Telescope deal approved amid angry protests

Brad Unangst

The University’s Board of Regents approved Friday the purchase of a $5 million share of a telescope in the controversial Mount Graham International Observatory amid opponents shouts of protest.

The telescope project, located on a mountain considered sacred by Apache Indians in Arizona, has sparked debate and protests in Minnesota for more than a year.

The 7-2 vote marked a departure from the regents’ seemingly “of one mind” voting pattern. Regents Anthony Baraga and Lakeesha Ransom dissented. Regents Jean Keffeler and William Hogan were not in attendance.

Regents called the decision troubling; they said it was tough to approve the project knowing the University’s participation would harm its credibility with the American Indian community.

Regent Robert Bergland, citing his experience living and working with the Minnesota’s northern American Indian tribes, said his mind was at rest on his decision to approve the project.

Commending the way opponents presented their side of the argument to the board, Regent Frank Berman said those issues should be directed at the University of Arizona because the University was late in signing on to the project.

“The telescope is there. The damage is already done,” he said.

Baraga said he could not recommend “from my heart” going forward with the project. He said he was leaning toward approving the project until hearing the concerns from Apache Indians in person.

“If it’s not right, it’s not right,” he said.

Protestors called out “shame on you” asking “how do you sleep at night?” as Regents Chairwoman Maureen Reed called for a recess following the vote.

“You people have no conscience. How can you turn your backs on us?” said Sandra Rambler, a traditional Apache from Arizona.

Protesters approached the regents meeting table and were quickly detained by University police. One protester was led away in handcuffs and released shortly after. No one was arrested.

Police allowed protesters to remain in the board meeting room to voice their concerns. The protesters left within an hour, but not before more protesting words.

Several called the regents’ decision unethical and immoral and referred to the regents as “retarded.”

The Large Binocular Telescope, which cost $110 million, is one of three telescopes housed on Mount Graham, part of the Pinaleno Mountain Range in southeastern Arizona. Two telescopes are operational, and the Large Binocular Telescope is scheduled to be finished in the spring of 2004.

The mountain is 30 miles from the San Carlos Apache Reservation and is a religious site for the Apache people.

Rambler said that the regents’ decision was based on money and did not take cultural and spiritual issues into consideration. Rambler said Thursday she is considering filing an injunction to stop University involvement.

Michael Nixon, the attorney for the Mount Graham Coalition and the Apache Survival Coalition, said a decision to move ahead with the court order would be decided after consulting with the groups.

“If they want a legal battle, we’ll give them a legal battle,” Nixon said.

The board’s decision effectively ends the University’s formal debate on the telescope.

Regents said the dissenting votes do not indicate a rift on the board.

Baraga said it would not be in the University’s best interest if regents always thought the same.

“We can’t always be 100 percent behind all issues,” he said.

Reed, who voted to approve the project, agreed with Baraga and said it is very important for the regents to voice their concerns and vote their conscience.

She added the board will move on, and the dissenting votes do not indicate a divided board.

“If anything, this solidifies us,” she said.

But the Mount Graham issue might have created an issue for the board’s student representatives.

Allison Rhody, chairwoman of the student representatives, said prior to Thursday’s meeting they were divided over the project. But following the meeting they agreed to ask the board to table the motion, given the scope of the project’s controversy.

“We feel this is a bad investment right now,” she said.

The student representatives said they had hoped to voice their opinion to table the resolution at Friday’s board meeting but were denied.

Reed said student representatives are allowed comment in committee meetings but not at full board meetings. She said the exception was denied because the board needed closure on the issue.

“We need to have a larger conversation on what our role is on the board,” Rhody said.

The motion was brought before the board with a commitment from the University of Arizona to improve Apache access to the mountain. University of Arizona President Peter Likins, in a letter sent to the board Thursday, said the institution is committed to working with Apache Indians by creating an advisory committee to help resolve issues surrounding Mount Graham. But, he added, the university does not control access to the mountain, which is under jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service.

But access is not an issue for the Apaches, who said the only acceptable alternative is to remove the telescopes from the mountain completely.

To clarify the Apache position regarding the offers intended to help appease the American Indians, opponents drafted a letter to the board. The letter, presented Friday, stated that the observatories’ metal foundation rods “are like pins in the skull of our creator. Ö This is killing us. Our culture is being destroyed.”

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg, whose office is working on securing the Arizona commitment, agreed that any process for resolution of access disputes will have to involve the U.S. Forest Service, but the agreement reached with Arizona will provide some leverage.

Astronomy department chairman Leonard Kuhi said the approval provides the University with access to a telescope that will vault the department into the nation’s top tier.

“It’s not just access to the LBT, but the entire suite of telescopes,” Kuhi said.

The contract allows the University nine viewing nights on the Large Binocular Telescope and approximately eight nights that can be traded for access to more nights on other project telescopes.

Officials said the telescope – which uses two giant mirrors to see farther into space, allowing astronomers to learn more about the origins of the universe – will be the world’s most powerful.

Kuhi said the first payment of $1 million is due in January and the University is responsible for paying approximately $190,000 in yearly operating costs.

The University received a $5 million donation from Hubbard Broadcasting in January 2001 to purchase a 5 percent share in the telescope.

On Sept. 30, interim University President Robert Bruininks endorsed the project in a letter to both supporters and opponents.

To balance the Apache’s cultural values and the University’s research opportunities, Bruininks recommended five additional actions, including creating a cultural advisory committee and hiring a cultural liaison to work with the Apaches on the mountain’s use.

Other actions include providing educational and employment opportunities to Apache tribe members and a plan to improve K-12 literacy and public health within the tribe.