THE resignation last Monday of the Chancellor-Elect of the University of Newcastle, Mark Vaile, less than 3 weeks after his appointment, has made it clear that when it comes to climate change and health, leadership symbolism does matter.

Mr Vaile is chairman of Whitehaven Coal, and his appointment to the Chancellorship sparked the resignation of one of our authors (JM) from her position as staff representative on the University Council – a resignation that sparked a protest movement. Then followed an open letter from 16 Australian philanthropists who are sizable donors to environmental and sustainability programs around the country.

“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.”

Climate change is now well documented to have devastating effects on human and environmental health (here, here, here, here and here). These effects will increase exponentially as the planet heats up. It is also well accepted that both economically poor and health-poor groups will be disproportionally affected globally, and as a country with wide health disparity, this differential will be seen in Australia too.

As with other environmental health threats, higher incomes and wellness enable people to make lifestyle decisions to help cope with heat, extreme weather events and higher rates of infectious disease (higher rates of respiratory and temperature-related illness, increased prevalence of vector- and water-borne diseases, food and water insecurity, and malnutrition) although only up to a point. It follows that people without such opportunities, particularly Indigenous peoples, recent immigrants, the elderly, sick or poor, are especially vulnerable to consequences of climate change. From a health perspective then, any opportunity to mitigate climate change should be taken with the expectation that such mitigation will have substantial benefits to human health.

Leaders in the global health space have been recommending health policy changes to mitigate the health impact for over 20 years (here, here, here, here, here and here), including the MJA and InSight+. Many have suggested the broader health care community throughout the world should also engage in recommending non-health policy and practices to reduce the impact of climate change, including those that reduce carbon emissions, reduce and adapt to the effects of climate change and educate the public and policymakers about the health risks coming from climate change.

It was predictable, in this context, that the appointment of a Chairman of a large coal producer to the leadership role of an Australian educational institution with a proud global health role and vibrant academic medical community might cause waves in the health care professions, particularly when no conflict of interest between the two roles was perceived.

Newcastle is a proud regional city rapidly transitioning and preparing for a post-coal future. Many in the community are concerned not just about the health effects but also the subsequent economic consequences of climate change, particularly those who may lose their jobs and livelihoods in the energy transition as well as Indigenous people whose lands are often involved in fossil fuel mines.

There is no doubt that coal mining has played an important role in the economic development of the Hunter Valley, and indeed more widely. There is also no doubt that the decisions made by Australia’s largest trading partners to commit to net-zero emissions and reduce their reliance on coal will have a significant impact on the region. While people around the world are focused on how to rapidly reduce fossil fuel use, concern about how the Hunter will cope with the world’s transition away from coal is a more local concern.

It should have come as no surprise to the Council of the University of Newcastle that their staff, students and the broader community would be deeply concerned by the decision to appoint as Chancellor a person who chairs a coal company that remains determined to build new coal mines.

Although JM’s resignation from the Council was perhaps the spark, resistance to the proposed appointment grew exponentially and from many quarters. Initially, the concern was expressed by staff and students. This University receives significant funding for research and academic staff salaries, so there had been increasing concerns as to how the University would stay solvent as coal support to the University dwindles and remain credible in the eyes of young students looking for a university in which to study.

How attractive would a coal-linked university be for PhD and post-doctoral students looking for future academic opportunities, and for quality academics potentially considering this University as a site for their academic pursuits? In regional cities where a university may be the largest employer, young people are concerned about where their future jobs will come from once coal becomes less relevant to human activity. They are expecting their university to provide leadership in terms of future research, healthcare and advanced manufacturing opportunities, in discovery research around the impacts of climate and technological change and in educational programs that upskill students for a new more sustainable world.

As scrutiny increased in relation to the University’s appointment, so concerns about the effect of coal on health also increased and various groups, including senior doctors, junior doctors, Doctors for the Environment Australia, anti-coal groups, climate change groups, business renewal groups, and unions, mounted independent and coalescing protests, as well as boycotts of donations to the University and full-page statements from school students.

As the days went on after JM’s resignation, it appeared that there were limited opportunities for the University to either defend extricate itself from this decision. In the end, maintaining the University’s reputation and reuniting the “town and gown” behind a post-coal transition leading to the region’s transformation required the University to abandon its decision to appoint Mr Vaile.

