The university aimed for the stars and hit Mount Graham

  • Police evict demonstrators from UA in 1993

    Linda Seeger Salazar, Arizona Daily Star

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.

Not 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 mailboxes.

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.

It 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 foot

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 time."

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 research grants.

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 heavens?

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.

It's 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 universities.

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