Birth and early growth of the Institute for Astronomy

The ink was barely dry on the 84-inch contract when I started to press for our own institute – I well recall writing the first such proposal one balmy, vine-scented night in mid-1965. It didn’t get far – I didn’t really expect that it would – but I persisted over the next year and the University administration gradually accepted that we could not continue indefinitely as a unit of the Geophysics Institute. However there was considerable faculty opposition to any more organized research units which were widely held to be inconsistent with the concept of a university. I met the relevant faculty committee to try to persuade them of the desirability of an Institute for Astronomy, but in those less consensus-driven days the administration’s views counted more and that was where most of my persuasive efforts were directed!

In the middle of 1966 (June 20 to be precise), I submitted a new proposal to Bob Hiatt. It showed three levels of potential growth for astronomy at UH. The proposal was presented to a committee chaired by Wytze Gorter, then Director of Research and a good friend of ours. Although our most optimistic estimate of growth met with incredulity (though in the event it turned out to be more than conservative), the case was evidently regarded as convincing and achievable at the more modest levels, and the desired action as justified. With relatively little resistance, then, the new Institute for Astronomy was approved by the Board of Regents for a July 1, 1967, start, and I was named its first Director.

I cannot recall why we chose that particular name for our new Institute – though I do know that it went through several iterations. Some years later, Harlan Cleveland mildly chided me on its lack of reference to Hawaii (or at least the Pacific) – as was the case for most other research units at the University. I would like to believe that already our sights were set for an international stage. He also wondered why I had chosen the conjunction ‘ for’ rather than the more common ‘of ‘ but that was just a matter of personal preference perhaps derived from JILA’s name.

Long before the Institute was formed, we had overflowed our space in HIG and had been forced to rent space in an office building about a half-mile off-campus. We were to live thus divided for several years. Some time previously, and in association with our proposal to form what became the IfA, I had applied to NSF for a “Facility Grant” – at this time they were still in the business of helping Universities to house their research programs. The proposal requested about $2 million to assist the State with the considerable capital costs of developing astronomy on Mauna Kea and at the Manoa campus. The NSF asked Harlan Smith from Texas and Hyron Spinrad from UC Berkeley to evaluate the proposal; they visited Mauna Kea on a sparkling day. I remember Harlan saying “I don’t envy you your building problems but I certainly envy you your site.” We received a grant for $1 million which we hoped would be viewed as a contribution to a new campus building for our program rather than something to offset the infrastructure costs on Mauna Kea.