More Troubled Waters: University emails reveal big fear of big ag


Late last Friday the University of Minnesota released more than 2,500 pages of documents regarding the film Troubled Waters. The film originally was pulled from its TPT premiere by U of M Vice President for University Relations Karen Himle on September 7 and later rescheduled after the University took a serious hit from the press and the community for what was viewed as censorship and a threat to academic freedom. 

A review of these now-public documents makes three things clear:

  • The University was so deeply concerned with negative reactions from the agriculture community that College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) Dean Al Levine distributed the film to donors and prominent figures associated with big agriculture for feedback in April.
  • Vice President for University Relations Karen Himle at first did not respond to requests from CFANS to view the film and participate in their “crisis management,” but then was responsible for pulling the film in September, though the U emails reveal a PR team intent on confusing that fact.
  • Some U staff and faculty, including CFANS Dean Al Levine, were concerned that donors would object to the film, but also believed Himle’s pulling of the film equated to University censorship.

Previous TC Daily Planet coverage of Troubled Waters

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

Troubled Waters: What we saw, why you can’t see it

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

Who pulled the plug on University of Minnesota’s “Troubled Waters?”

Big Ag and Big Money

The U of M has tried hard to craft a message that outside influences were not a reason for pulling the film. However, documents reveal that as early as April, Dean Allen Levine distributed a cut of the film to CFANS donors and members of the larger ag community for political, rather than scientific, review. [See attached PDF: Sep6_Levine Admits Circulating Film] One person who responded with an email suggesting the film be changed was Minnesota farmer Kristin Duncanson.

Duncanson serves on the board of directors to the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council and is the past president to the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. The member-based group is the same organization that, along with the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, threatened to pull funding from the U of M after the release of a 2008 study that said dedicating large amounts of land to commodity crops for ethanol could accelerate climate change.

Can’t tell the players without a scorecard?

Becky Beyers, Communications Director, CFANS

Kristin Duncanson, Minnesota Agri-Growth Council

Lori Engstrom, Chief of Staff, CFANS

Karen Himle, Vice President for University Relations

Allen Levine, Dean, College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS)

Barbara Coffin, Bell Museum, Executive Producer of Troubled Waters

Larkin McPhee, Director, producer and writer of Troubled Waters

Mary Nelson, Associate Development Officer, Bell Museum

Marty/ Martin Moen, Associate Director for Communications & Operations, Bell Museum

Dr. Susan Weller, Director and Professor, Bell Museum

Daniel Wolter, University Relations office

“Don’t get me started on the Tillman comments. No matter what that guy says the Corn and Soybean folks will be upset—He could be delivery money from the “Prize Patrol” and those guys will slam the door.” Kristin Duncanson

In an April 14 letter to CFANS Dean Al Levine, Duncanson wrote that the film’s “comments on the farm bill could be very dangerous for the University.” [See attached PDF: Letter From Duncanson]  She also notes that corn and soybean growers will be upset by the film’s inclusion of David Tilman, a U of M ecologist who co-authored the 2008 ethanol study that sparked controversy.

“Don’t get me started on the Tilman comments,” she writes. “No matter what that guy says the corn and soybean folks will be upset.” She asks, “Will the University’s name be on [the film]? I am very concerned about this piece.”

Weeks later, after concerns from the agriculture community were aired, CFANS associate dean for extension and outreach Greg Cuomo said the film “vilified agriculture.” The University began hatching a communications management plan to deal with what CFANS believed would be negative reactions from the agriculture community.

In an August 12 email, Al Levine referred to the resulting communication outline as a “crisis” plan. [See attached PDF: Aug12_Levine Crisis Plan] The reason for calling it a “crisis” plan, he noted, was the result of a tumultuous history with the soybeans and corn growers, including one instance where they claimed science articles had no peer review.

“Things rise to the President’s office and we have meeting after meeting for weeks on end,” Levine wrote. “It’s much worse than most would understand.”

A crisis plan is born

In an effort to not “blindside” the agriculture community, with which it has numerous working and financial relationships, CFANS circulated the film among a handful of donors and members of the agriculture community, including Duncanson, to try to elicit feedback.

Documents reveal that in August, at the encouragement of CFANS chief of staff Lori Engstrom, Bell Museum producer Barbara Coffin was engaged in discussions with Duncanson to assuage her concerns and encourage her to support the project.

“You talk about University procedure. I’m not sure there is a procedure established. I certainly have not run into any issues before in the previous four film projects.” Barbara Coffin, Bell Museum


During that time, the Bell Museum and CFANS were crafting the “crisis” communications plan, which was designed to “minimize negative reactions by agricultural organizations to the film, Troubled Waters.” [See attached PDF: Aug_Crisis Management Plan] The strategy included previewing the program for selected agricultural opinion leaders with U of M staff. According to the internal plan, it did not include distributing the film among the community.

