Significant donors to the University of Newcastle have blacklisted the institution over its decision to appoint coal mining boss Mark Vaile as its new chancellor.
Mr Vaile is chairman of Whitehaven Coal and served as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister from 2005 to 2007.
His appointment to the chancellor role earlier this month caused a member of the university council to resign and sparked a backlash from leading academics and the student body.
Today, 16 philanthropists who have collectively donated millions of dollars to University of Newcastle projects cut ties with the organisation.
Signatories of a letter published as a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper included entrepreneur Alan Schwartz, former Australian rugby captain David Pocock and philanthropist Sue McKinnon.
“Mr Vaile has played an important role in Australian politics and business, but that role has included questioning the science of climate change and its links to drought,” 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 coal mines when most of the world is determined to reduce fossil fuel use.”
Whitehaven Coal is seeking to expand its Vickery coal mine in the New England region of NSW, a project that is being challenged in the Federal Court on behalf of young people everywhere.
Last year Mr Vaile attacked Australia’s banks, saying they had a moral obligation to fund the nation’s coal industry.
One of Australia’s most respected medical academics, Laureate Professor Nick Talley, last week added his voice to the criticism about Mr Vaile’s appointment.
Professor Talley, who is a former member of the university’s executive, said it not only sent the wrong message to the community, but raised concerns about the university’s future direction.
“It’s more than symbolic, it’s a very important role,” he said.
“I guess one could be concerned that it might impact the directions of the university in the future, and that’s the concern that I and many of my colleagues have.
“It’s also fair to say there’s a bit of a concern about speaking out; the university is going through change — a change of management, if you like — and this worries people, understandably.”
Professor Jennifer Martin from the School of Medicine earlier this month resigned from the university council, saying Mr Vaile’s appointment was not aligned with the university’s strategic goals and could damage its reputation.
A protest last week organised by the University of Newcastle Students’ Association (UNSA) attracted around 50 staff members, students and alumni.
UNSA called on the university council to reconsider its decision and threatened more protests.
It said it would refuse to endorse Mr Vaile unless he resigned from Whitehaven Coal and publicly stated his support for climate action.
‘No change to strategic direction’
Mr Vaile told the ABC it was wrong to assume his two roles presented a conflict of interests.
“I see the different roles as not necessarily being absolutely compatible in everybody’s minds, but they’re not mutually exclusive.”
He said he would not attempt to change the strategic direction of the university.
“One of the first things when I was approached to consider this position was to go and read the current annual report of the university and its values, and particularly the strategic plan and the very strong focus it has of becoming carbon neutral by 2025,” he said.
“If I couldn’t support that, and if I couldn’t commit to achieving that with everybody else in the broader university community, then I wouldn’t consider it.”
The ABC has sought comment from the university.
It previously said it selected Mr Vaile due to his exemplary credentials and strong connection to the Hunter region.
It said his experience with international partners down to the local community would be invaluable.