Protests force coal enthusiast to step down as Newcastle University chancellor

June 22, 2021
Newcastle University student protest on June 18. Photo: Steve O'Brien

Students and staff opposing Mark Vaile’s appointment as chancellor of the University of Newcastle (UOW) are celebrating his decision to withdraw on June 21.

Vaile has been chairman of Whitehaven Coal for eight years and served as Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister from 2005 to 2007. His sudden appointment as chancellor, earlier this month, led to two university council members resigning and sparked a backlash from academics and students.

A University of Newcastle Students Association rally on June 18 called for the appointment to be reversed and for consultation on major University of Newcastle Council decisions, such as this.

The pressure had been mounting with a full-page open letter in the Newcastle Herald, signed by 16 philanthropists who have collectively donated millions of dollars for projects at other universities, saying they would not fund programs at the University of Newcastle while Vaile remained chancellor.

“It is of course up to the council of the University of Newcastle to decide who should lead them. But it up to us to decide which universities we will support,” the letter said.

“As significant donors we write this letter to make clear to the university, that we, and many like-minded others, will not support a university who would choose as their leader someone who is determined to build new coalmines when most of the world is determined to reduce fossil fuel use.”

The letter follows a decision by Professor Jennifer Martin to quit the university council in protest. She said Vaile’s appointment was not aligned with the university’s strategic goals and could damage its reputation. A week later, Eileen Doyle also resigned.

Respected medical academic Professor Nick Talley, a former member of the university’s executive, added his voice, saying it not only sent the wrong message to the community, but raised concerns about the university’s future direction.

John Van Der Kallen, national chair of Doctors for the Environment, said he had donated to the university in the past but, doubted he would be “doing that again”.

“I mean, we’re living in a climate emergency from a health perspective,” Van Der Kallen said. “And we need universities such as Newcastle to lead the way. And here they are putting somebody in charge who has got to have a significant conflict of interest.

“As chairman of a coal company, [Vaile’s] aim is to help that company to prosper when we need the opposite solution.”

Whitehaven Coal is seeking to expand its Vickery coal mine near Gunnedah in New South Wales, a project that was the subject of a recent landmark Federal Court judgment that found the federal environment minister Sussan Ley has a duty of care to protect children from the harmful effects of climate change.

In the judgment, Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg said if the minister approves the mine expansion it may constitute a breach of this duty of care. The ruling lays a legal foundation for the likely federal approval of the mine to be challenged in a follow-up court case.

UON School of Medicine and Public Health Professor Kypros Kypri told the rally: “Even if [Vaile] was a saint, his appointment would be inappropriate because of the fundamental misalignment of the interests of a coal company and the university.”

Student Zack Schofield said he was concerned the process to appoint Vaile had not been democratic. “We don’t know exactly how the appointment was done because the dissenting council members are bound by non-disclosure agreements. I don’t know … any organisation that can claim to be practising good governance behind closed doors.”

Vaile’s appointment was at odds with UON’s Environmental Sustainability Policy, he continued, which “supports environmental sustainability through ethical decision making”.

President of the UON Students Association Luca Harrison said students were planning a rolling schedule of protests — another reason for Vaile to pull out.

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