UH president still supports TMT, but says conflict is greatest challenge he’s faced

Published: Aug. 1, 2019 at 5:39 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - University of Hawaii President David Lassner has been one of the Thirty Meter Telescope’s most vocal supporters. But in a recent interview Lassner said he’s struggling with how the project is dividing the university and broader community.

He also said the conflict on Mauna Kea is the greatest challenge he’s faced as UH president.

He maintains his support for TMT and says many want the university to stay the course while many others have stood in defiance. Both sides include university academics and professors.

“I would prefer that they protested in a manner that was lawful, but I’m a child of the 60s so I understand civil disobedience,” he said.

Of the conflict, he added, “I know there are a lot of people, friends disappointed in me from their perspective. They wish I had gone another way. I also have many friends and community members who are incredibly supportive."

[Read more: Actor Jason Momoa rallies TMT protesters at Mauna Kea: ‘Telescope’s not being built here’]

[Read more: TMT says Canary Islands site is not ready despite Spain’s green light]

Amid the protest, there have been calls for him to resign ― something he doesn’t plan to do.

What he has done is seek to create more opportunities for dialogue. To kick off those conversations, he visited the Thirty Meter Telescope protest camp Sunday and met with Hawaiian elders.

The strong emotions on both sides of the debate have spurred Lassner to ask himself whether the $1.4 billion telescope is worth the divisions it has created.

“I also have to say going the other direction is equally divisive,” he said.

In 1998, a negative audit of the university’s stewardship of Mauna Kea was a wake-up call. Lassner says things have changed significantly from those days.

“I have apologized for the university’s stewardship last century,” he said. “I think everything we’ve been doing this century is helping us catch up. I think we do a good job of stewardship of the land today.”

He points out TMT is paying $1 million per year in a community benefits package for education and also a $1 million a year in rent once it’s completed. Some 20 percent of that goes to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for ceded lands. The rest goes to manage and protect the mountain.

Meanwhile, long-range plans call for five telescopes to be decommissioned and taken out.

The current telescopes pay no sublease rent. but do pay for other services on the mountain. Lassner says after 2033, the other telescopes understand they’ll have to start paying to be on Mauna Kea.

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