University of Hawaii caught between TMT supporters, protesters

HILO — From the arrest of kupuna protesting the Thirty Meter Telescope’s construction on Maunakea to calls for his resignation, University of Hawaii President David Lassner, in an address to the UH Board of Regents on Thursday, said Wednesday marked one of the most difficult days his presidency.

Thirty-three TMT opponents and one care-giver were arrested Wednesday on the Maunakea Access Road during an ongoing protest that prompted Gov. David Ige to sign an emergency proclamation.

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“As painful as it is, on many days, such as (Wednesday), I’m also really quite proud of our students, our graduates, our faculty and staff standing up for what they believe,” Lassner said. “Solutions to hard and systemic issues in society come only when as many of us as possible truly listen to those who can look at the same fact and come to different conclusions. That is easier to say than to do, especially in the heat of the moment. Black and white is easy. Gray is really hard.”

Lassner said some accused him of not listening.

“I can only say, that listening does not mean the same thing as doing what you ask me to do. That doesn’t mean I’m not listening and that I’m not hearing.”

While Lassner said he has received emails with words like “war criminal,” “despicable,” and “spineless,” he’s also received “many, many, many respectful and caring pleas to stop TMT.”

He also has received requests to stay the course.

“Right now, my first and highest concern is for the safety of everyone on Maunakea, including our students and faculty and staff,” Lassner said. “UH has no authority whatsoever over law enforcement, although we are actively trying to help. … I was truly heartened at the peacefulness that transpired even through the arrests (Wednesday). And I’m doing all I can to maintain that spirit and the nonviolence that prevailed.”

Lassner said also he will do all he can in the coming days, months and years to “try and keep us together on these issues where we can agree while trying to keep the rifts from damaging even more our ability to achieve our core mission as the University of Hawaii in service to all the people of Hawaii.”

At UH-Hilo, new Chancellor Bonnie Irwin’s tenure at the university begins as construction is set to start on the $1.4 billion project.

“Regarding TMT, it was already on the road before I arrived,” Irwin said when asked about the project this week. “So it is my responsibility now to get up to speed, to learn, and so I’ve been reading a number of documents, and I’ve been talking to various people involved.”

Most valuable so far is a report from a series of conversations called “Envision Maunakea,” she said.

“And by reading that document, you really understand that there’s a whole spectrum of opinions,” Irwin said. “It’s not just one side and another side, there’s a whole series of them. And that was really important for me to understand.”

Irwin, who started in the role on July 1, said arriving at this point in the TMT project, is “sort of like trying to jump on a train that’s already leaving the station. So you have to run to get caught up, and grab hold of the train. You have a sense of where it’s going, but exactly how it’s going to get there is hard to determine right at first.”

As chancellor, Irwin said the Office of Maunakea Management reports to her, while some of the larger strategic decisions are made system and statewide, although she is “part of the conversations.”

“One of the many things I’ve learned about Maunakea and TMT is that many, many people are involved at various levels.”

Her main role is to keep apprised of what’s going on “and make sure that I’m informed.”

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But Irwin said her other responsibility as chancellor is the Hilo campus and making sure students, staff and faculty know they have “every right to their opinions on this issue or any controversial issue, and this is a place where they should feel safe to express those opinions.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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