Morass on the mountain

The University is nudging toward joining the controversial Mount Graham telescope project. Sandra Gardebring, University vice president and the administration’s representative in the matter, said Tuesday that she will recommend the University purchase telescope time atop the Arizona mountain, which many American Indians hold sacred. Despite the potential benefits, the announcement puts the University one step closer to entering a politically-charged morass that will likely harm its public image. In going forward, the University would be aligning itself with a contentious project that has come to symbolize the desecration of native culture, inviting animosity from a wide spectrum of people. For a land-grant institution, this is an unsavory position. Interim University President Robert Bruininks and the Board of Regents would be wise to reaffirm the University’s ethical principles by withholding University membership.

The Mount Graham project has been rife with ill will from the start. Today, nearly 15 years after the University of Arizona initiated the project, there remains a tense climate of allegations and animosity: dirty politics and disinformation. Much of the conflict has been played out in the courts, some of it in protests and property damage. Critics of the recommendation voiced their frustrations Wednesday. Patricia Albers, chair of the University’s American Indian studies department, told a reporter: “It is somewhat disturbing that (the University is) being somewhat dismissive with respect to the spiritual interest of the Apache people.”

To be sure, joining the Mount Graham project would be a boon for astronomical research. Membership would give the University access to the Large Binocular Telescope, the world’s largest and most powerful, slated for completion in 2004. Researchers would use the telescope to learn about the origins of the universe. Stanley Hubbard donated $5 million last year to the University for the project.

Still, in this case, the benefits do not justify the costs. The University, as a land-grant institution, has an obligation not to disrespect the sensitivities of cultural and religious traditions. It also has an obligation to engender goodwill in Minnesota and around the world. In joining the project, however, the University would neglect both.