U of M President Bruininks, faculty: Academic freedom at stake in Troubled Waters brouhaha

UPDATED 9/28/2010 6 p.m.: Yes - academic freedom is at stake in the attempt to stop the premiere of Troubled Waters documentary, said President Robert Bruininks in a statement issued late today. Faculty had already called for a full-scale investigation of why the premiere was canceled by U of M University Relations vice president Karen Himle. On blogs and in classrooms, U of M faculty, students and staff called the move censorship by the university. 

A statement from U of M President Robert Bruininks regarding the "Troubled Waters" documentary
MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (09/28/2010) —The following is a statement from University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks regarding the Bell Museum documentary, “Troubled Waters”:

“I have been traveling abroad for the past week, but was aware of the concerns about the ‘Troubled Waters’ film and am in full support of the decision to present the film as scheduled and conduct a public forum afterward. As the facts surrounding the production of the film have become clearer, it was readily apparent to me that this is an issue of academic freedom; as a result, we immediately resolved to show it as planned. This is certainly not the first time the University and its leadership have stood behind the academic freedom of its faculty and staff with regard to complex or potentially controversial issues—indeed that is a fundamental value of the university.

“Certainly, the decision and rationale regarding whether or not to show the film as scheduled could have been handled differently and communicated more clearly. It is important for me to acknowledge that Vice President Himle was asked by the Bell Museum to review the film, and she raised questions and concerns about it in her capacity as Vice President of University Relations. As I have said before, Vice President Himle is an important member of my executive team, and I have confidence in her leadership and integrity.

“At no point was there a question about the importance of the issues raised in the film or whether such a film should be made and shown. I am pleased that we now have a consensus within the administration and faculty on our current course of action. We will continue to work together to protect academic freedom and the quality of scholarship and outreach at the U. We will continue to review this situation, and I am confident we will learn from this and improve our procedures as we move forward.

“The issues related to the Minnesota watershed are of critical importance to Minnesotans, to our nation, and to me personally. I am pleased that the Bell Museum, under the capable leadership of Prof. Weller, will provide the public with ample opportunity to see the film and participate in the robust discussion that will follow.”

After more than a week of bad press and internal and external pressure, the University of Minnesota announced last week it would be premiering the film Troubled Waters as originally planned. The film explores, among other things, how nitrate fertilizer runoff from farming contributes to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Originally scheduled to air on TPT on October 5, the documentary was yanked by University Vice President Karen Himle on September 7 for "scientific review."

Faculty and staff have called for a full-scale investigation into just how the University public relations department came to make academic decisions about a research-based film.

"This should've never happened in the first place," said Christine Marran, associate professor of Asian Languages and Literatures, who teaches environmental issues related to Japan. Marran also serves on the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, which plans to explore the case. "The main point for me and all faculty is that this kind of thing undermines faith in the process of academic freedom," said Marran.

Last week, under increasing pressure from a vexed U of M academic community, Provost Tom Sullivan addressed a meeting of the Faculty Consultative Committee (the minutes of which were obtained by Twin Cities Daily Planet). Sullivan announced that he, Bruininks and the Office of the General Counsel will review roles, responsibilities, and processes with respect to the Troubled Waters case. "We need to be vigilant in supporting and encouraging, through all of our processes, decisions, and actions, the important values of academic freedom," he told the committee.

Jon Foley, the director of the U's Institute on the Environment and a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Human Behavior, commended the provost's swift response.

"This cannot go without scrutiny," he said. "We must clarify roles and responsibilities. And we also need to know just what happened here in order for academic freedom to be absolute and never again compromised like this."

Bad PR

When it was announced last week that the film had been pulled for "scientific review" by Vice President Karen Himle, the public outcry was that this was censorship.  Himle has close ties to big agribusiness via her husband, whose firm represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. Critics said the university's first mission seemed to be more about maintaining relationships with major agribusiness than maintaining academic freedom.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization dedicated to advancing academic freedom, said the fact that a PR office was involved at all poses a serious threat to scientific truth and academic freedom.

"I don't know any other example of this kind of authority given to a PR office," Nelson said. "We deal with hundreds of campuses, and we've never heard of a PR department given this kind of authority before."

Himle's role has been called into question by numerous news outlets raising questions of conflict of interest. Some blogs following the issue also note that this tie to big agribusiness actually makes Himle the ideal candidate to manage those big agribusiness relationships that the university so closely relies on for funding.

Nelson notes that when a PR office is involved in any academic issues, it automatically raises censorship issues.

"In some ways, it's the worst office to do this," said Nelson. "It's not an academic office. And it's an explicit acknowledgement that censorship occurred for PR reasons."

What's more, Nelson said, the university's later assertion that the film was pulled because it "wasn't balanced," is a further threat to its mission to uphold creative expression.

"The AAUP's rejection of the notion of 'balance' applies to this particular case," he said. "'Balance' is repression of speech. Faculty and students have a right to advocate for what they believe in. Whatever the need for balance is often satisfied by a diverse range of forces, which in this case is Big Ag, who will have their say as well."

