Advocates urge UC to divest from Maunakea telescope, direct funds to COLA

Mauna Kea Protectors/Courtesy

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Student advocates visited the UC Office of the President, or UCOP, in Oakland on March 2 to demand the UC system to divest from the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, project on Maunakea and direct funds toward a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, for graduate student employees.

About 16 people went in an effort to speak with UCOP Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Singh Bachher about their demands. The group delivered letters from UC Berkeley staff and several student associations to Bachher’s executive assistant, as Bachher was out of the office. The group also requested a future meeting with Bachher to discuss divestment from the telescope project on Maunakea, which is a sacred mountain to Native Hawaiians.

“The denial of COLA and the insistence of the Thirty Meter Telescope really shines a light on where the UC’s priorities lie,” campus senior Bria Puanani Tennyson said in an email. “Divesting from the TMT would provide COLA for all. The money is there. The UC wants to see the stars but it doesn’t see the people, sadly even their own people.”

Tennyson added that Mauna Kea Protectors at UC Berkeley works in partnership with graduate students at UC Santa Cruz, or UCSC, who are members of another active organization advocating for TMT divestment as well. Some of these UCSC graduate students were among the 54 graduate student employees striking for COLA whom UCSC fired Feb. 28 after strikers rejected UCSC’s proposed concessions.

Prior to firing the 54 graduate student employees, UCSC offered them an annual $2,500 stipend increase, which was far from the strikers’ demand of monthly stipend increases totaling $16,800 a year.

Since UCSC graduate students began striking, UC Berkeley graduate students have protested in solidarity on multiple occasions. About 500 students protested on Sproul Plaza and marched to “liberate” Crossroads dining hall in solidarity Feb. 21.

Mauna Kea Protectors has found a link between the COLA fight and its own campaign to avoid an “unethical violation of indigenous peoples rights,” according to Tennyson. The students ask that the university divest from the TMT project and instead invest in its students, lecturers and employees.

If constructed, the TMT would be one of the world’s most powerful telescopes, providing images about 10 times sharper than comparable telescopes, according to UCOP spokesperson Stett Holbrook. The project will also create the TMT International Observatory on Maunakea as part of a partnership between the UC system and the California Institute of Technology, in addition to other organizations from Japan, China, India and Canada.

“We recognize the unique nature of Maunakea and respect the universal esteem in which it is held by native Hawaiians,” Holbrook said in an email. “Many Hawaiians and others believe that Maunakea is sacred and can still be home to astronomy.”

Contact Rachel Barber at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.