Editorial: Censorship blights U's reputation

  • Updated: October 9, 2010 - 4:07 PM

Bruininks, U need to fix policy gaps that led to film debacle.

While the queasiness some University of Minnesota officials felt after reviewing the controversial "Troubled Waters" documentary is understandable, the poorly handled decision to delay the film's premiere has stained the reputation of state's flagship university. Muscular new policy and a strong stance on academic freedom by the next president are needed to prevent future censorship of projects like the film, which fall outside the realm of traditional scientific research yet are something far more than institutional mouthpieces like alumni magazines.

Despite conspiracy theories that Big Agriculture put pressure on the U, the film's scholarly yet institutional nature is the likeliest explanation for how and why a high-ranking U official delayed the documentary's public television premiere last month. The film, which was produced by the U's Bell Museum of Natural History and carries a copyright from the Regents of the University of Minnesota, aired Tuesday night after weeks of controversy.

The official whose phone call delayed the premiere was Karen Himle, the U's vice president for university relations. Himle said in an interview last week that her "most important duty" is "to protect the reputation of the University of Minnesota with the public." Given that, Himle should have recognized that while she and two deans had questions about the film's balance and commercial product placements -- concerns shared by this editorial board -- anything smacking of censorship posed a far greater threat to the university's image.

Instead, institutional blinders and gaps in university policy led Himle to make a series of well-intentioned mistakes after Bell officials asked her to review it. Himle erred first by seeing the film not as an educational work outside her jurisdiction but as a questionable venture she needed to guard the U against.

Concerns about product placement led her to initially to decide to pull the U imprimatur from the film -- which is where Himle should have ended her involvement. But she also asked two deans -- Allen Levine and Beverly Durgan -- for their input on the film's science. When they raised concerns, Himle said she made the Sept. 7 decision to delay the TV premiere. (Ultimately, it occurred on schedule.) The intent, Himle said, was not to cancel the film permanently, but to buy time to address concerns.

Himle, however, acted too hastily. Levine said in an interview last week that he never intended to delay the film's opening. Before taking such an extreme step, Himle also should have addressed her concerns with the film's stakeholders, some of whom found out about the film's delay through the media. Also puzzlingly left out of the loop was U President Robert Bruininks, who was en route to Morocco. Himle said she had made similar decisions -- such as rescinding a Goldy Gopher licensing deal with Victoria's Secret -- on her own and felt comfortable doing so again. Himle said Bruininks was told briefly before he left that the film was something entirely different than a previous Bell film series. Media requests for university officials' e-mails will soon shed further light on Bruininks' involvement and whether he should have acted sooner to prevent this debacle.

Clearly, a stronger, more detailed policy is needed at the U to guard against future censorship of projects like "Troubled Waters." It's no surprise that an institution as powerful as the university was not comfortable with a film that included so much one-sided advocacy, but one official should not have the power to delay similar projects. New guidelines are needed to clarify when and how the U's name and copyright should be pulled from such projects. The new policy should also explicitly make academic freedom paramount in decisionmaking, guarding against any bureaucratic act that could block dissemination of a project and rightly be construed as censorship.

Thanks to this controversy, a film that would have made ripples about river pollution instead made big waves. "Troubled Waters" rightly highlights traditional agriculture's role in Mississippi River pollution, but it only skims the surface of the science behind the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone," and it should have explained the difficulties of scaling up organic agriculture, as well as the challenges of new precision agriculture techniques it advocates. The documentary also ignores potential conflicts: Among them, that the film's executive producer is married to one of its lead scientists and that Minnesota man shown using a Greenseeker device to evaluate nitrogen fertilizer needs was a product representative for the company.

Still, "Troubled Waters" is the start of a much-needed conversation about balancing the needs of a growing population with water quality. That the U so clumsily stood in the way of its release is stunning. The retiring Bruininks needs to move quickly to prevent future censorship. A broad commitment to academic freedom should be on the top of the list for qualities sought in his successor.


    The documentary "Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story" is available on demand at the tpt.org website. To watch the film, go online to tinyurl.com/39hxjej.

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