Statement from the Chancellor

Monday, 5 July 2021

A university is by its very essence — universitas magistrorum et scholarium — a community of teachers and scholars and is the bedrock for higher teaching and learning; for research; for the discovery and development of new ideas – all for the betterment of individuals and society.

Paul Jeans

The recent media coverage and public debate concerning Mr Mark Vaile’s appointment as Chancellor of the University of Newcastle, and the campaign in opposition to that appointment, raises a number of important issues such as the role of universities in today’s society, freedom of speech, plurality in a diverse community, and good governance.

These issues need to be aired and considered in an objective, unemotional way and in a broader societal context, as they underscore the potential dangers of special interest groups hijacking the fundamental role of universities in particular and public institutions generally.

In June 2021 the Council of the University of Newcastle, the University’s governing body, extended an invitation to Mr Vaile to become the University’s next Chancellor. The decision to offer Mr Vaile the position was agreed by the whole Council following an established, thorough process. Mr Vaile had served as Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, had a long connection with our region and very strong connections in business and government particularly into the Asia-Pacific— something necessary in our interconnected world. Mr Vaile had much to offer.

Some opposition was voiced against Mr Vaile’s appointment. Those opposed, were well organised and conducted their campaign through the print and social media. Some loud voices came from individuals who have had no association with the University of Newcastle or connection with the region it serves.

While Mr Vaile has a broad range of business interests, including renewable energy, his Chairmanship of Whitehaven Coal was seen by some as a sufficient reason for opposing his appointment and demanding that the University rescind the invitation. Throughout this, the University Council reiterated its commitment to his appointment. Despite having the Council’s confidence, Mr Vaile made the difficult decision not to proceed, as he believed that this course of action was in the best interests of the University. The Council respects his unilateral decision.

But the sequence of events raises broader concerns for the future.

A false impression has been created, by virtue of the invitation to Mr Vaile, and implicitly due to the Hunter Region having a strong industrial base and long association with the resources sector, that the University of Newcastle is not addressing the climate challenges we all face. Quite the contrary. In the fields of energy and resources, we are leaders in conducting important research which is developing tomorrow’s technologies for renewable energy generation, transmission and storage.

In The Times Higher Education Rankings 2021 we are ranked #1 in the world for partnering for a more sustainable future. This reflects the work we have been doing with industry partners to increase energy efficiency and thus reduce greenhouse emissions. That we are imbedded in a community with a rich industrial heritage only facilitates this. We recognise that the University has a very important role to play in the Hunter’s transition to a new energy economy, and we remain committed to the University itself being carbon neutral by 2025.

The Council of the University has 16 members drawn from the community, industry, academia and the student body. Some are appointed by the Government pursuant to the Act of Parliament which provides the legal framework for the University. Best practice dictates that governing bodies draw upon individuals who in aggregate bring to the table the broadest range of experiences, knowledge, connections and viewpoints.

As with all effective governing bodies, there are differences of opinions — that is the nature of healthy debate and is a function of the diversity the Council takes pride in. No idea or concept is ever diminished by being challenged. Ultimately, after taking into account all viewpoints, the Council, as it must, makes decisions so the University can move forward and continue to thrive.

Our Council is reviewed at least bi-annually by independent experts in the higher education sector and has been found consistently to be highly effective. And to ensure proper processes and governance procedures are maintained, the Council regularly reviews its policies and procedures.

There is a broader, more fundamental issue, particularly relevant to universities. Universities must champion open enquiry and academic freedom, including freedom of speech. No one group should dictate to another nor seek to impose its will on any ground. All views are welcome and scholarship is only strengthened through vigorous debate.

The exclusion of individuals from the university community on the basis of views that might not universally appeal, or the dominance of one viewpoint advanced by any group, is contrary to that ethos. If this was to occur, the University would become an insular, inward looking institution, serving only a narrow group.

The University of Newcastle is committed to delivering world class educational outcomes for its community, the region and the nation. It is committed to freedom of speech and tolerance of all viewpoints. To grow and prosper, it will remain open to all ideas and welcome every individual with a contribution to make.

P.E. (Paul) Jeans

Chancellor, University of Newcastle

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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.