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Spann, Richard Neville (1916–1981)

by Helen Nelson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Richard Neville Spann (1916-1981), professor of government and public administration, was born on 5 March 1916 at Didsbury, Manchester, England, youngest of three children of Thomas Spann, joiner and cabinetmaker, and his wife Laura Martha, née Baldwin. Dick attended Manchester Grammar School on a scholarship. In 1934 he won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford (BA, 1937, MA, 1946), where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. He was appointed assistant-lecturer in government at the University of Manchester in 1939.

Joining the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on 27 May 1942, Spann served as a paymaster in various ships. He was released from the reserve on 11 October 1945. Resuming his university post, he was promoted to lecturer in 1946. As a Rockefeller Foundation fellow (1950-51) he spent time at Harvard University, the University of Chicago and the Bureau of the Budget, Washington, DC.

In 1954 Spann moved to Australia as professor of government and public administration at the University of Sydney. Head of department from 1954 to 1972, he carried responsibility for the disciplines of both political science and public administration. He served (1956-57, 1968-69) as dean of the faculty of economics. An able and conscientious administrator with a strong sense of personal responsibility for decisions, and a member of a wide range of university committees, he was keenly aware of university by-laws and conventions. He resided at St Andrew’s College as vice-principal (from 1954) and senior fellow (from 1966).

Spann’s academic output was primarily in the field of public administration. Public Administration in Australia, initially edited by him through various editions (1959, 1960, 1973) and then totally revised in a single-authored version as Government Administration in Australia (1979), was the standard Australian text for several decades. With Joan Rydon he wrote New South Wales Politics, 1901-1910 (1962); he published more than fifty articles and chapters. A skilled stylist with an eye for detail, he brought these attributes to his work as editor (1955-75) of the quarterly Public Administration (Sydney) (now Australian Journal of Public Administration). In 1956 he was elected to the Social Science Research Council of Australia (Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia from 1971).

In keeping with his reserved nature, Spann contributed to the discipline more as author, editor, reader and adviser than as public commentator, and more as a committee-man than as an academic entrepreneur. His talent for astute evaluation and synthesis was better suited to seminar and conference situations than to large lecture halls, although in his early years at Sydney he lectured in courses as diverse as political theory, American government and decolonisation. Spann’s work for various governments included chairing (1964-72) the administrative research committee of the New South Wales Public Service Board, and serving as a member of the Australian Research Grants Committee (1971-74) and the Commonwealth Administrative Review Council (1980-81). He was appointed OBE in 1977. A Festschrift, Understanding Public Administration (1981) edited by G. R. Curnow and R. L. Wettenhall, was presented to him and R. S. Parker.

Spann was an active member of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom. His political outlook comprised a complex mix: his conservatism, including a distrust of ‘liberal intellectuals’ and resistance to what he saw as passing fashions, was tempered by scepticism. He commented that ‘a certain perversity has always affected my political outlook, a disposition to buck when presented with apparent inevitabilities or alleged fundamental contradictions’. While generally supportive of the movements for homosexual and women’s liberation, he was wary of the challenges to authority that emerged in the universities in the late 1960s.

The depth of Spann’s learning over a wide range of fields, including the arts, history, philosophy and economics, and his whimsical often sardonic wit came to the fore in private company. Late in his career he claimed to have spread his interests too widely to leave his stamp on any one field. Spann was a man for whom civility was a primary virtue. He did not marry but had a diverse social network and was a knowledgeable and entertaining conversationalist. Tallish, he walked with a rambling gait. He had a high forehead, wispy hairline and a quizzical expression with eyes that were suggestive of his sharp humour. He died of myocardial infarction on 25 July 1981 at Camperdown and was cremated. The annual Spann Oration was inaugurated in 1983 by the New South Wales regional group of the Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration.

Select Bibliography

  • G. R. Curnow and R. L. Wettenhall (eds), Understanding Public Administration (1981)
  • Australian Journal of Public Administration, Sept 1981, p 233
  • Quadrant, Sept 1981, p 42
  • Senate, minutes, 8 June 1953, Spann papers (Univ of Sydney archives)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

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Citation details

Helen Nelson, 'Spann, Richard Neville (1916–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spann-richard-neville-15732/text26920, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 August 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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