The sins of land-grant universities are usually those of inertia. The land-grants are old-fashioned. They're politically cautious. They're financially dependent upon the powers-that-be in their states. Young faculty with new ideas often hold their tongues rather than speak their minds. There's a culture of countrified politeness among land-grant faculties that can be stultifying.
Watching for signs of change at these
universities is a lot like watching a glacier move down a valley
floor. Glaciers eventually carve huge landscapes, but moment to
moment they can leave you hungry for action.
so at the University of Arizona, whose astronomers and
administrators want to build a world-class telescope complex on
Mount Graham. When it comes to telescopes, the U of A is nothing if
not bold and the administrators, scientists and activists involved
are not paralyzed by an excess of pleasantness. They call their
opponents terrorists, Luddites and whores. Opponents report that
astronomers have muscled anti-telescope activists dressed in bear
suits down flights of stairs, while pro-telescope scientists say
death threats and dead squirrels have arrived in their
The decade-long controversy hasn't
enveloped the whole university-most of the 35,000 bronzed students
don't give a second glance to the knots of demonstrators and
anti-telescope graffiti as they stroll across the palm-shaded
campus to the library (the 23rd largest in the country) or to watch
the Arizona Wildcats basketball team scratch for a place in the
nation's top 10.
But among those involved,
enough professional arms have been twisted and sufficient political
mud slung to launch a dozen legal confrontations, shatter several
collegial friendships and provide enough fodder for a Francis Ford
Coppola movie script. The astronomer who runs the
already-functioning Vatican telescope on Mount Graham once
explained that he's doing it partly to scan the skies for aliens to
convert to Catholicism. Organized Apache resistance to the
telescope started after a 66-year-old woman had a dream in which
her deceased father, a medicine man, told her to get involved.
As for the university, it has at no small
expense hired firms with the unimaginable names of Patton, Boggs
and Blow and Booz, Allen and Hamilton to slide past such
inconveniences as federal environmental law and the opposition of
the San Carlos Apaches. Members of the faculty who wouldn't
cheerlead for the project were cut neatly out of the loop (see
Frank Gregg, page 15, and Peter Warshall, page 12).
We forgive universities their ambitions because
we love them. We love them because they are a filtering organ for
what passes for truth in our society. We expect them to discover
The Way Things Really Are, even if The Way Things Really Are turns
out to be politically unpopular.
So while it's
not strange to find student activists oversimplifying the Mount
Graham telescope controversy into "telescopes kill squirrels," it
is disconcerting to hear tenured professors at the University of
Arizona say "telescopes save squirrels." It's strange to hear
scientists support the telescope with arguments so thin they could
come from a lawyer or a politician or a passerby who has just read
a pamphlet. (See "Sound-bite slogans ..." next page) .These are the
scientists the university has chosen to carry its banner. It's the
sort of thing a corporation would do; but a corporation is just
what the University of Arizona has become.
wasn't always that way. Back in 1986, when the listing of the Mount
Graham red squirrel as an endangered species appeared certain, the
university administration proposed a habitat conservation plan. It
hoped to make the plan so complete the squirrel wouldn't need to be
listed. Its bid to win over the press and the public at a hearing
landed with a resounding thud. The next day's headlines read: "UA
asks U.S. to drop rare squirrel from endangered list."
"We thought we were trying to do the right
thing," then-vice president for research Laurel Wilkening told
Science magazine. "But to present the plan at a public hearing and
expect people to say, "Oh, how wonderful," was naive."
The university switched tactics. No more Mr.
Ivory Tower. It brought out the big guns, enlisting the help of a
powerful lobbying firm and Arizona's U.S. senators to help secure
an exemption from the Endangered Species Act and the National
Environmental Policy Act.
The tactical switch
took the telescope opponents off guard.
"U of A
lied just as blatantly (as a corporation or an extractive
industry)," says Paul Hirt, then a student activist at U of A and
now an assistant professor of history at Washington State
University. "They were just as nakedly desirous of institutional
power and prestige and position. Yet, they pretended not to be.
This is what made them worse."
Shooting themselves in the
Among the easiest people to sympathize with
in all this are the astronomers: They just want to look at the sky.
The university has a top-notch astronomy program, with telescopes
on three nearby mountains already. The Large Binocular Telescope
that U of A wants to build on Mount Graham would be the world's
best at getting sharp, three-dimensional imagery of dim objects.
Such as undiscovered planets. Peter Strittmatter, the head of the
university's Steward Observatory, once told the Wall Street Journal
the telescope would allow him and other astronomers "to see back in
As fascinating an activity as astronomy
is, it is also expensive. The Large Binocular Telescope, complete,
will cost $60 million, requiring industrial-strength political and
financial backing. In return, it promises to add significantly to U
of A's prestige as an astronomy facility, and act as a magnet for
But the university recoils from
this crass analysis. "There's no cash cow," insists Michael
Cusanovich, the vice president in charge of administering the
university's $220 million annual research budget. "That's nuts. You
don't make money with research; you create knowledge."
How does this knowledge relate to the University
of Arizona's land-grant mission? What does a mandate formed 130
years ago around Arizona's rural communities and
fresh-off-the-farm-students have to do with the university's
current desire to point big pieces of glass at the
Not much. Sure, the university's
land-grant status nets its college of agriculture about $2 million
a year in noncompetitive federal research funds - less than 1
percent of the university research budget, and one-thirtieth the
cost of the Large Binocular Telescope. And although the U of A
claims that the land-grant mission extends throughout the
university, it's clear that in the case of the Mount Graham
telescope controversy the university has failed to do what the
bumper sticker urges us to do: act locally.
unrealistic to expect astronomers to help the farmers grow cotton
in the Arizona desert. But it's not unrealistic to expect the
university to show a little more concern about the home planet. U
of A might have focused early and sustained attention upon the red
squirrel that lives on Mount Graham and the Apaches who worship
there. It might have given some relief to students and faculty who
strained under budget cuts while its lawyers and lobbyists were
cashing their paychecks.
It makes you think that
a glacial pace could be the right pace for huge, publicly funded
institutions like land-grant universities. The University of
Arizona's shortcuts have backfired, consuming almost a decade of
its time as well as huge amounts of its credibility and taxpayer
money. The university has painted itself into an untenable position
where it has to cover its tracks, dispense half-truths, silence
dissenters and challenge federal judges. It's exhausting. It makes
you miss the usual suspects. It makes you yearn for glaciers. It
makes you miss the plodding gait and stodgy decency that still hold
sway at universities that haven't been intoxicated by the heavens.
Lisa Jones is on staff at
High Country News, where she writes about land-grant