Let’s end “cancel culture”: In support of Suzanne D. Case ’78 and the Thirty Meter Telescope

Luana Maroja, Jay M., and Steven Miller

We are concerned to see our students enacting “cancel culture” in their calls to demand the immediate resignation of Suzanne Case ’78.  As President Obama stated last week, “This idea of purity, and you’re never compromised, and you’re politically woke, and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly… The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.” Our students are repeatedly adhering to “cancel culture” without stopping to ponder about the pros and cons and the nuance that exists within every contentious issue.  

Suzanne D. Case ’78, the Williams alumna and chairperson of the Hawaiʻi Board of Land and Natural Resources, was personally attacked over her support for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). A 28-year veteran of the Nature Conservancy who has repeatedly fought for conservation, community engagement and partnerships with natives, Chair Case has helped to protect watersheds, expand protected areas and eliminate dangerous invasive species from the Hawaiian landscape. The signers of the petition calling for her resignation have completely ignored her many positive accomplishments. They are, as Obama said, failing to consider the net effects of her chairmanship and considered only the “cons” of the telescope, failing to mention the many “pros.”

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is a world class telescope designed to investigate some of the most fundamental questions about our universe, including the formation of stars and galaxies after the Big Bang, and how the universe evolved to its present form. The telescope is not a profit-making venture, but instead a reflection of humanity’s joint effort to expand human knowledge and our understanding of the universe in which we all dwell. As pointed out by the astronomy department in the Sept. 25 Record op-ed (“Maunakea and the TMT: A letter on astronomy’s past, present and future in Hawai‘i”), Native Hawaiians will benefit from the TMT, including receiving a substantial community benefits package, which has already provided over $2.5 million in grants and scholarships and will continue to provide $1 million annually in education grants. In addition, the TMT will lead to training local workers in science and engineering, and provide employment opportunities in well-paid occupations. Finally, the use of the land by TMT is consistent with conservation efforts; the TMT is the only telescope project in Hawaii committed to eliminating past errors, such as mismanagement of historical sites, and the first to address conservation concerns. Its construction will mean the decommissioning of three additional telescopes that are already in existence, alleviating concerns about land use. 

The main claim against the TMT is that it will occupy a historical sacred site. However, as it has been ruled by the Hawaiʻi Supreme court (Oct. 2018 decision), there is no actual evidence that the site and Access Way area was ever used by Native Hawaiian practitioners. Astronomy and Native Hawaiian uses on Mauna Kea have co-existed for many years, and the TMT Project will not curtail or restrict Native Hawaiian use. It is also important to recognize that telescopes have a positive impact the Hawaiian economy and contribute to STEM education. Without them, Hawaiʻi’s economy could become even more dependent on tourism. One should then ask this: What is more colonialist? A modern economy based on science, technology and education or a low-paying service economy based on entertaining tourists?

The TMT has become a focal point for the fight for the rights of native communities. However, Hawaiʻi has many problems more pressing, including rapid development, unsustainable population growth and high levels of militarization and tourism. While these activities contribute to the economy, they can negatively affect Hawaiʻi’s environment, historical and cultural sites.  The Department of Hawaiian Homelands, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Education are continuously receiving grievances about problems that deeply affect the Native Hawaiian community. Protesting the TMT and targeting individuals demanding “resignations” does absolutely nothing to address these longstanding problems. In fact, it might make things worse for the very people who are supposed to be helped: It might exacerbate the state’s reliance on non-sustainable, low-paying, “colonializing” industries such as tourism. Astronomy, alongside sustainable energy production, conservation and oceanography can turn Hawaiʻi into a model of both economics and the integration of culture and science. As with everything, the issue is much more nuanced than a first look might suggest.  

Luana S. Maroja, an associate professor of biology, has been at the College since 2010. Steven Miller, a professor of mathematics, has been at the College since 2008. Jay M. Pasachoff, Chair and Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy, has been at the College since 1972.