Clearly symbolism does matter, and more so for the younger generations who see the appointment as the symbol of the priorities of a university for the next decade, exactly the period in which it is known that thermal coal exports will drop precipitously and their economic options and health potential are threatened.

What is of even more importance is the voice of a citizens’ democracy, particularly when there are powerful and financially wealthy interests involved. It became starkly evident that the calibre of the University and its leadership team matters to the businesses and people of the Hunter. The community clearly expects leadership that looks to the future and directs its efforts to the educational opportunities and research plans required to create net-zero emissions industries and new high skill jobs, as well as addressing major social issues.

While the world’s climate scientists are united that the world is warming dangerously, and the world’s economists agree that it is cheaper to prevent climate change than cope with its consequences, Australian politics remains divided on these issues. However, the Newcastle and Hunter community came together and spoke loudly and clearly against the appointment of Mr Vaile and, by extension, in favour of a Chancellor who can provide leadership, not just to the University of Newcastle, but to the entire region in the critically important mission of economic diversification and more sustainable growth, whether politicians are ready or not.

Jennifer Martin is a physician and clinical pharmacologist at the University of Newcastle and NSW Health.

Richard Denniss is the Chief Economist and former Executive Director of the Australia Institute. He is a prominent Australian economist, author and public policy commentator, and a former Associate Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.


University leadership must reflect the wider community values
  • Strongly agree (59%, 69 Votes)
  • Agree (15%, 18 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (15%, 17 Votes)
  • Disagree (7%, 8 Votes)
  • Neutral (4%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 117

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32 thoughts on “Crisis at University of Newcastle: leadership symbolism matters: UPDATED

  1. David Meldrum says:

    What would our response be if the UoN appointed the chair of Philip Morris as their next chancellor?
    The coal industry uses exactly the same techniques of misinformation, deceit, denial, obfuscation and political lobbying as did the tobacco industry in the 1980s and 1990s.
    The RACGP (1), RACP (2) and RACS (3) recognise the importance of fossil-fuel induced climate change on health, and ask health professionals to speak out on climate change.
    Dr Martin’s resignation and this opinion piece have exposed the conflict of interest that would have resulted from having a coal miner as the chancellor of a major public university. Calling Mr Vaile’s enforced resignation an example of “cancel culture” is laughable and ignorant of the entrenched privilege and lobbying that led to his appointment. It is naïve to think that having a coal miner as chancellor would not have influenced the research direction of the university or the public advocacy of its academics.
    Coming next, the “Rothman’s University of Queensland”, the “McDonald’s University of Melbourne” and the “Coca Cola University of Sydney”?

    1. The RACGP “considers it important for GPs to understand and communicate the causes, health risks and consequences of climate change as well as mitigating actions and adaptation to climate change at individual and population levels”
    2. “The RACP recognises the multiple roles of physicians in promoting action on climate change. These include educating the health sector, raising community awareness, and influencing public policy.”
    3. “Surgeons and other health professionals should be speaking out on the medical consequences of climate change.”

  2. Greg the Physician says:

    The lynch mob mentality of those who attacked the appointment of Mark Vaile is appalling, but not surprising in this time of cancel culture and censorship. The University of Newcastle staff who supported this activism should be ashamed of themselves. Who else can be cancelled? Peter Ridd, Jacinta Price, Tony Abbott…? How dare anyone disagree with the views of the elite. We had better cancel free speech as well …. we can’t possibly allow open, rational debate in case someone is offended by an opinion, or even a scientific fact. It reminds me of the way the establishment of the time tried to shut down Galileo and Darwin.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nobody has robbed Mark Vaile or the Fossil-fuel lobby of the right or the chance to speak, to publicize their opinion or to continue to influence Australian politics in favour of their financial and personal interests, they still do so on a daily level, including axing sitting PMs and party leaders who threaten their profits.
    What has happened is that he has lost his appointment as Chancellor of a publicly funded University due to his position as chairman of a company that exists purely profit from an ongoing increase in the use of fossil fuels.
    Such a position is ethically and scientifically not compatible with current best evidence and science.
    A decision reflecting the importance of scientific teaching had to be made, just as it would have to be should a Scientologist or Q-Anon supporter want to become Chancellor of a scientific institution.

