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Aloha UH students, faculty and staff—and welcome to the beginning of a new academic year!

I apologize for another long message to the University of Hawaiʻi Community, but this semester is beginning unlike any other in my experience as president. Hawaiʻi is facing one of our most challenging issues in decades, and it is impacting the academic experience for some of our students, faculty and staff.

So this note is not about supporting or opposing the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Disagreement and controversy are part of what make a university great. Suppression of opinions, of any kind, stifles the kind of intellectual inquiry we are here to nurture and encourage.

But we must also be a place where our community learns to disagree respectfully, with civility and understanding of others and their perspectives. We learn from one another when we listen, not when we dismiss. And whether we even realize it when we utter them, hurtful words cut off true discourse.

We must also be aware of the power differentials among us—between students and faculty in a classroom and between untenured faculty and those who may judge them. We should also acknowledge the many other forms of difference, including race, that inform our and others’ experiences of the world. There is no place, certainly not in our classrooms, for denigrating others. At the same time, we must remain unwaveringly committed to the constitutional right to free speech guaranteed under the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Over the past weeks there has been extensive commentary on campus, in email and via social media, about hurtful interactions initiated by both supporters and opponents of TMT within the university and in the community. Direct follow-up in accord with applicable UH policies has already been initiated in cases when formal complaints have been registered.  

But we all have a role to play in creating a safe and welcoming environment. When we hear speech that goes from passionately academic to unbalanced and insulting, whether the speaker even realizes it or not, a colleague or friend has the best opportunity to influence corrective action that walks the conversation back. And we should all be aware that tendencies to inappropriate expression are greatest in email and with those we do not know.  

Of great concern to me also has been recent pushback against our commitment to become a model indigenous serving institution. Resistance has come from both directions, for different reasons. For those who question how this commitment came about, I would note that we are not just a university in Hawaiʻi but the University of Hawaiʻi. Our obligations as such have been widely articulated and increasingly embraced for decades now. See, for example:

These concepts are now formalized in Section III.C.3 and the elaboration in III.C.4.c of the Board of Regents statement of the Mission and Purpose of UH at:

And these themes have been successively elaborated through campus and system strategic plans and directions using language like “Hawaiian Place of Learning” and “Model Indigenous Serving University.” And they have been acted on.  

The 30+ years since the KAʻŪ report have seen the establishment of the only freestanding school of indigenous knowledge at a major research university (UH Mānoa) in the U.S., the only college dedicated to an indigenous language at a public comprehensive (UH Hilo) and an unprecedented increase in enrollment and degrees earned by Native Hawaiians across the UH system; even OHA notes our progress on this:

There is more that has been done, and much more to do.

I absolutely do not see a focus on becoming a Hawaiian Place of Learning as turning back the clock or leaving non-Hawaiians behind. And I utterly reject the notion that science is in conflict with culture. Rather, I see UH as working to integrate different ways of understanding and systems of knowledge—including those unique to Hawaiʻi—to the benefit and enrichment of all.  

Some of my favorite examples of how science and culture can mutually inform and advance each other come from Hawaiʻi Island and astronomy, yes astronomy, where the observatory community is meaningfully engaged with Hawaiian culture and language. See, for example, how Hawaiian-speaking students have learned to meld traditional Hawaiian naming practices with modern astrophysics to give names to celestial objects discovered using the resources of Hawaiʻi; these names have now been made official by the International Astronomical Union.

And here’s an example of a joint presentation by an observatory director and a Hawaiian faculty member with their first original thinking about bringing together current astronomical theories on the origins of the universe with the beginning of the Kumulipo.

Many more examples abound across UH in areas of health, sustainability, earth and ocean sciences, general STEM and more. We have studied how hula can advance health, and we have translated Hawaiian language newspapers from the 19th century to understand historic weather events. Pre-contact Hawaiians sustained a population considered to be upwards of a million people using sophisticated practices of watershed management from mountain to reef (ahupuaʻa) from which we can learn useful practices today that can help Hawaiʻi and the world. This kind of work is being done across the UH System by a broad range of our faculty, staff and students. 

Integrating different ways of understanding (and our islands represent many cultures) is not only one of the ways the University of Hawaiʻi serves the people of Hawaiʻi—all our people—but it is also one of the ways we distinguish UH from universities that could be anywhere else in the world.

Such integration is being developed in different ways on different UH campuses. As just one example, at UH Mānoa a focus on Aloha ʻĀina underlies the work on a new campus strategic plan and the next accreditation process.

On a personal level, I have learned a great deal by respectfully considering the views of others with whom I may not agree on the construction of TMT. Much of this takes place in meetings and conversations, and here are a few short examples of thoughtful writings by UH Mānoa scientists:

Similarly, here are some pieces for consideration from UH and the community that thoughtfully support TMT, including a link to the Findings of Fact that underlie the approval of the Conservation District Use Permit.

Finally, here is an excellent example of what a conversation about the TMT by people with quite different perspectives, including one of our deans, can sound like when it is informed not just by a desire to be heard, but also by a willingness to listen.

It is my deepest hope that we can all find ways to learn from what is happening today to become a stronger community of learners, teachers and scholars. We don’t all need to agree, but we all benefit when we commit to civility and respect for one another, especially those with whom we disagree.

David Lassner
UH President

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