Incoming University of Newcastle chancellor Mark Vaile does not believe his role as chairman of Whitehaven Coal is incompatible with championing the institution's ambitious sustainability goals.
"They are not mutually exclusive, that is the most important point I want to make," he told the Newcastle Herald on Wednesday.
Mr Vaile, who served as Leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister from 2005 to 2007, will take over as chancellor on July 1.
But a storm of controversy has erupted since news of Mr Vaile's appointment broke last week, with many voicing concern that his links to the fossil fuel sector are at odds with the university's strategic focus on sustainability and clean energy in recent years.
Professor Jennifer Martin, who resigned from the university's council in protest at the appointment and process by which it was made, has been inundated with support from colleagues, students and the community.
In response, Mr Vaile said the compatibility of his corporate relationships with the university's vision had been subject of discussion with the university selection committee in recent months.
He said he was "surprised and disappointed" by Professor Martin's resignation but he respected her position.
"Look, we have to respect her point of view and of others," he said.
"That's the environment we live in in Australia and in the university environment the concept of freedom of speech is absolutely sacrosanct. University campuses are the oracle of being able to express points of view that are vastly different from others."
Mr Vaile said he "completely accepted and was aligned with" the university's stated values and strategic plan. Central to the institution's plan is a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2025.
However, the pace and challenges associated with the transition towards a clean energy economy differed from one sector of the economy to another.
"Most of the developed economies across the world are committing to net zero by 2050. The Australian Government has indicated that as an aspiration at the moment," he said.
"That gives guidance to all sides of this debate about what needs to be done. I think it is entirely commendable that , as the iconic institution in the Hunter, the university has set an ambitious goal but one that is clearly achievable by 2025.
"Conversely the traditional fossil fuel industry has got to work on how it is managing that transition through to 2050."
Since leaving Federal Parliament in July 2008, Mr Vaile has embarked on a career in the private sector and has served on the boards of a number of ASX-listed companies and large organisations including Servcorp, StamfordLand, HostPlus, Virgin Australia, 123 Education China, Whitehaven Coal, CBD Renewable Energy, and Palisade Investment Partners.
Mr Vaile said his extensive experience in government and public policy would also assist the university moving forward.
"From time to time there are very important and weighty issues that the university sector needs to prosecute with government at a state and federal level. I have a complete understanding of how that works."
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Mr Vaile, who lives in the Manning Region, said it was essential that the university continue its proud tradition of providing equity of access to higher education.
"There has been an enormous amount of effort put into getting the institution to the point where it is today. It must continue to provide very broad and equitable access to young generations coming forward to receive the receive the education that they are entitled to."
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