University of Hawaii President David Lassner in an unusually long message to students addresses what he calls “one of our most challenging issues in decades” — the deepening divide on campus over the Thirty Meter Telescope issue.

The message, titled “President’s Message to the UH Community on Civility” was posted Thursday on the University of Hawaii News website. It was received by an estimated 83,000 email subscribers including students and professors on all 10 UH campuses, government leaders and others.

It is a calming letter advising the UH community to take a step back and listen to each other no matter how opposite their views.

“We learn from one another when we listen, not when we dismiss,” Lassner writes. “And whether we even realize it when we utter them, hurtful words cut off true discourse.”

Demonstrators found out there would be no arrests today even though the kupuna protestors continued to block Mauna Kea Access Road. July 16, 2019
Protesters have kept the Mauna Kea Access Road closed since July, preventing construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope from beginning. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a phone interview Friday, Lassner said: “ I just wanted to get a message to everyone to cool it.”

He said this is the most tumultuous time he has seen on campus in the six years he has been UH president — a tension between pro and anti TMT students and professors erupting in what he calls “hurtful interactions” on both sides.

Lassner does not discuss in this message specific examples of hurtful behavior dividing students on campus. But in a separate message he apologized for remarks made by UH physics professor John Learned at a TMT symposium during which the professor denigrated the quality of education offered Native Hawaiian students at Kamehameha Schools. Learned also apologized in the same message.

My friends who are students and professors at UH Manoa have told me about pro TMT students commandeering classroom discussions to garner support for the cause. Other friends who oppose TMT but want to stay out of the fray say they have felt pressured by the protesters to take sides.

Lassner says that particularly worrisome to him has been the unfounded contention that the university has not been strong enough in its commitment to indigenous education.

Opponents of the telescope say Lassner is ignoring indigenous education because he personally supports the TMT.

Supporters of TMT say Lassner should not be encouraging indigenous education because many students in Hawaiian studies classes oppose the telescope.

“The best way forward would be to acknowledge there is an important place for culture in the pursuit of knowledge.” — Haunani Kane, scientific director of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

What is sad is Lassner is caught between a rock and a hard place and carrying a burden that should not be entirely on his back.

The state government is responsible for resolving the TMT impasse. It is a policy decision that could have been addressed earlier but is now spiraling out of control because of Gov. David Ige’s inaction and other state leaders’ failure to get on board and help. Nothing will be resolved by waiting it out.

The situation is at a standstill, exasperated by the Ige administration’s hard core negotiating position, which affirms that the telescope will be built with some concessions to the protesters.

In response, TMT opponents have dug in their heels, asserting they are committed to stopping the telescope.

Lassner’s “cool it” message is to be expected from a university president trying to bridge a divide at his institution.

But what is interesting about the message is its many attachments including links to articles by three Native Hawaiian scientists associated with the UH who oppose TMT along with essays by two Native Hawaiian community members who support the telescope.

Among the supporters is Chad Kalepa Baybayan, a navigator on past expeditions of the voyaging canoes Hokulea, Hawaiiloa and Hokualakai.

In his article, Baybayan says since the time of the ancient Hawaiians’ excavations of stones for adzes at Mauna Kea, Hawaiians have used island resources to sustain their communities.

He writes that the Hawaiians at Mauna Kea “reshaped the environment by quarrying rock, left behind evidence of their work, and took materials off the mountain to serve their communities, with the full consent and in the presence of their gods.”

Baybayan says the science of astronomy at Mauna Kea is also in keeping with Hawaiians’ search for knowledge to better their communities.

“Its impact has been positive, introducing the young to the process of modern exploration and discovery, a process consistent with past traditional practices,” he says.

But I learned the most from the essays by the three Native Hawaiian scientists who oppose TMT.

The scientists differed in their content but a common thread ran through each of their compositions:  a call for respect for Hawaiian cultural knowledge and scientific views.

Haunani Kane, scientific director of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, writes: “The best way forward would be to acknowledge there is an important place for culture in the pursuit of knowledge. Scientific efforts must incorporate aloha ‘aina, our love of the land, into their construction projects.”

Native Hawaiian scientist and UH faculty member Rosie Alegado wrote in her essay: “I think we need to halt construction and restart a conversation between the state, the universities and Native Hawaiians about potential alternative futures for Mauna Kea — which include restoring the ecological damage caused by the 13 other telescopes on the mountain and dismantling the five telescopes slated for decommissioning. Such steps would provide credibility that the University of Hawaii recognizes its responsibility to take care of Mauna Kea. Moving the TMT to an alternative site in the Canary Islands should also be seriously discussed in consideration of the community.”

Alegado’s proposal to open up a realistic discussion by both sides about the possibility of moving the TMT to the Canary Islands might be a way to move talks forward in a more promising way than the state is currently pursuing through its negotiator, Hawaii County Mayor  Harry Kim. Kim says the TMT is going to be built at Mauna Kea, period, albeit with concessions to the protesters.

The third essay opposing TMT included in Lassner’s letter is by Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography and Environment at UH Manoa who has an undergraduate degree in environmental engineering from MIT.

Kagawa-Viviani writes that the current way science is practiced in America is a remnant of Manifest Destiny “with a terrible loss for so many indigenous communities.”

“I believe that for us to move forward, for us to de-escalate the current conflict over Mauna Kea, what must change is how we do science,” she writes.

She says there is no single solution to resolve the issues surrounding the TMT but suggests it is time to pay attention to a co-existence of science and culture that has long existed in Hawaii.

“This co-existence is in archaeological alignments … shared from one person to another through stories, exchange, and webs of relationships. We just need to listen, create space, and cultivate,” Kagawa-Viviani writes.

One of my friends says it is too late for this kind of reasoned discourse, that the conversation about the TMT has already hardened into an “us versus them” emotional battle about deeply held values. But in the essays of the three women scientists who oppose the TMT I see hope for moving forward.

And in Lassner’s assertion in his letter of his continuing commitment “to integrate different ways of understanding and systems of knowledge — including those unique to Hawaii — to the benefit and enrichment of all.”

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