U Social Concerns Committee examines Mt. Graham telescope

by Tom Ford

University Social Concerns Committee members expressed strong apprehension Monday over the institution’s possible part ownership of a controversial Arizona telescope observatory, calling it violence against indigenous culture.

With a $5 million grant received in January 2001, the University is able to purchase a 5 percent share of viewing time on the Large Binocular Telescope being built at the Mount Graham International Observatory. The Board of Regents must authorize the purchase.

Operated by the University of Arizona, the observatory sits approximately 30 miles from the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

Objections to University involvement arose last December, particularly from the American Indian community. Opponents said the observatory desecrates areas held sacred by the local Apache community.

But University astronomy department members said this project offers a major research opportunity and believe compromises between cultural concerns and participation can be reached.

University President Mark Yudof has delayed a decision on participation.

While involvement with the observatory would be “invaluable” to the institution’s astronomers, the University must better understand the cultural concerns surrounding involvement, Yudof said.

He said the partnership will not be finalized until the University meets with American Indians in Minnesota and Arizona.

In an initial report, Social Concerns Committee Chairman Robert Brown wrote that the observatory has scientific merit and would provide an advantage to University astronomers.

But he said the case for science hasn’t been adequately articulated, and involvement would violate the sacred ground of Mount Graham.

“On ethical, material, political and cultural grounds, we cannot afford to join the project,” the report said.

Members of the University’s American Indian community have voiced similar concerns.

In February, the University’s American Indian Advisory Board recommended against participating in the project.

During the last few weeks, several American Indian studies department staff members prepared a letter opposing involvement, which will be sent to Yudof.

Vikki Howard, the department’s community relations coordinator, said the project steps on tribal rights in the name of “big money,” which she said has been typical of U.S. relations with American Indians.

“I think (this project) is another high-powered infraction upon the indigenous rights of Native Americans,” Howard said.

But Leonard Kuhi, head of the University’s astronomy department, said the department has sought involvement in a telescope project for 20 years. Having access to the LBT – which will be more powerful than the Hubble satellite – would put the University astronomy researchers “on the national map,” he said.

“It’d really be bad news if we lost that all now,” Kuhi said.

Kuhi said he expected the partnership to be already finalized. But since the LBT won’t be completed until 2004, he said, recent delays wouldn’t affect any planned research.

In light of Yudof’s intention to consult with many stakeholders before the University makes a commitment, Kuhi said delays are appropriate.