Karen Himle, the University of Minnesota vice president at the heart of a controversy over the university-produced documentary "Troubled Waters," will step down in January.
She and U President Robert Bruininks emphasized that her resignation, announced Friday, was a personal decision that had nothing to do with her attempt to cancel the film's broadcast.
But some of her critics -- including one who called for her resignation months ago -- called it an appropriate step.
Himle touched off a statewide tempest in September when she canceled the documentary's Oct. 5 airing on Twin Cities Public Television. The U's Bell Museum of Natural History in turn canceled its premiere of the film that same week. After intense public criticism, university officials reversed themselves and allowed the film to be broadcast as scheduled.
When asked whether her resignation had anything to do with the "Troubled Waters" controversy, she laughed. "No," she said. "It did not."
Himle, 54, said that when she took the job four years ago, she told Bruininks that she would stay through his term but then return to the private sector. Bruininks will step down and return to the faculty next summer.
"That was always my plan." Before becoming vice president for university relations, she had held administrative positions at Children's Hospitals and Clinics and the St. Paul Companies.
Now that the U has picked its next president, this was just "the perfect time," she said. "It feels right."
The Land Stewardship Project called for her resignation and questioned whether she had a conflict of interest in deciding whether the documentary ought to be aired. Himle is married to John Himle, CEO of Himle Horner Inc., a public relations firm that has represented the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a trade association that lobbies for agribusiness.
The documentary, funded with about $500,000 in state lottery proceeds and foundation grants, explores the connections among farming, pollution and the Mississippi River. It also profiles farmers who use new technology or traditional conservation measures to reduce sediment that degrades water quality and nitrogen runoff that contributes to the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone."
Agribusiness leaders said they didn't know about the film beforehand, and were not involved in the decision to cancel the broadcast. John Himle said he hadn't seen the film either, and never discussed it with a client or with his wife.
Brian DeVore, communications coordinator for the Land Stewardship Project, said Friday that Karen Himle needed to be held accountable for her actions.
"We had a situation where the head of public relations was allowed to make a decision on a film that had been vetted scientifically and had been well researched," DeVore said. "She was able to make a knee-jerk decision on it."
But the issues go deeper than one person's "conflict of interest," DeVore said. "The U needs to address what was the environment that allowed something like this to take place, and make sure that it doesn't happen again," he said.
The U has detailed the events surrounding the "Troubled Waters" broadcast in a 10-page report dated Nov. 15. The U's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg, said he and the provost are holding meetings with faculty committees so they can explore concerns about academic freedom raised by this incident.
But Rotenberg rejects the idea that such freedom was compromised. "The film was not censored, it was not edited, and it was shown exactly when everyone anticipated," he said. "That's the bottom line. That's a reaffirmation of the principles of academic freedom."
E-mails between Himle and others make clear that "there were concerns about how constituencies in the state of Minnesota would feel about the film," he said, "and that's appropriate. We're a land-grant university."
He added: "There is no evidence whatsoever that any outside business interests played any role in her decision to postpone the film."
Himle later apologized for canceling the broadcast of a U-produced film without consulting enough people on campus, and Bruininks stood behind her.
"I have every confidence in Vice President Himle and her integrity," Bruininks said in a statement in September, adding that she "continues to be an outstanding part of my leadership team."
After Friday's meeting of the Board of Regents, Bruininks stressed that Himle had resigned voluntarily.
Himle will step down in January but will continue work on a few projects as a consultant. The U did not make public Friday her separation agreement, including what payment she will receive as a consultant. Her current salary is $248,000.
Daryn McBeth, president of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, believes it when Himle says her resignation isn't related to the "Troubled Waters" controversy. It would be a shame if it were, he said.
He said he supports Himle's actions and agrees the film was one-sided. But no one from the U ever contacted him about the film, he said. He never contacted them, either.
"I continued to be bothered by the innuendo and the conspiracy theories," he said.
Staff writer Tom Meersman contributed to this report. Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168