In the past week, dozens of UC Santa Barbara students have taken to social media — using petitions and open letters — to express their opposition to Chancellor Henry T. Yang and the University of California’s joint involvement with the Thirty Meter Telescope Project, a decade-long endeavor on Hawaii’s Big Island that has drawn national attention and fierce backlash from local residents.
The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project has faced protests and lawsuits due to its location, Mauna Kea, which was chosen in 2009 after a five-year search. While Mauna Kea is on the short list for many stargazers due to its dry climate and altitude, it is also sacred ground for Native Hawaiians, who have opposed the project for years.
Protests became more frequent in the past week after Hawaii Gov. David Ige gave the project’s construction a green light, leading local residents to block access to the construction site. The protest is ongoing and has resulted in dozens of arrests.
But it was only in the last week, following national attention surrounding the protests, that UCSB students discovered Yang is the chair of TMT’s board of governors, a position he has held since 2007, and that the UC pledged $300 million to build the telescope.
One open letter circulating the UCSB community, created by fourth-year theater and anthropology double major Ivana Cruz, calls for Yang’s resignation from the chair of the board of governors, a formal apology to those “affected by the construction of the TMT” and a statement in support of Mauna Kea’s preservation.
As of Sunday night, Cruz said the open letter has over 120 responses from students at schools around the world: UCLA, Stanford, Boston City College and the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
The open letter states that “[TMT] is based on the fundamental belief that projects conducted by institutions should come before the willing consent of the people whose land is to be governed, even when these institutions have no connection to the land.”
“We will not back down from these demands nor will we accept any opportunities for dialogue that present the issue as one where all players have an equal voice and which can be solved by anything but the official and permanent discontinuation of the project,” the open letter read.
Cruz declined to comment further, stating she did not want to speak on behalf of Native Hawaiians.
The open letter also asks signers to list the location and time of any public appearances Yang may be making in the near future that they know of, so event organizers “can be contacted and pressured into canceling his appearances until he adheres to the demands.”
Ciara Thrower, a third-year environmental studies and political science double major, started another petition last Thursday asking Yang and the UC to withdraw involvement from the construction of the telescope. It currently has over 300 signatures.
Besides noting Mauna Kea’s significance to Native Hawaiians, Thrower’s petition also added that “as students of the UC system, we oppose and fight against funds being used to inflict disrespect to Native Hawaiian homeland.”
After first hearing about the situation from a friend who is Native Hawaiian, Thrower researched the situation and felt the need to bring attention to an issue which she said many UCSB students may not know about. She added that native lands should be prioritized above the scientific project, despite the advantages that might come with putting the telescope at Mauna Kea.
“I do realize that the volcano is supposedly the best place for astronomy, but I think the native homeland is more important than [being] the best place they could build it. They could build it at the second best place,” she said.
Yang did not provide comment regarding opposition to his involvement with TMT but said in a previous email to the Nexus that “Hawai‘i is a special place that has long pioneered and honored the art and science of astronomy and navigation.”
“We acknowledge those who disagree with our project and express our respect for their views,” he stated.
Less than a week after petitions and open letters began circulating, protesters at UC Berkeley organized a two-hour demonstration on July 22 that included students, local elders and representatives from indigenous rights groups, the Daily Californian reported.
UC spokesperson Claire Doan said the UC “welcomes” the feedback it has received on the TMT project.
“We appreciate the input of the individuals and groups who have helped shape the evolution of TMT, and will continue working to ensure that this project – in its efforts to advance science and astronomy – will honor and respect the cultures and traditions of Hawaii,” she said in an email.
Correction: [7/23]: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of a student who created a petition. Their name is spelled Ciara, not Cierra.