Troubled Waters for the University of Minnesota

Efforts to dam the free flow of information about Mississippi River pollution.
By Molly Priesmeyer

More than a year and a half after the University of Minnesota made headlines when an administrator halted the premiere of an environmental documentary, controversy and questions persist at the Twin Cities university.

Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story took nearly four years to make. It explores how agricultural runoff and pollution contribute to the largest dead zone in the world, where the Mississippi spills into the Gulf of Mexico. A team of researchers, filmmakers, and scientists has been up and down the Mississippi River, knee-deep in swamps and icy waters, and elbow-deep in footage and research, looking at the central role of agriculture and pollution in creating that oxygen-depleted zone.

The documentary was scheduled to premiere at the Bell Museum, a unit of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), on October 3, 2010. University of Minnesota president Robert Bruininks, an adamant supporter of the conservation-focused project, was set to speak at the event. The film was also scheduled to air on TPT, the local public television channel, on October 5. But on September 7, just as invitations to the premiere were sliding into mailboxes, the University of Minnesota pulled the plug on both the event and the public television broadcast, citing the need for “scientific review.” The uproar was immediate. Ultimately, the documentary had its premiere to huge crowds at the museum and ran on public television as scheduled. In the aftermath of the controversy, Vice President of University Relations Karen Himle, who was responsible for trying to cancel the film, resigned.

My own lengthy reporting for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, an online news organization, established that Himle e-mailed TPT and demanded that the film be pulled. But she was not the only administrator involved in a troubling case that touches on academic freedom and financial conflicts of interest.

University of Minnesota faculty and staff members, including members of the university’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, have discussed the fallout from Troubled Waters at length. In February 2011, five months after Himle pulled the film, the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee weighed questions about academic freedom raised by the case. Under what circumstances does academic freedom extend to individuals beyond the faculty—to other university employees who have teaching and research responsibilities or who produce intellectual and artistic content? How do academic freedom and responsibility apply to university administrators, only some of whom are tenured faculty members, and what are the limitations on academic freedom that arise from their responsibilities as administrators? What measures, if any, should be taken to ensure that administrators and others who are not faculty members understand the meaning and implications of the policy on academic freedom and responsibility?

And nearly two years later, one larger question still swirls at the center of the controversy: what measures need to be in place so that academic freedom prevails over a perceived need to appease donors and garner further financial support?

The Trouble Begins

The facts of the case are now established. In September 2010, one month before the film Troubled Waters was set to premiere, Himle canceled the museum event, requested further “scientific review,” and pulled the film from TPT. At the time, University of Minnesota officials were not straightforward with the public about Himle’s role in pulling the film, but e-mail exchanges requested by me and the Twin Cities Daily Planet reveal that Himle acted without approval from the provost or president.

The film had previously undergone fastidious scientific review. Larkin McPhee, the film’s director, required it to be fact-checked to the standards of NOVA, a critically acclaimed scientific public television show for which she had done previous work. And at least twelve prominent scientists reviewed the film, among them David Tilman of the University of Minnesota’s ecology, evolution, and behavior department; Robert Diaz, a professor of marine science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and an expert on the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico; Eugene Turner, a zoologist at Louisiana State University who has done extensive research on wetland pollution and coastal erosion; and Nancy Rabalias, another LSU professor, whose research has dealt extensively with pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.

University officials later backtracked on the “scientific review” reasoning and contended that they were reviewing the film to see if it met “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.

At the time, however, Michael Banker, the commission’s communications manager, told the Twin Cities Daily Planet that, while the university had the authority to determine whether the film met university standards, “the authority to determine whether the project meets the language of the appropriation and LCCMR-approved work program is the responsibility of [the] LCCMR and the legislature.”

What’s more, Himle’s role in pulling the film wasn’t made immediately apparent by the university, nor were her possible conflicts of interest. As it turns out, not only did Himle violate the university’s academic freedom policy, but she might have violated the university’s conflict-of-interest policy as well.

Karen Himle is married to John Himle, a principal at Himle Horner, a public relations firm representing big agribusiness. Among the organizations that Himle Horner represents is the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, which includes members who are major CFANS donors. The council is a strong proponent of ethanol and industrial farming, both of which are criticized in the film. John Himle was also president of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council from 1978 to 1982.

When I reported on the possible conflict of interest, John Himle sent an e-mail to me at the Twin Cities Daily Planet, stating, “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.”

At the time, the university’s general counsel, Mark Rotenberg, said the administration was reviewing the matter against the institutional conflict-of-interest policy. 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.” Himle resigned from the university three months later. Rotenberg has remained tight-lipped about Himle’s sudden departure, saying he cannot speak about personnel matters.

Questionable Connections

University administrators have tried hard to convey the impression that outside influences were not a reason for pulling the film. However, files released to the Twin Cities Daily Planet in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for all correspondence, documents, and notes about Troubled Waters tell a different story about donor influence at CFANS. As early as April 2010, five months before the film was to be seen by the general public, Allen Levine, dean of CFANS, distributed a cut of the film to donors and members of the larger agricultural community for political, rather than scientific, review.

One person who responded to Levine with an e-mail suggesting that the film be changed was Minnesota farmer Kristin Duncanson. Duncanson serves on the board of directors of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council and is the past president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. In an April 14, 2010, e-mail to Levine, Duncanson wrote that the film’s “comments on the farm bill could be very dangerous for the University.”

