Questions still linger on “Troubled Waters”


“Troubled Waters,” the U of M film that has garnered plenty of attention since U of M VP Karen Himle pulled it from TPT on September 7th, premiered as scheduled tonight to a packed house at the Bell Museum. A panel Q&A followed, featuring “Troubled Waters” director/writer Larkin McPhee; U of M professor and director of the Institute on the Environment Jon Foley; Nancy Rabalias, an LSU professor who has extensively studied the Dead Zone; and Jack Hedin and Dick Gerhardt, two farmers who appear in the film.

The questions were inspired and eye-opening. There’s no doubt Minnesota is filled with people equally passionate about the issues of feeding a growing population as they are about creating a healthy, sustainable environment. And despite the PR debacle surrounding the film, the premiere was met with zero controversy.

But a controversy and a number of questions still remain for the University of Minnesota, which has bungled the handling of the film’s yanking from TPT from the start.

Along with the real issues and fallout that need to be addressed – such as the serious threat to academic freedom; the conflict of interest with Karen Himle, whose husband represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council; and just how big of a role outside influences like major agribusiness have at the U – there remains some immediate questions that need to be answered about the internal structures and PR catastrophe that has played out since the film was first pulled.

Brian DeVore of the Land Stewardship Project does an excellent job of dissecting the U’s shifting story, from one about “scientific accuracy” to LCCMR funding requirements to political tone. Devore notes that,”in this case, at least four different outlets have utilized a wide variety of sources – from spokespeople to deans to public TV officials to Himle herself – to come to the same conclusion: Karen Himle pulled the plug on “Troubled Waters” and the lack of good science was not the reason.”

So, since four different publications have reported that as fact, here are a few immediate questions that need to be answered:

1. Why the “cover-up” for Himle’s role in pulling the film?

On September 17, Susan Weller, the Bell Museum director, issued this statement:

“Our standard procedure at the Bell Museum is that our exhibits and educational products have at least one researcher who oversees the project’s scientific integrity from inception to completion. Unfortunately, this procedure was not followed by the Bell Media unit for production of the documentary, ‘Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story.’ As Director of the Bell Museum, I am responsible for ensuring these standards are followed, and I regret our error in this case.”

I have made requests to the University for any documents, instructions, employee handbooks, etc., that outline the “standard procedure” calling for at least one researcher to oversee the project from start to finish. The University could not produce any documents outlining this procedure.

On Sept. 23, after it was announced the film would premiere as scheduled at the Bell Museum and after four news outlets reported Himle pulled the film, Weller told Alex Friedrich of MPR that she didn’t know who pulled the film from TPT. “That’s a piece of information I simply don’t have,” she told him. “I’ll leave it to those who were involved in that decision to self-disclose.”

In addition, when questions were posed to the U of M about rescheduling the TPT premiere, the story was that “the contract was being negotiated,” yet TPT said that the station was waiting to hear from the U about an official air date. No one at the U could say what specifically was being negotiated, and Marty Moen, the spokesperson for the Bell, even seemed to express confusion about reasons for the renegotiation. For more on that issue, see my previous post.

The primary issues here are that the University can’t provide a single document that outlines these internal procedures (which, again, came up as the fourth story) that caused Weller to suddenly take blame for the pulling of the film; the U’s stories continue to change and faculty even seems confused about the primary message; and Weller and others are continuing to turn their back on full disclosure, only furthering the University’s bungled PR that many critics say stems from University censorship.

In the immediate aftermath, the U needs to answer: Why was Himle allowed to pull the film? And how was it that members of the faculty were suddenly taking blame for Himle’s decision and/or covering up the fact that she was responsible for the decision?

2. Is it a threat to academic freedom or isn’t it?

On September 28, just as various committees around the University were meeting to demand an investigation into how the PR department came to make academic decisions, President Bruininks issued a statement:

“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.”

Faculty, students, and staff applauded this decision. The Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, along with other U committees, had planned to address the issue with Bruininks, provost Tom Sullivan, and the General Counsel. However just a day later, Bruininks changed his mind and told MPR’s Tom Post that academic freedom was never under threat by the film being pulled.

“[Academic freedom] was never a risk at stake,” he said. “In fact, I’ve spent a good deal of my time as president defending the rights of our faculty to publish what they think is important, to pursue lines of work that may be inconvenient and unpopular in our society.” Instead, Bruininks said, the delay could’ve been “handled differently.”

On blogs and at the “Troubled Waters” viewing tonight, faculty and staff continue to note that it’s important for Bruininks to acknowledge academic freedom was at stake when a University PR department pulled an academic film, otherwise, they say, there can be little assurance that the issue will be properly investigated and that U faculty can be confident something like this will never happen again. Without that transparency, as professor Jon Foley noted in a story I did for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, faculty and the community cannot be assured that University research isn’t muzzled by outside interests.

“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.”