Questions remain about why U official pulled farming documentary.
A University of Minnesota documentary about farming, pollution and the Mississippi River is headed to the big screen after all.
The U reversed itself Thursday and will now show the film that Karen Himle, vice president of University Relations, pulled from broadcast on Twin Cities Public Television.
"Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story" will be shown at the Bell Museum as originally scheduled on Oct. 3. Bell Museum director Susan Weller said she now hopes that TPT will agree to reschedule the broadcast, which had been set for Oct. 5.
The decision answers the question of whether the documentary can be seen, but it does not clear up why Himle canceled the film's broadcast in the first place, and whether her role represented a conflict of interest.
Himle has not responded to requests since last Friday to be interviewed, and also was not available to discuss Thursday's developments.
The U's announcement came on the same day that a coalition of 13 environmental and food groups sent a letter to University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks, calling on him to release the film for broadcast, implement a review of university conflict-of-interest policy, and ask for Himle's resignation if she acted improperly.
Bruininks is traveling in Morocco, and issued a statement earlier in the week saying that he has "every confidence in Vice President Himle and her integrity."
Brian DeVore, communications coordinator for the Land Stewardship Project, said the U's decision to now move forward with the film indicates that it listened to the public outcry and will not stand for censorship. "But now more than ever it's clear that the film was not pulled because of concerns over its scientific accuracy," he said, and the U still needs to answer questions about transparency and possible conflict of interest.
Thursday's letter was signed by leaders of the Audubon Society, Friends of the Mississippi River, Conservation Minnesota, Izaak Walton League and others.
The documentary was produced by the Bell Museum with about $500,000 in public and foundation funds.
Himle did not inform or consult funders, producers or Weller before calling TPT on Sept. 7 to cancel the broadcast.
Weller said last week that a panel of experts needed to review the film before it could be shown. On Thursday, she said that an extra review was not necessary after all, and that she was "comfortable and confident" that the film had been vetted adequately.
"It's been a dreadful situation for all of us," Weller said of the controversy. "Well-intentioned people made mistakes and there will need to be some kind of review of our internal procedures. The university is kind of like a big, messy family. We get along but we have our tiffs and when it goes public it's not pretty."
The film's award-winning director, writer and producer said she was relieved that the documentary has been cleared.
"I'm just thrilled after all this back and forth and that the film will get out and that the public will be able to decide for themselves what they think," said Larkin McPhee. "Hopefully this will give the film a long life because I do think that the issues are important."
Because the film raises concerns about agricultural runoff that has polluted the river and the Gulf of Mexico, environmental groups have said they were concerned that Himle might have canceled the broadcast because of sensitivity to agribusiness, an important funder of U research.
The authors of Thursday's letter also noted that Himle-Horner Inc., a public relations firm owned by Himle's husband, represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council.
John Himle said he has had "zero involvement" and has not seen the film or discussed it with his wife or with clients.
Large farm groups have said they didn't know about the film, and never talked with anyone at the U about it.
'A PR fiasco'
Legislators were also raising concerns Thursday about damage to the U's reputation, especially because several administrators including Himle did not answer questions for days.
"She shouldn't have made this decision in the first place," said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis.
"The challenge for the university is that its PR expert is at the center of a PR fiasco," said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. "This gets at the heart of academic freedom about an academic product."
Weller said that the film has not been changed in any way, and that its premiere screening will include an open forum afterward.
TPT marketing officer Stephen Usery said Thursday evening that the U has not contacted him yet about the film. After that occurs, he said, "we will review it and reschedule it for broadcast. So timing is uncertain."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388