University faces increasing pressure over appointment of new Chancellor
Staff and students gathered at Callaghan on Friday as part of a snap protest against UON’s appointment of Mark Vaile as University Chancellor. Yak Media was there and investigates the month-long controversy.
A few weeks ago, the University of Newcastle announced The Hon. Mark Vaile would become the institution’s eighth Chancellor on July 1.
In the days following, high-profile academics have been speaking out in disappointment, along with resignations from University Councillors. So is this all a storm in a teacup? Or should students be concerned?
Who is Mark Vaile, anyway?
From 2005 to 2007, Vaile served as Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party. Prior to that, he served as Minister for Trade where he is credited with organising the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement and other key international dealings.
Vaile left Parliament in 2008 and entered the private sector, sitting on the boards of ASX-listed companies including HostPlus and Virgin Australia. Controversially to students and staff of UON, he is the Chairman of Whitehaven Coal, a company which operates four Upper Hunter mines.
Vaile’s appointment comes just three years after the launch of the University’s 2019-2025 Environmental Sustainability Plan, which begins with a message from Vice Chancellor Alex Zelinsky:
“…we are conscious that our pivotal role in promoting and increasing understanding of the [UN] Sustainable Development Goals begins within the grounds of our own campuses. We recognise that through research, knowledge and actions, we can help shape the future towards a sustainable world.”
A small number of students were gathered at Friday’s rally at Park on the Hill. University of Newcastle Students’ Association President, Luka Harrison, told Yak Media the organisation had been contacted by students and staff who have raised concerns over Vaile’s appointment as Chancellor.
Those present cited the hypocrisy of labelling the University as a leader in climate action, while appointing the Chair of an Upper Hunter coal company to its most symbolic position. But outrage over Mark Vaile’s appointment has not been limited to students.
University Council member Professor Jennifer Martin resigned earlier this month, citing her disillusionment with the process used to elect Mr Vaile. She told the Newcastle Herald that while the University promoted his appointment as ‘unanimous,’ some members of the Council had in fact objected.
That assertion was seemingly supported on Wednesday by the resignation of another Council member, Dr Eileen Doyle. However, it is unclear whether her decision to leave the Council was related to the new Chancellor’s appointment.
Interestingly, Dr Doyle has served as the Chair of Port Waratah Coal Services, worked in senior operational roles at BHP Limited and is a present non-executive director of Papua New Guinea company, Oil Search Limited. Certainly, exiting Chancellor Paul Jeans told the Newcastle Herald Dr Doyle had been planning to resign for some time due to an overabundance of work commitments.
But the biggest shock wave was felt on Friday morning as 16 philanthropists, known for supporting the University of Newcastle, announced they would be closing their purse strings to the institution, taking out a full-page advertisement in the Newcastle Herald to do so. The influential group, made up of names like Wotif founder Graeme Wood, told the Financial Review they weren’t going to be “parties to climate change.”
The move could result in the University losing millions of dollars in donations.
Speaking on Friday morning at the Callaghan protest, UON Alumni and Greens candidate Sinead Francis-Coan expressed concern over Vaile’s appointment.
Highlighting the University’s ongoing commitment to climate action, Francis-Coan said the appointment of “someone coming from a Whitehaven Coal background and someone who has been quite active in the political space through different lobby groups and different political groups in delaying climate action” was inconsistent with UON’s position on climate action and sustainability goals.
She listed numerous environmental offences committed by Whitehaven Coal, including habitat destruction, breaching exploration licenses and illegally taking water, resulting in successful prosecutions and heavy fines against the company.
“This is a track record of attempting to buy political influence as an organisation and complete disregard for any kind of consequence, pay a fine and move on, there’s no, no, demonstration of any attempts to avoid any repeat offences,” she said.
Francis-Coan’s concerns over Vaile’s ties to Whitehaven Coal were later echoed by Professor Kypros Kypri of the School of Medicine and Public Health, who told the crowd, “The key issue is the conflict of interest. The interests of a coal company cannot be reconciled with those of a public university.”
Similarly, student and President of the UON Chess Club, Zack Schofield, raised issue with Vaile’s long standing ties to the coal industry.
Schofield also raised concerns with the appointment process, saying “… the appointment was done in closed session. Now, we don’t know exactly how the appointment was done because the dissenting council members are bound by non-disclosure agreements.”
Schofield called for greater transparency from the University Council and encouraged people to email the Council demanding more information. Schofield also suggested people to forward their concerns to Mark Hoffman, UON Deputy Vice Chancellor, and to the Newcastle Herald.
Mitch Whaley, student and UNSA Education Committee member, also spoke at Friday’s protest. Whaley raised concern over Vaile’s role as a Board Member for GEMS Education, one of the world’s largest private school operators.
“Vaile is on record, has voiced his support for the for-profit private education system to come into Australia, and he was actually part of the trade negotiations that opened up easier access for these kind of companies to come into Australia,” Whaley said.
Privatisation of higher education in Australia is nothing new; but Whaley highlighted concerns over the increasing privatisation of TAFE and Universities across Australia.
“Someone like Mark Vaile is only going to open the door further for more private and for-profit education options to rear their ugly heads, and I think that’s a big cause for concern,” Whaley said.
Robert Creech, from the International Youth and Students for Equality, then took the opportunity to speak about massive job losses at Australian universities. “I think, regardless of who is appointed as Chancellor, there’s no demand being made at this rally about opposing the job cuts taking place at this University, and this is going to continue.”
Creech told the crowd, “There’s about 164 full time equivalent jobs being cut at this University, and it will result in lower quality courses, larger class sizes, less opportunities to develop quality graduates. About 530 of 2200 university courses are being cut.”
Creech closed by saying the protest over the appointment of Vaile as Chancellor was a “diversion from the central issue – we should be opposing these job cuts at the University and fight to defend equality education.’
Addressing the turmoil, Mark Vaile defended his suitability for the Chancellor role in an opinion piece from UON Newsroom published on Thursday:
“The education sector has a critical role to play in this challenge. If we are to stop dangerous climate change, we need to commercialise our University research so we create the industries of tomorrow and we need to educate our young people in new ways and retrain those already in the workforce.”
Maintaining he is the right man for the job, Vaile said he was drawn to the position because of the University’s Strategic Plan, Looking Ahead.
“I want to use my broad portfolio of experience alongside Council members to champion this plan,” he said.
Vaile highlighted his background in politics, the energy sector and education, and emphasised his commitment to a transition to renewable energy.
“I strongly believe that if we are to address the challenges of human-made climate change, we must help our industries and our communities to transition our energy sector – there is no place in this country where this challenge is more important than in the Hunter.”
Authors Callum Pull, Lauren Freemantle and Leanne Elliott.
Images by Leanne Elliott and Lauren Freemantle, Staff Writers.