Prominent philanthropists have said they will not donate to the University of Newcastle after coalmining executive Mark Vaile was appointed the institution’s new chancellor.

Vaile, a former federal Nationals leader and the current chairman of Whitehaven Coal, was named the university’s new chancellor earlier this month, a decision that prompted a member of the university council to resign.

In a sign of further backlash, 16 philanthropists wrote in an open letter published on Friday that they would not support the university given Vaile’s appointment.

“It is of course up to the council of the University of Newcastle to decide who should lead them,” the letter, published in the Newcastle Herald, said.

“But it up to us to decide which universities we will support. 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 coalmines when most of the world is determined to reduce fossil fuel use.”

Among the signatories were entrepreneurs Alan Schwartz and Graeme Wood, the former Australian rugby captain, David Pocock, and philanthropist Sue McKinnon.

They noted that Whitehaven Coal was seeking to expand the Vickery coalmine in northern New South Wales. The proposal was the subject of a recent landmark federal court judgment that found the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, had a duty of care to protect young people from the climate crisis.

The letter follows a decision by Prof Jennifer Martin, from the school of medicine, to quit the university council in protest, while the University of Newcastle Students’ Association has also called on the university to reconsider.

In response to the criticism, Vaile acknowledged in an op-ed for the Newcastle Herald that there had been “questions, of course, about how my background does or doesn’t fit with what the university and our region needs”.

He said he was “excited” to be able to help the university deliver on its “commitment to become carbon neutral by 2025”.

“While people often hear about my experience in Australia’s well-established industries in the energy sector, including Whitehaven Coal, they may not be as familiar with other areas of my portfolio,” Vaile said.

“For example, I am the chair of Palisade Investment Partners – an organisation that has $1bn of assets under management in wind and solar energy technologies.

“I strongly believe that if we are to address the challenges of human-made climate change, we must help our industries and our communities to transition our energy sector – there is no place in this country where this challenge is more important than in the Hunter.”

Vaile said it could not be an “ideological debate of coal versus renewables”.

His critics, writing in their open letter, pointed to the university’s motto “I look ahead” and said his appointment “speaks volumes”.

“Mr Vaile has played an important role in Australian politics and business, but that role has included questioning the science of climate change and its links to drought, and leading companies that are determined to build new coal mines,” they wrote.

Vaile was the Nationals leader and deputy prime minister from 2005 to 2007 and has been chairman of Whitehaven Coal since 2012.

The ABC reported Vaile as saying he believed his role as Whitehaven chairman and his post at the university were “not mutually exclusive”.

He said he would not attempt to change the strategic direction of the university and was committed to its pledge to be carbon neutral by 2025.

Approached for comment by Guardian Australia, the university pointed to Vaile’s op-ed published by the Newcastle Herald this week.

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