  4. Anonymous says:

    As so many here have commented, the planet faces a climate cataclysm.
    The solution then, rather than virtuous, cost-free symbolism, is for academic empire building and grant tally competition to be put aside, and for the entire research budget of the University of Newcastle to be directed to researching viable, reliable alternative energy sources. In the face of an existential crisis it is obvious that nothing else matters.
    Civilisation will not be weaned off fossil fuels by pious hot air. Unless U of Newcastle can find a way to harness it as a power source.

  5. Andrew johnson. says:

    Rather than cancel culture this seems to be an outcome of freedom of speech over the tyranny of the privileged and politically networked. The national party, still a part of the current administration, is leading the promotion of resources over the protection of land and environment. I am a graduate of Newcastle but have felt for the last ten years it has moved in a very poor direction.

  6. Praful Patel says:

    It is very important issue , for which I fully endorsed the views expressed by John Van Der Kallen,
    I admire the courage of Dr Jennifer Martin .
    An appointment of vice chancellor should be based on future well being of not only of students , but also should be the benefit of wider community.
    Let us all join the force for better healthy universe,

  7. Sue Ieraci says:

    A previous commenter claims “In The Australian today the University stated they had no record of those individuals being donors to the University. Further it was also pointed out that Vaile’s appointment was supported by Jennifer Martin.” and then goes on to assert that “The information in the article is misleading and the MJA needs to ensure it is corrected.”

    Surely Dr Martin herself knows best whether she supported the appointment or not. It seems that it is the news organisation that needs to make the correction, not the MJA.

  8. Dr Alex Wodak AM says:

    In 1824 Joseph Fourier speculated about the possibility of temperatures increasing on earth. In 1896 Svante Arrhenius estimated the size of effect of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide on global temperatures. The debate about the existence, cause and seriousness of Climate Change is now over. It is abundantly clear that continuing use of fossil fuels is a serious threat to life on the planet. Appointing a leader of a fossil fuel company to be Chancellor of a University in 2021 undermines what now has to happen with breathtaking speed. The world including Australia must reduce greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible.

  9. John Iser says:

    Dr Martin’s article more than adequately addresses the evidence of current and future health harms from increasing atmospheric green house gas emissions from unabated fossil-fuel use. There is world-wide recognition that Australia needs to do more of its share to reduce these emissions. Giving academic power to a coal advocate at this time would inhibit progress along this pathway. Dr Martin is to be congratulated on all accounts.

  10. Keith Woollard says:

    The authors refer to an open letter opposing Vaile’s appointment, from 16 sizeable donors to the University. In The Australian today the University stated they had no record of those individuals being donors to the University.
    Further it was also pointed out that Vaile’s appointment was supported by Jennifer Martin.
    The information in the article is misleading and the MJA needs to ensure it is corrected.

  11. Katherine Barraclough says:

    I would like to add my thanks to Dr Martin and all those who spoke out about this appointment – it reflects the sort of leadership that is so very much needed at this point in history. I also think this is entirely appropriate as an Insight+ piece. Climate change has been clearly acknowledged as the greatest health threat facing us this century – not by ‘lefties’ but by most all prominent medical bodies nationally and internationally. Surely this makes it an issue that should be discussed amongst the medical community?

  12. Alastair Leith says:

    @Anonymous drinking in your tears of lost privileged with pleasure. For sure academic freedom is vitally important, but the greater jeopardy to academic freedom along with student learning and careers at University of Newcastle was clearly an allegiance with a sunset industry who’s bosses thumbs their nose at the climate crisis.

    We’ve seen in other universities where resource and fossil fuel interests and donations are exercised that research advocating for a rapid and just transition out of fossil fuels or exposing resource industry disinformation around their emissions seems to dry up seemingly overnight with a change of director here and a board appointment there.

  13. Graeme McLeay says:

    Thank you Dr Martin, for your courage in speaking out on this inappropriate appointment.
    Ideology should not blind people to the inescapable facts of climate science: the world is heating, caused by rapidly rising greenhouse gases (known for over a century), and the burning of fossil fuels is largely responsible (and yes they are “fossil fuels”). This was admitted by Exxon’s own scientists almost forty years ago, before they covered it up.
    It is entirely appropriate for this article to appear in InSight because the health consequences of climate change are acknowledged by all of the major health colleges and journals such as Lancet, NEJM, BMJ, JAMA, and the WHO.
    There are many from the coal, oil, and gas industries, such as Ian Dunlop, who are now leaders in acting on climate change. Mr Vaile however, is still a beneficiary of the coal industry. As chairman of Whitehaven Coal, his appointment was clearly disturbing to many students and members of the academic staff of the University who were rightly worried about the signal that sends to the wider community.