She also noted that corn and soybean growers would be upset by the film’s inclusion of David Tilman, who had coauthored a 2008 ethanol study that raised the hackles of Minnesota’s corn and soybean growers. “Don’t get me started on the Tilman comments,” she wrote. “No matter what that guy says the corn and soybean folks will be upset.” She went on to ask, “Will the University’s name be on [the film]? I am very concerned about this piece.” After publication of Tilman’s study, which concluded that dedicating huge amounts of land to food crops for fuel such as ethanol could drastically change the landscape and worsen global warming, the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council had temporarily revoked $1.5 million in grant funding. University officials, including Levine, met with the agribusiness groups to mend the relationships and ensure that the grants were reinstated.

But Troubled Waters created new concerns in CFANS over funding, and officials began to scramble to limit the repercussions. After the agriculture community expressed concern, Greg Cuomo, the college’s associate dean for extension and outreach, told staffers in an e-mail that the film “vilified agriculture”; officials from the college quickly began drafting a communications management plan to deal with what they believed would be negative reactions from the agriculture community.

Levine referred to the resulting communications outline as a “crisis” plan. It was called a crisis plan, he noted, because of the college’s recent tumultuous history with the soybean and corn growers, a result of Tilman’s 2008 findings that suggested that dedicating large amounts of land to commodity crops for ethanol could accelerate climate change. According to an e-mail sent by Levine to CFANS staffers, the growers had not only threatened to pull funding but also once claimed that “articles in Science had no peer review.”

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

On August 27 and again on September 2, Himle was asked by Bell Museum communications director Marty Moen to review the communications crisis plan. According to the documents, instead of providing feedback to Moen as proposed, Himle watched the film and e-mailed Bill Hanley at TPT on September 7 to cancel the film’s broadcast on local television.

In the e-mail, Himle said the film was an “anti-nitrogen/anti-farm bill/pro-organic-farming advertisement,” and she wanted the university logo removed from the piece. According to her e-mail to Hanley, she had not yet spoken with President Bruininks about the film or her decisions.

The next day, Levine e-mailed Himle to request a face-to-face meeting. “In my opinion,” he wrote, “the film is unbalanced journalism. However, stopping the film will appear as censorship.”

As news of the cancellation reached the press and reporters continued to ask questions about her role, Himle appeared to become more incensed about the film’s content, calling it “propaganda” in e-mails and saying it was “styled precisely to Michael Moore’s techniques of psychological persuasion.” At the same time, she attempted to distance herself from the decision to pull the film.

Dan Wolter, then University News Service director, was instructed to make clear that pulling the film was a decision by the Bell Museum. In an e-mail he sent to Himle regarding my September 14 questions to him about the film’s cancellation, even Wolter wondered how he would explain the decision. Weeks later, on September 23, the university sent an e-mail to Bell Museum and CFANS staffers about how to avoid the question of who pulled the film.

Calls For Investigation

In late September, faculty and staff called for a full-scale investigation of why Himle canceled the premiere. On blogs and in classrooms, University of Minnesota faculty, students, and staff called the move censorship by the university.

After weeks of bad press and internal and external pressure, the university announced it would be premiering the film as originally planned. Bruininks issued a statement in conjunction with that announcement:

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.

While this might be the first time a PR department has had such serious involvement in an academic issue at a university, it is far from the first time a university has been seen as placing the desires of big agribusiness ahead of the mission of academic freedom.

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.

In 2009, 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 Company.

In 2002, in a case eerily similar to the Troubled Waters brouhaha, a University of Manitoba film, Seeds of Change, was withheld from public viewing by the university’s administration for more than three years. Seeds of Change explores the controversy of genetically modified crops and biotechnology in Canada, and 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 genetically modified seeds, as the primary reason for withholding it from public view.

Next Steps

At the University of Minnesota, new measures are in place to ensure that academic freedom is protected from donor and administrative pressures.

“The Troubled Waters incident was an opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of the free exchange of ideas to university research and teaching,” says Christine Marran, associate professor of Asian languages and literatures and current cochair of the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.

The Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee used the controversy as an opportunity to reiterate the protections of academic freedom at the university, particularly for those who are not considered faculty or staff. “One misconception we worked hard to dispel was that only ‘faculty work’ was covered by the regents’ policy on academic freedom and responsibility,” says Karen Miksch, an associate professor of law and higher education who served as committee cochair during the Troubled Waters controversy. “Our policy, however, protects all employees of the university. The fact that the filmmaker was not a faculty member is immaterial. Her work was protected by the policy.”

According to Marran, new safeguards include requiring that all scholars joining the University of Minnesota faculty be apprised of the institution’s academic freedom policy by the vice provost at their new faculty orientations. Chairs will also be asked to review the university’s policy on academic freedom.

And as donor support becomes increasingly important in the wake of serious funding cuts, so does rigorous support of academic freedom, says Marran. “The role of academic freedom in the university is not susceptible to the vicissitudes of external funding,” she says. “Of course, as external funding becomes more important to the finances of the university, the more vigilant faculty and administrators will have to be to safeguard the free exchange of ideas. If we fail in this task, the legitimacy of the institution will be compromised.”

The Senate Research Committee and the Faculty Consultative Committee plan to address the issue of funding and academic freedom throughout the 2012 academic year.

The film, Troubled Waters, received three Upper Midwest Emmys in 2011 and continues to garner critical acclaim.

Molly Priesmeyer is a Twin Cities–based freelance writer and reporter. She follows environmental news and policy, the economy, and university news and conflict-of-interest stories for a variety of publications, and her articles have appeared in City Pages, the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Midwest Energy News, MinnPost, and Rolling Stone. Her e-mail address is [email protected].