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U of T’s weak response to the protests on construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope is unacceptable

The university’s commitment to reconciliation must reach beyond our borders
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U of T protestor rallies against thirty meter telescope at September 20 global climate strike.DINA DONGTHE VARSITY
U of T protestor rallies against thirty meter telescope at September 20 global climate strike.DINA DONGTHE VARSITY

2019 marks the fifth year of protests against the construction of an astronomical telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is projected to be the largest visible-light telescope ever built. The Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), which includes the University of Toronto, has been a partner in its construction.

In Native Hawaiian tradition, Mauna Kea is deeply revered as a place of worship. Protesters are hoping to protect the site, which already houses 13 other observatories.

U of T’s response to the ongoing protest has been weak. In a public statement, the university noted its responsibility toward consulting Indigenous communities and condemned the usage of police force against the protesters. Yet it did not explicitly denounce ACURA’s support for the construction of the telescope, nor otherwise explain its position.

The university’s continuing indecisiveness on the matter has a number of distasteful implications for its reputation. Firstly, it betrays a willingness to stand by and wait for another body to resolve the issue. This shirking of responsibility, which fails to consider dissenting voices, is unacceptable.

Moreover, with the telescope already funded and construction efforts ongoing, the university’s inaction silently goes along with the push to build on sacred ground. This is controversial at best, and outright oppressive at worst. Such a stance is an affront to the rights of Indigenous students and faculty who have historically been mistreated by academic institutions. Their voices, too, remain unrepresented.

However, regarding reconciliation, the university seems to be taking some steps in the right direction. In January 2017, it welcomed the Final Report of the Steering Committee for the U of T Response to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The report called upon the university to reflect on its role in reconciling with Indigenous peoples and to create a welcoming environment for incoming Indigenous students. A ceremony was held at Hart House to mark its publication.

But even after this commemorative moment, the university continues to support the destruction of sacred ground abroad. This is paradoxical.

The university’s actions directly oppose the values professed in the Steering Committee report. We cannot expect our Indigenous students to believe in the administration’s promises when it breaks the same ones internationally.

Of course, the university and ACURA do have their reasons to maintain their support for the construction of the telescope. The TMT would be an invaluable resource for astronomers and astrophysicists, and its location on Mauna Kea is optimal. The debate appears to lie between the scientific hunt for knowledge and the moral protection of Indigenous rights.

The issue, however, is not such a simple dichotomy. Even from a strictly scientific perspective, constructing the telescope bears certain risks. The power of the TMT comes from its size, and its construction would require the destruction of a large swath of land. With it comes the loss of a unique ecosystem at a time when the study of biodiversity and its role in combating the climate crisis has never been more crucial.

Moreover, like any institute of higher education, U of T must aim to promote scientific education and to inspire future scientists. But justifying the erosion of cultural respect and Indigenous rights in the name of science only tarnishes the name of scientific study. This is unacceptable.

Furthermore, Mauna Kea is not the only possible location for the TMT. Excellent alternatives exist in Spain and Baja, California, and construction there would come at a minor cost to the telescope’s performance. So it seems that we have drawn out a five-year protest for the sake of a small improvement in efficiency.

We have made science a veritable antagonist. This is not how we should perceive the pursuit of knowledge.

Science should not be a brutally objective study that seeks knowledge without regard for basic rights. Science, ultimately, is humanitarian: the knowledge we gain is the knowledge that serves to enlighten us all. We cannot claim to serve the whole of humanity by casting a part of it to the side.

When our search for knowledge is forcibly pitted against the rights of others, every student is affected. Every student is wronged.

Consider the prestige of the University of Toronto, which is ranked by Times Higher Education as the top university in Canada and the 18th worldwide. Educational and scientific institutes, here and across the world, may very well be influenced by U of T’s actions, and its students and scholars can carry the biases of the university into the workforce and beyond.

It is reasonable, then, to ask the university what values it wishes to convey to its students, the nation, and the world. In its own mission statement, the University of Toronto declares its dedication to “vigilant protection for individual human rights, and a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice.”

Let us hope that the university will restore its faltering commitment.

James Yuan is a first-year Life Sciences student at Victoria College.