In fact, in an August 9 draft email from Coffin to Engstrom, Coffin expressed concern that an unauthorized film draft had been released to unapproved individuals.  [See attached PDF: Aug9_Coffin To Engstrom] Coffin said the TPT contract had an embargo that did not allow circulation of the film. (However, in a September email Levine said the TPT contract did not include an embargo, and it was acceptable for him to distribute the film to some individuals within the agriculture community.)

Coffin’s email was drafted in preparation for a meeting scheduled the following day between CFANS and the Bell Museum in which key players were to hammer out the “crisis ” management plan for dealing with predicted negative reaction from the agriculture community. Engstrom and others in CFANS believed Duncanson’s reaction foreshadowed a serious issue, and something needed to be done.  

“I worry that folks will be talking and the Prez will be accused of censorship.” CFANS Dean Allen Levine, September 8


On August 27 and again on September 2, Himle was asked by Bell communications director Marty Moen to review the communications plan.  [See attached PDF: Aug27_Himle Invite To Review CM Plan] According to the documents, instead of providing feedback to Moen as proposed, Himle watched the film and emailed Bill Hanley at TPT on September 7 to cancel the film’s premiere. In the email, Himle said the film was an “anti-nitrogen/anti-farm bill/pro-organic-farming advertisement,” and wanted the U’s logo removed from the piece. According to her words to Hanley, she had not yet spoken with U President Bruininks about the film or her decisions. [See attached PDF: Sept7_Himle Letter To Hanley]

The next day, Dean Levine emailed Himle to request a face-to-face meeting. “In my opinion,” he said, “the film is unbalanced journalism. However, stopping the film will appear as censorship.” [See attached PDF: Sept7_Levine To Himle]

Himle accused of bias and censorship

As news of the cancellation reached the press and reporters continued to ask questions about Himle’s role, Himle appeared to become more incensed about the film’s content, calling it “propaganda” in late September and saying it was “styled precisely to Michael Moore’s techniques of psychological persuasion.” [See attached PDF: Sept28_Himle_Film Is Propaganda] At the same time, she attempted to distance herself from her role in pulling the film.

Dan Wolter was instructed to make clear that pulling the film was a decision by the Bell Museum. In an email he sent to Himle regarding my September 14 questions to him about the film’s cancellation, even Wolter wondered how he would explain how the decision was made. Weeks later, on September 23, a U document was sent out telling Bell and CFANS staffers how to avoid the question of who pulled the film.

Additionally, on notes created on September 20 for Bell director Susan Weller on how to respond to press questions, someone has written in pen: “There are several data practices requests and I am confident that they will show that I was not … involved in the decision to cancel the TPT broadcast.” [See attached PDF: Sept20_Weller Notes]

Despite the U’s attempts to paint Weller as the responsible party, the documents reveal that it was Himle who expressed the deepest concerns with the film and who made the decision to cancel the TPT broadcast regardless of Levine’s assertions that this move would be viewed as censorship.

Conflict of interest?

Himle’s husband, John Himle of Himle Horner, represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, which is a strong proponent of ethanol production. Duncanson also serves on the board of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. Critics have charged that Himle’s ties to big agri-business pose a conflict of interest in her handling of the matter.

General Counsel Mark Rotenberg says the U has no reason to believe that Himle has violated the individual conflict of interest policy in pulling the film. “The mere fact that Himle’s husband may have a business relationship with the MN Agri-Growth Council does not even begin to suggest there is a financial gain that can be attributed to VP Himle’s postponing of the film,” Rotenberg says.

However the administration is reviewing the matter against the institutional conflict of interest policy (different than the “individual conflict of interest policy”) to determine if Himle’s actions were biased or colored by her financial interests.

According to the policy statement, the institutional conflict of interest policy helps ensure that the University’s “research, teaching, outreach and other activities are not compromised or perceived as biased by financial and business considerations.”

Rotenberg says the University is looking into whether Himle acted in good faith in making decisions of an academic nature for the University and put the University at the forefront of her actions. “The administration is looking at this case with Troubled Waters with that in mind,” he says. “We are reviewing the situation and we may need to take additional steps.”

As to what those steps might be and what they mean for Himle’s role now and in the future, Rotenberg says the administration is awaiting the review.  “I don’t know exactly,” he says. “We are trying to learn from this case. We are examining whether additional steps need to be taken to bolster the principles in the Institutional Conflict of Interest policy,” he says. “We may have further statements about this in the future.”

Beyond the question of Himle’s personal interests lies the question about the University of Minnesota’s institutional financial interests and how those interests came into play. Documents reveal that the film met the standards of the U’s scientific review. However, the additional review process that began in April, involving agricultural interests and donors, was a non-scientific, non-academic review, though it apparently was led by an academic department—CFANS. The “crisis” plan that evolved out of fear of offending big donors led University Relations to make a decision that threatened academic freedom at one of the biggest land-grant institutions on the country. Weeks later, the U is still trying to sort out what it can “learn” from Troubled Waters.