Since October 2014, the University of California has invested over $68 million into the Thirty Meter Telescope project, a scientific endeavor that has been in the works since the early 2000s and a source of criticism from UC students who oppose its development on Native Hawaiian land. 

According to Jeike Meijer, an organizer for the Mauna Kea Protectors at UC Santa Barbara, “this investment is making a very big statement about [the UC’s] lack of support for Indigenous and Hawaiian students.” Max Abrams / Daily Nexus

According to a financial report from the UC Office of the President, the UC has invested $38 million into the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) through donations from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (GBMF) and another $30 million directly from its own funds in the past six years. 

The financial report was obtained through a California Public Records Act from the campus activist organization Mauna Kea Protectors at UC Berkeley in early May and details the UC’s history of contributions to TMT from October 2014 to February 2020. 

But until recently, public knowledge surrounding the UC’s use of its own funds for the roughly $2.4 billion telescope project has been largely speculative. 

According to an action item from the March 2014 Board of Regents meeting, the UC and Caltech agreed to split a $250 million pledge from GBMF and to jointly raise an additional $100 million from their own funds. The UC said in the action item that it planned to raise its half of the share — $50 million — through “philanthropic support.”

But funding directly from the UC has come from a variety of other sources, including reallocated funding from another observatory project, the UC’s department of Research and Graduate Studies and “systemwide funds,” which are used “for an array of purposes including teaching and research,” Stett Holbrook, a spokesperson for the UC, said in an email to the Nexus. 

Student fees, however, are not included in the UC’s contributions to TMT, according to UC Spokesperson Claire Doan. 

The UC had contributed to TMT solely through grants from GBMF from October 2014 until October 2016, when it made a $10 million contribution to TMT using its own funds, according to the financial report. The $10 million contribution was one of the largest donations listed on the financial report, second to a $13,883,525 contribution made that same month from GBMF grant funding. 

Since then, the UC has continued to make contributions with its own funds in varying amounts — some as small as $126 in September 2017 and others as large as $5 million, which it paid out four separate times in June 2018, November 2018, August 2019 and February 2020. 

The timing of the UC’s February 2020 contribution to TMT also came less than a month after UC Board of Regents Chair John Pérez said at the Board’s January meeting that he intended to facilitate a discussion about the UC’s involvement with the project, The Daily Californian reported. 

But the activist organization Uprooted & Rising said at a press conference on May 21 that the UC has not engaged in any discussions surrounding its involvement in the project. Many students spoke at a public forum during the May 21 Board of Regents virtual Zoom meeting, asking the Regents to divest from TMT and echoing the demands of an open letter from the UC Student Association in September 2019 calling on the UC to cut financial ties with the project. 

Despite ongoing friction from UC students who contest TMT’s development on Native Hawaiian land, the UC maintains that it is “deeply committed” to respecting the environment and culture surrounding Mauna Kea and has collaborated with the Hawaiian community “to address a range of cultural, environmental, educational and economic issues,” Holbrook wrote. 

According to Jeike Meijer, a fourth-year global studies and feminist studies double major and an organizer for the Mauna Kea Protectors at UC Santa Barbara, “this investment is making a very big statement about [the UC’s] lack of support for Indigenous and Hawaiian students.”

Meijer said many students are frustrated with the UC because they feel that their opposition to TMT has gone ignored and that the UC’s opacity with the project is a disservice to students. 

During the UC Board of Regents virtual meeting from May 19-21, Meijer said she and Terrill James Kaneali‘i Williams, an Indigeneous Hawaiian graduate student from UC Riverside, were promised an opportunity to speak during public forum; after speaking first, Meijer said the Board of Regents did not call on Kaneali‘i Williams to speak, even though “they promised two days in a row to call [on] him.” 

“It’s so frustrating because there’s no other way for him to get to talk to the board because it’s all virtual now. And it felt like they were silencing him,” Meijer said. 

“That was really frustrating for me because I’m Indigenous, but I’m not Hawaiian. And we were banking on having the Hawaiian voice be there,” she added. “So it’s really challenging with these virtual Board of Regents meetings because they can choose to just not call [on] people and that seems to be what they’ve done.”

At UCSB, students have voiced their concerns regarding TMT in a variety of ways, including a town hall in December with Native Hawaiian activists, petitions to condemn the university’s involvement and meetings with Chancellor Henry T. Yang, who currently chairs TMT’s board of governors. Despite his title, Yang maintains that his role in TMT is miniscule. 

In addition to these concerns, Mejier is also worried about the environmental aspects of TMT. Mauna Kea is considered sacred in Native Hawaiian culture and is home to multiple endangered wildlife species that cannot be found anywhere else on earth, she said. Should TMT continue building the telescope, it may put Mauna Kea’s unique ecosystems at risk, she added. 

Kealoha Pisciotta, founder of the protest group Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, said during the Uprooted & Rising press conference in May that Native Hawaiians have been pleading to Gordon and Betty Moore for years to stand with them to protect Mauna Kea. Over a decade since TMT broke ground, she said, their calls have still been unanswered and the Native Hawaiian elders — known as kupunas — are still on the frontlines. 

“The only way to do this project is they’re going to have to hurt people,” Pisciotta said, “because the kupunas are willing to die.”

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