  14. Michael Breakspear says:

    Anthropomorphic climate change has immediate and long standing health impacts including death from increased heat waves (which ++ far outstrip the impact of less cold snaps); also respiratory deaths and harm from burning coal to generate power (which far outstrip the costs of decarbonising the energy sector). Also economic harm and suicide from crop failures and loss of labour hours. Health and economic harms from increased wildfires including the ~$2 billion health costs + >400 smoke-related premature deaths from the 2019 bushfires. Decarbonizing the electricity sector is achievable with current technology but also needs correct policy settings. Far cheaper than the costs of unabated CO2 production. *All* of this is in the peer-reviewed literature which as medical practitioners we should prioritise when contributing to public debate.

  15. Eugenie Ruth Lumbers says:

    The University of Newcastle has been promoting an innovative technology based on generation of Hydrogen. Renewable energy industries will provide future wealth to the Hunter region as the world wide use of coal declines. Facilities that generate Hydrogen using solar , wind and tide and store will provide a sustained supply of energy or to export energy> Exporting energy as hydrogen provides the opportunity for a new export industry that replaces coal. Had the appointment of Mark Vaile, Chair of Whitehaven Coal been allowed to stand it would have destroyed the University’s image in terms of developing this innovative technology to bypass the use of coal.
    To claim that global warming is not anthropomorphic in terms of CO2 and methane production (as well as deforestaton) and to claim that it is not a serous hazard to human health is flying in the face of science.
    Jennifer Martin has taken a courageous stand.

  16. Andrew Jamieson says:

    I wonder if Newcastle University refuses philanthropic donations from “powerful and financially wealthy interests” as well as cancelling presumably extremely well qualified appointments? I also wonder when hospital and medical appointments be made on the basis of views held by candidates and not on their qualifications, medical and patient skills.

  17. Dr Richard Yin says:

    Well done to those within the University of Newcastle for showing leadership on this issue and taking a stand. Dr Martin is doing what more doctors should be doing and taking a stand in support of climate action for health’s sake. As a doctor, I extend my thanks to her for her courage and commitment.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Hardly a crisis.
    Just an average day at the office for cancel culture.
    The only crisis is that the populace now seems so resigned to a small, unrepresentative but noisy group of activists dictating policy decisions totally outside their expertise and pay grade.

  19. Fedora Trinker says:

    I support all of the rational and well presented views with which I am in total agreement. the exception is that of number 11 . I also wonder why Insight thinks it has the brief to promote this “health alarmism” .

  20. Andrew Renaut says:

    As is usually the case, the comments section is far more insightful than the article, particularly in gauging the thoughts of colleagues. Most seem to condemn the author for using this platform to express a personal view, and I consider they are right to do so. It reeks of virtue signalling and hypocrisy, and it brings into sharp focus the relevance of universities in general and whether they are fit for purpose.

    As a surgeon with a strong academic inclination I’ve always been keen to be involved with teaching and worthwhile research but at every turn I’ve come up against people who clearly live in a parallel universe, and I’ve decided to run in the opposite direction very fast.

    There are so many things wrong with this on almost every level. No objectivity, no presentation of evidence about the claims, no attempt to recognise that the way we produce our power cannot be changed overnight (or probably within the next 20 years), no recognition that the perceived health effects of so-called climate change pale into insignificance compared to obesity (as an example). I could go on.

  21. Anonymous says:

    You poll says “leadership must reflect the wider community values.”
    Who determines what those ‘wider community values’ are?
    Consultant Physicians?
    “Significant donors?”
    Editors of medical journals?
    How has it been determined that the energy policy of the both the Governments and Oppositions elected at both state and federal levels, does not reflect ‘community values’?
    Because a Consultant Physician says so??

  22. Anonymous says:

    Planetary Population Overload.
    7.5 billion and rising. It is carbon captured in humans that is the fundamental issue. Not a word about this in the diatribe.
    Also, no attempt made to ‘culture cancel’ Communist China that will continually and massively increase
    air pollution for years to come.
    Picketing their embassy in Canberra would be a far more meaningful and useful action for the authors of this grossly over long inappropriate article for this site. Less is better.

