The governance of the University of Newcastle has been plunged into crisis following the resignation of council member Professor Jennifer Martin over the appointment of new chancellor Mark Vaile, who has strong links to the coal industry.
Professor Martin said she had been inundated with support from colleagues and the wider community for her unprecedented stance.
Mr Vaile, who served as Leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister from 2005 to 2007, is chairman of Whitehaven Coal and holds other board positions.
He is due to take over from incumbent chancellor Paul Jeans on July 1.
Mr Vaile's links to the coal sector are at odds with the university's strategic direction which has been focused on sustainability and clean energy options in recent years.
The Newcastle Herald understands Mr Vaile's appointment was the subject of intense debate among some council members in the weeks leading up to his appointment.
Professor Martin said she felt she was left with no option than to resign from the university's governing body after the institution issued a statement saying council members 'unanimously' supported the appointment.
"In some way I felt pressured to this outcome," Professor Martin, who is chair of clinical pharmacology in the university's School of Medicine and Public Health, said.
"The council members who had misgivings were not given an opportunity to manifest those during the selection process.
"The appointment does not clearly align with the university's strategic plan nor commitment to the Hunter region's economic transition, which were highlighted by recent community engagement with ex chief scientist Alan Finkel and ex Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull."
Professor Martin, who is believed to be the first council member to resign in protest in the institution's history, stressed her action was not motivated by politics or ideology but concern for the region's future.
"I'm a doctor who does good research who happens to be on the council," she said.
"It's not political, it's the optics for the community and what it says about the future of Newcastle that I want to be part of post-coal.
"Hopefully as a result of this people will feel a bit more bold about speaking on this issue."
She said support had come from all sections of the community.
"All of the responses have been saying this (the appointment of a new chancellor) is an opportunity for Newcastle and we need to safeguard it," she said.
The Herald approached Mr Vaile for comment.
Mr Jeans, who has served two terms as chancellor, said the university was disappointed Professor Martin had chosen to resign from the university's governing body.
"The process for appointing our chancellor is long established and was last reviewed in 2016. The process was followed by a chancellor selection committee chaired by the deputy chancellor," he said.
"All council members voted in favour of the appointment. All council members were given the opportunity to meet the preferred candidate.
"Council looks forward to working with Mr Vaile when he starts in July. Our council members are passionate about the university and the opportunity to strengthen its role in this region and beyond."
University of Newcastle alumnus and Labor member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon applauded Mr Vaile's appointment on social media.
"We are fortunate to have secured someone with his profile, experience and expertise," Mr Fitzgibbon said.
However, another alumnus and spokeswoman for Hunter Renewal, Georgina Woods, said Mr Vaile's appointment sent the wrong message to the community.
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"The university should be led by someone dedicated to a strong future for young people, but through his role as chair of Whitehaven, Mr Vaile is putting young people at risk," she said.
"There's a fundamental conflict here, and at the very least, Mr Vaile should immediately resign as chair of Whitehaven.
"The appointment as chancellor of the chair of a coal mining company as notorious as Whitehaven sends the signal that the university is not going to contribute to the region's heroic transformation.
"We had hoped the region's university would play a leadership role in meeting this challenge."
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