UC should divest from Thirty Meter Telescope project on Maunakea

UNIVERSITY AFFAIRS: Supporting the telescope continues a legacy of expropriation of sacred Indigenous land that UC should reject at long last

Illustration of hands pulling apart Mauna Kea and placing an observatory on top of it
Rachel Lee/Staff

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Since 2014, the University of California has been a central supporter of, and investor in, the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, a proposed observatory on the island of Hawai’i.

In the seven intervening years, however, it’s become clear the UC system should promptly denounce and divest from the project.

If constructed, the telescope would be the largest visible-light telescope in the world, with cutting-edge technology that would spur groundbreaking research not yet possible in the field of astronomy. The TMT is a scientific advancement the UC system would be honored to help lead.

But the site where the instrument is set to stand — Maunakea, a mountain with great cultural significance to Native Hawaiians — makes the situation infinitely more complex.

Maunakea is the origin of Native Hawaiian cosmology. It is the center of beginning of Hawai’i, home to shrines and altars linking Native Hawaiians to their ancestors. The ground itself is treasured: Native Hawaiians say any changes to the physical landscape would sever the spiritual and genealogical connections they have to Maunakea and the culture it holds.

Constructing the TMT on the mountain, then, would not only permanently alter the field of astronomical science; it would irretrievably desecrate sacred Indigenous land.

This is a solemn and unconscionable trade-off the UC system simply cannot condone.

Since the TMT project broke ground in 2014, efforts to construct the telescope on or near Maunakea’s summit, already dotted by 13 other telescopes, have been met with defiant protest. A poll conducted in 2019 revealed that 63% of Native Hawaiians oppose the project. 

It’s time the University of California heeded their calls.

Considering the UC system’s history as a land-grant institution erected on territory seized from California Natives, it’s difficult to fathom how the university can justify expropriating even more Indigenous land. 

In seeking to reconcile its harmful past, the UC system has often made a point of honoring the history of Indigenous peoples in California, vowing to respect the rights of the many tribes the university has repeatedly wronged. While the UC system is only one of many proponents of the TMT project, revoking its support for the desecration of Maunakea would be a resounding statement of principle and demonstration of solidarity. 

Recently, there have been efforts by proponents of the project to collaborate with Native Hawaiians — a gesture of acknowledgment that shouldn’t go unnoticed. But years of steadfast opposition by a majority of Native Hawaiians, including highly respected elders, have made their position clear.

It’s important to note that denouncing the current TMT proposal is not to oppose its construction entirely: Native Hawaiians largely support the research the telescope would inspire on any number of alternative sites considered by the board of the TMT. But to many, another telescope on Maunakea is not worth further destruction of their sacred ground. 

It shouldn’t be for the UC system, either.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.