One of the University of Newcastle's most distinguished academics, Laureate Professor Nick Talley, has voiced concern that the future of the university could be adversely affected by the appointment of former Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile as the new chancellor.
Professor Tally was among about 50 academics and students who turned out on Friday to support Professor Jennifer Martin, who resigned from the university council in protest at the appointment.
"She (Professor Martin) is a very brave woman. She has stuck her neck out and I am proud to be in the same faculty as her and I'm proud to be an associate of hers," Professor Talley said.
"I'm here today because I am cranky. I am cranky and I have good reason to feel this way. Many members of the community are also upset. My friends, my colleagues, everybody has been calling me about this particular issue."
The rally was held on the steps of the recently completed Q Building in Honeysuckle.
The university's council was due to meet at the building but switched back to its Callaghan headquarters at the last minute.
Professor Martin, who has also raised concerns about process by which Mr Vaile was appointed, said she had been overwhelmed by the support from colleagues and wider community following her resignation.
"I think this issue has touched a number of core concerns of the community, not just about this specific issue but the symbols that this issue stood for," Professor Martin said.
Professor Talley, a neurogastroenterologist who has published over 1000 papers in the peer-reviewed literature and who is considered one of the world's most influential clinician-researchers, said the evidence about the impact on climate change was unequivocal.
"I also happen to edit a medical journal. We have partnered with others to provide information about the reality of climate change and the health impact of climate change, which means we have to move from a fossil fuel world to a post-fossil fuel world," he said.
"The University of Newcastle has been a leader in developing new technologies, new approaches to education so that that world will become a reality and it can shape the jobs of the future and the communities of the future."
He said the optics of having a chancellor with close links to the coal industry (Mark Vaile is the chairman of Whitehaven Coal) were concerning.
My concern is that it is not necessarily the right optics for the future of this society and the future of this university.
"I'm deeply concerned about what is happening and I feel, regardless of other issues, we need to let the council and others know that this is a very serious issue," he said.
"The chancellor is like the chair of the company board, a very powerful position, a very influential position and regardless of whether there is any change that comes in the future you could argue that the direction may be deeply affected."
Vice-Chancellor Alex Zelinsky said in a statement following the protest that he supported academics' right to free speech.
"Of course I'm disappointed that there is a single focus on this appointment which has many positive advantages for our institution, most particularly in the role the university will continue to play to help our region's and our nation transition from reliance on the fossil fuel economy to a carbon neutral future," he said.
Mr Vaile's appointment was among the items discussed at Friday's council meeting.
The discussion included a letter tendered by the University of Newcastle Students Association.
"UNSA requests that university council carefully reconsiders the appointment of Mr Vaile as Chancellor," the letter said in part.
"If the appointment goes ahead, UNSA will be forced to consider its options, including the organisation of protests, marches and rallies."
Friday's protest brought to an end one of the stormiest weeks in the university's recent past.
Among those who made their concerns public during the week was university alumnus and Australia Institute chief economic Richard Denniss who returned his 2017 alumni award for national leadership.
"Leadership means not following people down the wrong path. That's why I'm handing my award back because this appointment is the opposite of leadership, it's completely going down the wrong path; it's denial," Dr Denniss said.
The Newcastle Herald understands other senior academics and university benefactors are also considering speaking out publicly about the chancellor appointment.
The Newcastle branch of the Newcastle Tertiary Education Union, which represents academic staff, has also opposed Mr Vaile's appointment.
"Our University and the region deserve better," branch president Dan Conway said.
"While Mr Vaile has had a successful career in politics, it wasn't without controversy. Further, his role as Chairman of Whitehaven Coal is of significant concern."
"Right now, our university is dealing with devastating and ill-considered staff cuts, and we will be reeling from those cuts for years to come.
"We desperately need a Chancellor who understands education and is passionate about repairing the damage that has been done."
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