U of M decision on "Troubled Waters" questioned by commission, other funders

The University of Minnesota looks to be getting itself into deeper hot water. After pulling the film "Troubled Waters" weeks before its premiere for "scientific review," the department of University Relations sent out a statement late yesterday asserting that University officials were reviewing the film to see if it "meets the specifications of the legislative appropriation to the University." The documentary was funded in large part by the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) through the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

However, Michael Banker, communications manager for LCCMR, said that, while the University has the authority for determining whether the film meets University standards, "the authority to determine whether the project meets the language of the appropriation and LCCMR-approved work program is the responsibility of LCCMR and the legislature."

The LCCMR is responsible for overseeing $349,000 in appropriations funds for, according to the appropriation language, an "educational documentary television series on the waters of Minnesota designed to promote watershed understanding and citizen action in protecting, restoring, and conserving water resources."

Karen Himle, the VP of University Relations, yanked the film from TPT more than a week ago. Banker said he can't explain why because the University has yet to give LCCMR any specifics.

The LCCMR appropriation guidelines and work program are detailed below:

Appropriation: The Bell Museum will develop and create the first 1-hour episode of a public television educational documentary series on the waters of Minnesota. The series is designed to use storytelling and visual media to promote citizen understanding and action in protecting, restoring, and conserving Minnesota's water resources. The first episode of the series, Waters of Minnesota, will focus on the Upper Mississippi River watershed, which extends across approximately 70% of the state.

The Work Program description states that: The first episode of Waters of Minnesota will focus on the Upper Mississippi River. Stories about the upper Mississippi River watershed , a system which extends over approximately 70 % of the Minnesota landscape, will reveal much about Minnesota's lakes, wetlands, and rivers.   This one-hour documentary will tell stories that: 1) provide an overview and basic understanding of the State's hydrology; 2) look at the Mississippi River both as a natural system and as an engineered system; and 3) explore how the River links us ecologically and economically at a global scale.

"I made a request to Karen Himle on September 16th to provide us with documentations of concerns so we can consider them within our own review," Banker said. "I was informed that the documentation did not exist at the time."

The film was completed last year, underwent scientific review, according to the filmmakers, and was viewed by numerous people within the University this spring. Yet, in a statement issued yesterday, the University said concerns were raised among University officials and staff after recent viewings: "As a result of input received from these viewers, Bell Museum Director Susan Weller has requested a small group of qualified faculty review the film and advise her on whether the documentary as edited meets the specifications of the legislative appropriation to the University, and is factually accurate, objective and balanced in its presentation." [UPDATE: On Friday, Dean Al Levine of the U's School of Agriculture told MPR that the documentary is "unbalanced" and "vilifies agriculture."]

Banker said that, so far, Himle is the only one to talk with LCCMR about her concerns, and none of them are rooted in specifics. "To the best of my knowledge, it appears that the concerns and requests to halt the film rose from the Office of University Relations," he said. "So far, Karen Himle is the only one who has been in communication with LCCMR about concerns."

Himle did not contact LCCMR with concerns about the film, or to tell them that its premiere had been canceled. "I contacted Himle after first learning on Wednesday that the film had been pulled last week," Banker said.

As we reported yesterday, Karen Himle is married to John Himle, a principal at Himle Horner, a firm representing big ag organizations. John Himle sent an email to the Twin Cities Daily Planet yesterday stating that, "For the record, neither Himle Horner Inc., nor I, nor anyone connected to our firm has had any involvement in this issue whatsoever. None. Zero."

Still, the question is whether Karen Himle's connection to Himle Horner and the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a proponent of ethanol and industrial agriculture, poses a serious conflict of interest for the University. Dan Wolter, the director of News Service in the Office of University Relations, has yet to respond to questions raised by TC Daily Planet about issues of conflict of interest.

LCCMR is still waiting to hear the University's specific issues with the film.

"We still don't know what specific concerns the University has," Banker said. "But because the University raised concerns, we are in the process of extensively reviewing the film to see if it meets the appropriation language. However, we are still waiting to hear what their specific concerns are so we can better make that determination."

Other funders, including the McKnight Foundation and the Mississippi River Fund told the Star Tribune that they were troubled by the decision and waiting for an explanation from the University of Minnesota.

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Molly Priesmeyer's picture
Molly Priesmeyer

Molly Priesmeyer (mollypriesmeyer [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a freelance writer and editor, living in Minneapolis.


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Molly, your reporting on this

Molly, your reporting on this is really important. Please keep on this story! This one stinks to high heaven!

huzzah - can't wait to see the film!

thanks molly for staying on top of this story. 

Betty Tisel
SW, Kingfield

Troubling Indeed

Molly, thank you for this story.  Please keep us informed about developments as this story continues to unfold. 

I am curious to know how the standard of "balanced" is interpreted.  Do you think the accusation is that the film is not balanced in terms of fairness?  Meaning the different contributors to our water quality problems, Ag being one, were not treated the same?  Or does it mean the film is not balanced in terms of blame

If the facts show that agricultural practices* are contributing a far greater percentage of water pollution compared to other pollution sources, then a factual representation could still be balanced in fairness, but not balanced in blame, and legitimately so. 

* I mean within Ag as an industry - I don't want to malign all farmers.  There are many farmers trying very hard to take their land and water stewardship obligations seriously.

Anyway, please stay on this story and let us know what you learn.

best reason why Natural Resources shouldn't be merged with Ag

I graduated from the old College of Natural Resources at the U of M before it was merged with and put under the College of Agriculture.  I speculate that if CNR was still a separate college and not subject to Dean Levine's corporate ag whims, this movie would not have been pulled (the Bell Museum would also still be under the CNR).  This issue clearly shows the competing interests of these two fields and colleges.  I call on the U of M to make the College of Natural Resources again a separate college.


The more we hear the worse it gets

A half hour is dedicated to other (non-ag) sources of water pollution in a one hour documentary but yet Dean Al Levine says the film isn't balanced. He doesn't argue that the film is inaccurate, but just wants it to be a booster film for Big Ag.  Well maybe Dean Al Levine should get out of his office and make his own film.  Maybe he can come to the many Farmer's Markets here in Minneapolis where he can witness food being produced organically, without the use of pesticides, petrochemicals, and the mass pollution associated with current State agricultural processes.

The consumers and taxpayers want and deserve better than what we're being served currently.  We need films like this to educate and enlighten the citizens to what are the current practices and what needs to happen to change that.  

We want you, big Ag, to feed us, not poison us.

great story

This is a very interesting conflict I had no idea about. Keep reporting on it! I think it's absolutely right that a big ag promoter like the U of M releasing a film that apparently calls out big ag for its incredible flaws is a definite conflict of interest. And a step in the right direction.