Open Letter to University of Hawai`i President Lassner on the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Email from “UH Leadership”

Dear President Lassner:

I write to protest both the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea and the recent letter from “UH Leadership.”

On the first issue of the construction of the TMT:

I am sure you have seen news regarding the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ call to halt the construction. I consider myself a non-Hawaiian ally of those opposed to the construction. The desecration of a site of such great spiritual and cultural significance to Hawaiians seems to me an unacceptable price to pay for the pursuit of scientific knowledge of uncertain value. I am sure many will dispute that the value is uncertain and also claim that only scientists can make an estimation of scientific value. I differ. Science is nothing if not a social enterprise, judged by its effects on society in general.

Accordingly, for me, the question on the TMT remains: why this site? and why now? Would we allow the building of a telescope on Mt. Kailash (the alleged abode of Shiva)? How about digging under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the pursuit of scientific discoveries? If we would do neither, then why Mauna Kea? Here’s the simple truth: the callous disregard for widespread Hawaiian opinion on Mauna Kea has a basis not in science (no scientist would offer to blow up the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem for scientific gains) but an arrogant and racist attitude that has already caused incalculable harm to the Hawaiian islands.

Just to be clear: I write as an atheist and as someone who has a profound respect for science done the right way. It is far past time for scientists to recalibrate their goals away from resource gobbling billion dollar projects aimed at finding answers that will make little difference to the everyday lives of people, and more particularly in this case Hawaiians. In most cases such projects are covert subsidies to the construction lobby and to “big science.” How refreshing it would be if UH chose to be an example in this regard rather than revealing itself to be a neoliberal colonial institution!

On the second issue regarding a letter signed by “UH Leadership”:

I can only hope that you were ill-advised in this regard. “UH Leadership” is not an entity I am able to find in any of the organizational charts for the university. Does “UH Leadership” mean just you? Or does it include the Board of Regents? How about officers in the upper administration? Which officers?

A letter to the UH community, especially one calling for aloha and respectful engagement, should clearly identify authorship. With a letter such as this, one would wish for the kind of transparency that goes with the aloha and respect the letter itself urges. A letter does not inspire confidence when signed in such a vague manner. This is especially so given the draconian administrative rules targeting the Mauna Kea protectors “UH leadership” has put in place. If the intention of the letter is to suggest that the “UH leadership” is above the fray, I must respectfully submit that that is not the case. By its actions, the “UH leadership”—whatever that might be—is clearly in the process of enabling the side—the corporate interests?—that wants to see the TMT built.

I suppose—one can only hope—it is still not too late to remedy matters. You have often professed a respect for Hawaiian values. This is the time to make that respect clearly manifest. I urge you to stop the construction of the TMT. No doubt, there are multiple players involved, inside and outside the university, but you have a unique position as the President of the university to make things happen. I urge you to take steps.

Thank you for reading. I look forward to hearing from you.


S. Shankar