Foely says that, although balance is a complex issue in science, in this case it seems the university was making a snap decision about the film's tone. "Is it more of an aesthetic statement in how the science was portrayed?" he says. "When I heard the concerns were more about tone and not scientific, I began to get worried. Are we shooting the messenger?"

Big Ag's growing influence

While this might be the first time a PR department has had such serious involvement in an academic issue at a U.S. university, this isn't the first time a university has been seen as putting the desires of big agribusiness over the mission of academic freedom.

According to Gary Rhoades, the AAUP general secretary and co-author of Academic Freedom and the New Economy, this is a long-standing issue, and one that will continue to grow as state funds are cut and universities become more dependent on private monies.

"This is about a public image concern about offending a particular group, in this case large agriculture," Rhoades says. "As universities become more like big businesses, the roles of donors becomes increasingly important."

As researchers explore policies that call for higher yields at the expense of health and the environment, university concerns about offending their big donors grow.

Last year, author Michael Pollan, who has been critical of big agribusiness practices, was scheduled to speak at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The talk was canceled after pressure from a donor who chairs the Harris Ranch Beef Co.

In a case eerily similar to the Troubled Waters brouhaha, in 2002 a University of Manitoba film, Seeds of Change, was held from public viewing by the university's administration for more than three years. Seeds of Change explores the controversy of GMO crops and biotechnology in Canada. The university was never forthright about specific reasons for quashing it. Critics cited the University of Manitoba's long-standing relationship with Monsanto, a company responsible for patenting GMO seeds, as the primary reason for withholding it from public view.

The University of Minnesota isn't free of threats from big agribusiness donors. In 2008, the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council temporarily yanked $1.5 million in grant funding after a study said that dedicating huge amounts of land to food crops for fuel such as ethanol could drastically change the landscape and worsen global warming. That study included U of M ecologist David Tilman, who also appears in Troubled Waters.

University officials, including Allen Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, met with the agribusiness groups to mend the relationships and ensure the grants were reinstated.

Next steps

Rhoades said that while the U's reputation might be sullied by its exposed allegiances to big agribusiness, the issue also presents a learning experience for academia and the community.

"What it reveals," Rhoades said, "is that the community can have an impact on the university in fulfilling its public good responsibilities. And internally, research and monies should focus on the core aspects of the institution." In other words, Rhoades said, a land-grant institute shouldn't just serve the highest bidders.

Foley agreed this is a teaching moment for the university, and expressed hope that an immediate investigation will reveal how the PR department's role swelled and ensure that steps are taken to keep it from happening again.

While he believes the incident was unique, he said complete transparency in this case is necessary for the university to uphold its mission to academic freedom.

"Only by doing things out in the light of day can we assure everyone, including ourselves, that research and scholarship continue without interference by any outside group, including funders," Foley said.

"My colleagues at the U all strongly believe that funders -- whether public, foundation or private -- should not, in any way, be able to 'muzzle' research or speech that they don't like. That's not in the public interest, and that is not compatible with our mission as a public university."

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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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    "Troubled Waters"

    Great reporting! This is why I love the Daily Planet. Molly Priesmeyer is a gem of a reporter.

    Troubled Waters on TPT

    Does anyone know if Troubled Waters is going to air on TPT?

    Good work....

    A mega-important issue.  "...this is a long-standing issue, and one that will continue to grow as state funds are cut and universities become more dependent on private monies."

    How much do we really thing about this stuff?  That universities lose their balls--alas not their footballs and basketballs--as they become more dependent on corporate funding.  That newspaper lost their balls when unreasonable profit objectives govern and the newsroom shrinks.  That environmental orgs lost their balls when the become dependent on manipulative foundtion grants rather than membership dues. 

    There may come a point when the checks and balances just aren't there any more and things fall apart.  At least, we should think about the consequences of eroding public funding for our core institutions.

    am

    Alan Muller

    Bruininks not blaming anyone?

    The President's statement that Molly includes here avoids saying what went wrong, to focus on the Whew! part: that the film will be shown.

    But he places the blame--i.e., setting one person up as the originator of this mess--on Bell Museum Director Prof. Weller. It was she, Bruininks asserts, who asked Karen Himle to review the film. For accuracy? for balance? to get her ready to face Big Ag backlash? Whatever, the President is not about to blame this failure of the U to protect academic freedom on one of his Vice Presidents, or a Dean ( as in Dean "vilifies agriculture.") There's no apology to the film maker, either. No apology to anyone.

    Kudos to TC Daily Planet

    Your breaking and followup coverage of this story is what has turned me on to TC Daily Planet. I plan to become a regular reader now. Great investigative reporting.

    Great job Molly!

    Your article was forwarded to me by a constituent.  I was out of town, but I immediately expressed my concern to a U of M representative.  I saw the film Monday and it's excellent!  And backed up by the science!   The conclusion doesn't blame "big ag" but perverted incentives in the US Farm Bill.