Mark Vaile quits Newcastle Uni chancellor role amid backlash over coal links

Former deputy prime minister Mark Vaile has walked away from the role of chancellor of Newcastle University amid a mounting backlash from staff, students and potential donors over his links to the fossil fuel industry.

Mr Vaile, the chairman of Whitehaven Coal, was appointed to the role of chancellor earlier this month but resigned on Monday before he had the chance to start in the role.

Whitehaven Coal chairman Mark Vaile has turned down his appointment as chancellor of Newcastle University, following a backlash over his fossil fuel links.Credit:Eryk Bagshaw

The university confirmed Mr Vaile’s decision in an email to all staff members, saying he had decided not to proceed with accepting the role.

“Mr Vaile said that he commends the University for its ethos as a unifying force, of and for our region and the communities it serves. Based on feedback from some of the University’s constituents, he believes that the best course of action is not to proceed with the appointment,” outgoing chancellor Paul Jeans said in the email.

“We respect Mr Vaile’s decision and recognise that he has made this decision in the best interests of the university.”

Mr Vaile was contacted for comment.

His decision not to take up the role was welcomed by the University of Newcastle Students’ Association, which had campaigned against his appointment. In a statement posted to its Facebook page, the association declared it was “delighted that students won”.

“Our university has a strong history as a leader in sustainability, being the first university in Australia to procure a contract to be 100 per cent renewably powered and having a commitment to being carbon neutral by 2025. Our Chancellor needs to reflect that history,” the Association said.

Mr Vaile’s appointment also generated backlash among university staff, prompting the resignation of Professor Jennifer Martin from the University’s council. His role was further imperilled last week when a group of 16 philanthropists and climate activists penned an open letter saying they would not financially support a university led by Mr Vaile.

“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,” the letter, published in the Newcastle Herald, said.

The signatories included entrepreneurs Alan Schwartz and Graeme Wood, former Australian rugby captain David Pocock, and philanthropist Sue McKinnon.

Mr Vaile has been chairman of Whitehaven coal since 2012, which has four mines near Gunnedah in north-west NSW. He was National Party leader and deputy prime minister from 2005 to 2007.

Environmental advocacy group Lock the Gate also celebrated the outcome.

“Appointing the boss of Whitehaven Coal really would have hampered the University in playing a meaningful part in leading us through structural change facing Newcastle and the Hunter region as the world shifts away from coal,” spokeswoman Georgina Woods said.

The university said its council would meet on Tuesday to consider the process for the appointment of a new chancellor.

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