When University of Minnesota officials called to delay the documentary âÄúTroubled Waters: A Mississippi River StoryâÄù on Sept. 7, they might have broken the schoolâÄôs academic freedom policy.
After talking with three lawyers at the UniversityâÄôs Office of the General Counsel, Bell Museum Director Susan Weller said the film should have been covered by the policy, which prohibits institutional restraint on research and creative expression on matters of public concern.
The film focuses on causes of Mississippi River pollution, and was directed by Emmy and Peabody award-winner Larkin McPhee. As an outside hire, McPhee is not covered by the academic freedom policy, Weller said. But Barbara Coffin âÄî coordinator at the Bell Museum of Natural History and the filmâÄôs executive producer âÄî is.
Karen Himle, vice president of University Relations, made the call to Twin Cities Public Television to postpone the Oct. 5 premiere. Before doing so, she talked with Allen Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, who had watched the film with a group of CFANS deans and said they also had concerns. But Levine said the deans never talked about postponing the film.
No one involved in making the film was notified before the TPT delay.
Co-chair of the UniversityâÄôs Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee Karen Miksch said when a delay occurs, âÄúyou certainly would want that that decision was not made based on public relations. I think thatâÄôs one of the reasons why this is very troubling.âÄù
The committee will be following the issue, and is waiting for the administration to clarify how and why the decision was made.
Peers in the field normally review and vet scholarship, Miksch said, and if it seems there are other factors coming into play, âÄúthat concerns me a lot.âÄù
The documentary was vetted by experts, Weller said.
There can be exceptions to the UniversityâÄôs academic freedom policy, such as libel or slander. But in this case, âÄúthereâÄôs nothing libelous, nothing false,âÄù Weller said. âÄúI donâÄôt know what [HimleâÄôs] basis was.âÄù
Weller was traveling outside the United States and found out about the TPT delay in a short e-mail from Levine on Sept. 7.
After that delay there was a lot of confusion about whether the Bell Museum should also postpone its premiere, scheduled for Oct. 3, Weller said, and she wasnâÄôt sure one could legally go forward without the other. She also couldnâÄôt find the paperwork to back up the science in the film. Weller then said the film would be delayed until spring as it underwent a scientific review process.
But in the past week, documents on the research behind the film, including a bibliography and list of experts, were collated. The information was stored on various databases and was difficult to find, Weller said. Evidence that the film had followed a vetting process and conversations with content experts were sufficient to deem the film valid, she said, and on Thursday the Bell Museum premiere was reinstated and copies made available to the public.
The TPT premiere has not been rescheduled, though network spokesman Stephen Usery said they expect to hear from the University early this week. ItâÄôs unclear whether broadcast schedules would allow the film to be shown Oct. 5, and it could be held for a few weeks to a month.
Scrutiny of an unclear process
Himle received the film from Martin Moen, communications director at the Bell Museum. Because of the controversial nature of the film, public relations officers from related colleges and from University Relations came together to plan how theyâÄôd notify community and industry contacts.
Since the film criticized common agricultural practices, the officers were planning to call their connections in the industry, including soybean and corn growers associations.
A document included with the storyboard of the film said this practice âÄúinforms agricultural leaders about the filmâÄôs broadcast so they are not taken by surprise,âÄù and will âÄúminimize negative reactions by agriculture organizations to the film.âÄù
No one from the central University Relations office was able to attend the meeting, so Moen gave Himle and Dan Wolter, director of University Relations, a copy of âÄúTroubled Waters.âÄù
Himle watched the film on Labor Day and said references to commercial organizations, including Organic Valley dairy farms, Thousand Hills Cattle Company and the Walker Art Center, were disconcerting. The organizations were held up as models of environmentally-friendly practices.
Himle said the examples detracted from what should have been the main subject âÄî the Mississippi. Her responsibility to the University is âÄúfrom an institutional standpoint,âÄù Himle said. âÄúTo make sure any institutional work product is, in fact, balanced and appropriate from that standpoint.âÄù
Himle declined to be interviewed about academic freedom, deferring questions to General Counsel Mark Rotenberg.
Rotenberg declined to comment for this article.
On her University-required conflict of interest form, Himle lists her husbandâÄôs public relations company, Himle Horner, as an outside source of income. The company represented Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, which lobbies for agribusiness. Himle said the link had no impact on her decision.
But the potential conflict has nonetheless drawn concern from the UniversityâÄôs Minnesota Student Association and several Minnesota farm and environmental groups âÄî whoâÄôve called for the release of the film âÄî a review of the delay process and the resignation of University officials involved if the decision is deemed unethical.
âÄúThese groups, like all Minnesotans, see the University as a public institution with a mission to further science in the public interest and promote academic freedom, and they clearly didnâÄôt do that in this case,âÄù Land Stewardship Project spokesman Bobby King said. âÄúI think people feel betrayed and upset âÄî rightly so. And they want to see the University take action to correct this.âÄù
Thomas Trehus, a political science sophomore, drafted a resolution that MSA will vote on this week. Trehus said he hopes the resolution will draw attention to studentsâÄô concerns about the UniversityâÄôs actions.
âÄúIt wonâÄôt force action immediately, but it will show folks in Morrill [Hall] that the students do want some answers and weâÄôre not totally ignoring the issue,âÄù Trehus said.
The Academic Tenure and Freedom Committee will follow up on what happened and look at how to avoid similar incidents in the future, Miksch said. They will also review the UniversityâÄôs academic freedom policy and look for areas that need to be strengthened.
She was told the committee wonâÄôt have access to specific personnel information, which Rotenberg, President Bob Bruininks and Provost Tom Sullivan will use to review the processes and practices of what happened.
Academic freedom is critical to the work of University faculty and staff, Miksch said, and when in doubt, that freedom takes precedence. For those involved in community-engaged scholarship she said the delay of the film âÄúmay very well have a chilling effect.âÄù