Monday, September 20, 2010

The University of Minnesota Administration

Does a Modified Limited Hang Out...

Their Version of the Troubled Waters Controversy

NIXON: You think, you think we want to, want to go this route now? And the--let it hang out, so to speak?

DEAN: Well, it's, it isn't really that--

HALDEMAN: It's a limited hang out.

DEAN: It's a limited hang out.

EHRLICHMAN: It's a modified limited hang out.

NIXON: Well, it's only the questions of the thing hanging out publicly or privately.

From the Daily (good job, Daily!):

When the University of Minnesota cancelled the Oct. 3 premiere of “Troubled Waters,” a film about the causes of pollution in the Mississippi River, it left donors and contributors asking why.

Peabody and Emmy award-winning director Larkin McPhee was chosen to write, produce and direct the film, which was scheduled to air on Twin Cities Public Television on Oct. 5. It’s already been through a rigorous review, McPhee said, but now the University wants to take a second look.

When Karen Himle, head of University Relations, watched a copy over Labor Day weekend, what she saw unsettled her. The contents of the film were a long way from what the title, “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story,” led her to expect, Himle said.

Her concern began when she saw a commercial sign for Organic Valley’s dairy farm.

“Typically, in an institutional documentary you wouldn’t see a commercial interest,” Himle said.

A few minutes later the film walked through the practices of Thousand Hills Cattle Company. Both companies, which use alternative methods of farming, were shown favorably, Himle said. There was also a scene at the Walker Art Center that discussed local food.

“Now I’m thinking, well, OK, so now where’s the river? Because we’re getting an awful lot of commercial conversation,” she said.

That night she called Al Levine, a dean in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences to talk about the issues. Levine had already watched the documentary with the other CFANS deans and told her they also had problems with it.

Levine said questions were raised about the impartiality and the scientific accuracy of the documentary.

“I’m not a scientist in this particular area. I was just looking at balance, and it seemed unbalanced,” he said.

Greg Cuomo, CFANS associate dean for extension and outreach, said he thought the film “dramatized” the relationship between farming and river pollution and “vilified” agriculture without a strong understanding of how it works.

“They made agriculture look very bad,” Cuomo said.

Scientists are obligated to look objectively at both sides of a problem, he said. But he said he thought the film “drew strong connections to things that weren’t well supported.”

Abel Ponce de León, another CFANS associate dean who viewed “Troubled Waters,” scrutinized its scientific approach, calling it lopsided.

He said he did not judge the documentary for which side it advocated, but for a lack of “vital” information.

“The University is a place that tests all angles and opinions,” Ponce de León said. “We are not here to give one single opinion or choose an opinion.”

The group called for another review, though Cuomo said he didn’t know what the goal of a second look would be.

But, he said, there is an expectation of “scientific validity.”

It is unlikely there will be major changes to the documentary, Weller said, and it will probably premiere in the spring. There has never been a similar delay at the Bell Museum in her two years as director.

Donors have been talking with the University and want to get the project back on track quickly.

The largest donation, $349,000, came from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and was allocated by a commission of legislators and government-appointed citizens.

The Legislature outlined its intent for the project, and the film met the goals, said Michael Banker, a spokesman for the commission.

“The film came across as quite balanced, and it appeared to show problems and a lot of solutions to those problems,” he said.

He found out about the delayed premiere from a reporter a week after the decision was made. When he asked Himle to provide her concerns, she did not give the commission any specifics.

Tim Hanrahan, spokesman for the McKnight Foundation, which gave the University $130,000 for the project, said those from the foundation who previewed the film were also satisfied with it. He said it met its grant requirements and seemed to line up with other independent scientific findings.

Since the postponement, the University has been accused of censoring the film because it critiques agribusiness.

Levine said people have made assumptions about the influence the agriculture industry has on the University.

“No one to my knowledge heard from anyone in big ag about this at all,” he said.

[David] Tilman [a world-class environmental researcher at the U of M] appeared in “Troubled Waters” to talk about the effects of nutrients on ecosystems and the impacts of agriculture.

After word got out that the documentary’s premiere was cancelled for further review, Tilman said he watched the preview copy he was given. It didn’t appear controversial to him.

“We need agriculture to provide food, a point the movie makes. Agriculture has some environmental impacts,” Tilman said. “All documentaries have to have a point of view. This was a proponent of the Mississippi River.”

But he said he thought the film presented scientific facts — “science as best we know it.”

This is yet another example of horrible judgement at the University of Minnesota. The administration is at fault because they still do not seem to understand the concepts of academic freedom or conflict of interest.

Please note that it does not require agribusiness to approach Dean Levine with a bag of silver to influence the U's decision on this. In fact if this was an act of self-censorship to appease the agricultural interests, this is even worse from the standpoint of academic freedom. Third greatest what?

Although some in Morrill Hall talk a good game:

"I think we need to put ourselves in the position of acting according to the highest ethical principles. I believe our people do that now and I believe our people will be doing that in the future as well." President Bruininks (Daily: 6-18-08)


"Everything we do at the University of Minnesota is out in the open..." (President Bruninks)

Sadly, it appears to be too late for this administration.


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