment if only some voices are given weight. And it is no good hiring able professional staff if the hierarchy inhibits the effectiveness of their contribution.

At UCL, therefore, we are thinking about what it means to be an institution that really takes respect seriously. What does it mean to be an institution where what matters is the idea and not who first had it? What does it mean to be an institution where the most junior researcher feels able to contribute? What does it mean to think about respect in all directions? And that is sometimes an uncomfortable conversation. People have not always used power well in universities. Part of what we have to do is make it easier for people to talk about power inequalities and to think about the ways in which they distort our collective life. And we need to address and correct instances of the abuse of power when they arise.

And, therefore, my third word is engagement.

One of the founding purposes of UCL was that we were not to be a place, in the sneering words of our founders, of ’polite learning’, such as Oxford and Cambridge, but a place of useful knowledge. Of course, that does not mean we only do applied research. Our fundamental research is extraordinary, as our list of Nobel Prizes will testify. But we certainly have an ethos that says useful knowledge is hugely important, and a history of multidisciplinary collaboration and solutions-focused research and teaching. What are the issues that our community is facing and what therefore ought we to be thinking about? That is a process of looking not only at the often neat questions to which academic disciplines give rise to, but at the rather messy questions that require contributions from across the disciplines. They also require engagement from the communities that we serve. Thus we do a lot of work with partners, not only in industry, but also in the community, working alongside them to identify and to find solutions to problems, bringing more voices into the conversation, more voices and therefore more difficult problems. They are the things that we think lead to innovation.

So, to distil these thoughts: disruptive thinking, what does it require? I think it requires a particular attitude to diversity. A university needs to be a place where there are voices from all sorts of places, where there is methodological and ideological pluralism, where the arguments are fierce and where we are most interested in the most interesting ideas, from wherever they come. We need constantly to be on guard against the ways in which power can be misused to make this culture more of a reality. And we need to engage with the communities that we serve.

UCL has a foundational narrative around these things. In each case, we think they are strongly a part of our lives. We do have a history of diversity. We do have a history of objecting to the misuses of power. We do have a history of engagement. But in other ways we are also trying to work out what it means to be true to our founding values.

The challenge (and it is a challenge not just for me, but for our Deans, our heads of department, our leaders of professional staff groups, our research group leaders, our professors, our course coordinators and many others) is that leadership is key. If you are not living and modelling an attitude towards diversity, power and engagement that will foster innovation, you can have all the entrepreneurship programmes that you want but the culture of the university will stagnate. You will not have a university that is, in the best sense, ’disruptive’.

I have worked in some great universities, and my sense is that UCL genuinely is different. It is an incredibly dynamic place that really does have a disruptive spirit. I could talk about the latest life changing drug that is being brought to market based on UCL’s research, the spinout company that has become UCL’s latest unicorn, the cross-disciplinary work that is sprouting radically new approaches, the awards and collaborations and league tables and a hundred other signs of world-leading innovation. Instead, I have offered three words: diversity, power and engagement. And I suppose that is because ultimately universities are communities of discourse. Ultimately universities are communities that are shaped by the stories they tell about themselves and by the stories they tell about the world, about what they do. And we think at UCL that innovation is partly about having a story that is founded on a particular attitude to diversity, to power and to engagement, and they are touchstones, checkpoints for our policies and for the decisions that we make.

I would really like to hear any thoughts you may have about ways in which we do, or do not, live this vision of the disruptive university; things you think we do well, and things you think we could do better. As ever, you can get in touch via

University Management Committee discussions

UMC, the university’s senior management team, meets weekly to focus on key decisions, planning and issues and I share the top decisions and discussions coming out of those meetings in my emails to you. Recent meetings have covered:
  • A review of the institutional risk register
  • Discussion of the student number intake for this academic year, and the format for the student number planning round for 2023-24
  • An update on plans for a summer school in India for prospective students
  • Priorities for action against strategy objectives and areas of priority for the year
  • Proposals for a limited expansion of our degree apprenticeship provision in areas where this is academically desirable
  • Our TEF outcomes and approaches to improving areas of underperformance
  • The importance of new staff completing mandatory online safety and fire training following the monthly health and safety data review.

Best wishes,

Dr Michael Spence
UCL President & Provost

  • University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT (0) 20 7679 2000