  23. Anonymous says:

    During this pandemic, a major problem has been the unwillingness of citizens to believe that the Profession’s advice is given for apolitical and medical reasons. Lockdowns that ruin small businesses and make people dependent on Government are ‘medically necessary,’ but this is not an easy pill to swallow unless one truly believes that ‘Doctor knows best.’
    One will not believe that “Doctor knows best,’ if one suspects on reasonable grounds that the Doctor is actually motivated by politics, rather than health.
    Medicine, by definition, is an application of the scientific method. Science does not seek political power by silencing opponents and critics. Science seeks truth by means of debate, and it welcomes dissent and criticism.

  24. Bruce Hocking says:

    A university that de-platforms people with views that may not be popular is not worth the name of a university.

    Mark Vaile may well have bought a useful perspective on the effects of downsizing the coal industry on coal miners and coal communities and the role that Newcastle University could have played in making this transition less traumatic.

  25. Alan Wallace says:

    What is this article doing in this journal? This is a place for exchange of ideas directly related to medical practice. The authors are entitled to their views, and to speak freely about them. However, Insight is not the place.

    In future, please limit editorial content to matters relating directly to the practice of medicine

  26. Randal Williams says:

    Regrettably, a good example of the Cancel Culture and very worrying. Not everyone accepts the “climate catastrophe” predictions or completely demonises fossil fuels. Mark Vaile would probably have been a very good Chancellor .

  27. Geoff Martin says:

    Shutting down debate, not hearing the views of somebody with whom you disagree can never, should never, be the approach of a University. Closed-minded academics are a scourge and instead of not appointing Vaile, the Uni should have asked those opposed to his appointment to resign. Weak admin, weak academics and, as a result, a weak Uni. Shame on Newcastle.

  28. James Harrison says:

    If the world is warming significantly (and it isn’t), why is it always bad? Many cold areas will become temperate and better places to live.
    More people die worldwide each year from cold related illness, not heat.
    The lefties always want something new to believe in and a way to control us.

  29. Max says:

    When does ‘citizens’ democracy’ become ‘pitchfork mob’, with metaphorical Robespierre as the end point?
    Pity. Suspect he actually would have been a capable appointment.
    But when symbolism is what matters, ability and merit really aren’t part of the picture as we all know.
    It’s the ‘optics’.
    Or the vibe.
    Yet another institution that will wobble and fall for lack of a spine.

  30. Dr. ARC says:

    There are none so blind as those that will not see. Anthropomorphic production of CO2 is not causing global warming! What is causing slight increase in CO2 levels is the denuding of the planet’s forests, increasing population and volcanic activity.
    Coal fired power stations are the cheapest and most consistent way to generate electricity. We have abundant supplies of coal to last a thousand years and current technology can remove 98% of the CO2 from the burnt gases.
    If you look at climate patterns they change from decade to decade and from century to century. Ten thousand years ago we were just coming out of an ice age. In the last 12 months we have seen record low temperatures in the southern hemisphere, snow fall so heavy as to cause deaths. Very mild summers in the northern parts of Australia and a rise in CO2 levels of 0.03 ppm in the last 50 years. Global warming theorists continue to promote false information because they get paid millions of dollars to do so.
    Remember the Y2K scare and rumour mongering. It cost the world 6000 million dollars. Similarly, the money spent on providing not fit for purpose, alternative means of power generation, could be used to improve the health, living conditions and adequate food, for many of the Australians below the poverty line.

  31. John Van Der Kallen says:

    Doctors have a very important role in the community. Many of the people in the community do not have the means or ability to speak out about issues which effect their communities and their health. It is up to us to do so. Jennifer Martin is one of those people, who at great personal cost, has spoken out. As a profession we should all support her stance and realise that unless we advocate for protecting our health and our futures, then no one else will.

  32. Anonymous says:

    There are far more important issues such as Racial equity – why those very positions which are always occupied by white people that need to be scrutinised. And I think this is where environmentalism becomes environ’mentalism’! Fossils never become fuel (fossil is an organism turning to stone). And you don’t put dinosaurs into buses. All baseless propaganda. How many COVID have to come before we use a thing called thought?

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