Telescope project pits one U arm against another

When I first learned about the Mount Graham telescope project, its use as a place for astronomical research and the Vatican’s involvement in that research, I became fascinated with the possible implications of the University’s investment in such endeavors. I became so interested that I shifted my academic path away from early 19th-century black American history and changed my dissertation topic to concentrate on American Indian history, sacred sites and, of course, Mount Graham.

Academic freedom

A great deal of the debate during the University Senate meeting Oct. 30, where the University will be asked to approve a measure calling for divestment from the Mount Graham telescope project, might center on issues regarding academic freedom. Astronomers contend they do not interfere with the work conducted in the humanities and social sciences, so why should faculty in the College of Liberal Arts interfere with their research? But why should we privilege one form of knowledge over another? Are the various American Indian communities’ arguments worth less than those of scientific communities?

Some have called the controversy “science versus religion.” Our American Indian studies department argues otherwise.

“From our perspective, this is not a matter of religion against science. Apache ways of knowing the world also include processes of empirical observation that stand at the foundation of Western science. The difference as in all other comparisons of science and religion is that the two ultimately rest on fundamentally different ontological premises,” noted a recent letter to the University Senate.

The American Indian studies department is the oldest of its kind in the United States. And, while the University seal includes a telescope, it is the American Indian studies department that speaks to a broad constituency. It lives up to the University’s land grant mission to directly serve the communities of this state and the states on its borders.

While the resolution does not specify how the University’s astronomy department should conduct its research, it acknowledges that one arm of the University is working in opposition to another arm. This creates a scenario where the work of one department (American Indian studies) is valued less than that of another (astronomy).

This situation is not about academic freedom but academic integrity and responsibility.

Academic integrity

The University expects the telescope project to attract more research funding. But this is not solely an issue about the bottom line; it is about academic integrity. Research is not conducted in a vacuum. Although I received approval from the University’s Institutional Review Board for my research that affects Apache people in Arizona, the astronomers – whose research is certainly more damaging to Apache people – did not. Although my dissertation is about the various struggles over Mount Graham from 1871 to the present, I have never been asked to comment about the University’s investment in the project, nor have my requests for meetings with former University President Mark Yudof and current University President Bob Bruininks, various University administrators or the Board of Regents (aside from Regent Lakeesha Ransom, who voted against the investment) been honored.

After the American Indian studies department, the Senate Social Concerns Committee and the University President’s American Indian Advisory Board, among others, suggested in 2002 that the University wash its hands of the telescope project, they stepped back and assumed their suggestions would be taken seriously and honored by the University president, Executive Vice President and Provost Christine Maziar, Vice President for University Relations Sandra Gardebring, astronomers like Len Kuhi and the regents. They assumed they would be contacted again if University officials were still considering joining the project. A statement from the American Indian studies department recently said: “We were not even given the courtesy of meeting with central administration officials, and we were never given the opportunity to bring our case before any deliberative body of the Unxiversity.”

The American Indian studies and astronomy departments cannot both get what they want. The money and prestige the Mount Graham International Observatory will bring the University comes at a cost. However, faculty should remember the word “prestige” derives from the Latin praestigium, which means a delusion or illusion. If astronomers admit their work does irrevocable harm to the Apache people – and there are other sites for the research – the University can reach a settlement in which all sides’ needs have been satisfactorily addressed.

Joel Helfrich’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]