Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hard to get the toothpaste back into the tube...

A wall in front of "Troubled Waters"

--- the U of M and its contentious documentary

From MinnPost:

The University of Minnesota looks to be embroiled in what could be a growing public relations disaster. The source? A documentary film, produced by the U's Bell Museum, about pollution in the Mississippi. The documentary, titled "Troubled Waters," details Minnesota's contribution to pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. The documentary was supposed to be shown on Oct. 5 on Twin Cities public television, but then it was unscheduled. How? According to a story by Tom Meersman of the Star Tribune, "University vice president of relations Karen Himle canceled the airing two weeks ago without informing any of its nonprofit and public funders beforehand." Meersman interviews Barbara Coffin, head of the film unit at the U's Bell Museum of Natural History, who says, "[A]n impulsive late-hour decision to pull the film from broadcast was made without wide internal discussion."

But why would Himle cancel the film with such short notice and without broader discussion? Stephanie Hemphill at Minnesota Public Radio has more of the story. Hemphill's lede: "The Dean of the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences says a film produced by the Bell Museum about pollution in the Mississippi River 'vilifies agriculture.'"

According to the story, this dean didn't find the film to be inaccurate but questions its balance. MinnPost's David Brauer investigates the University's ties with the Agri-Growth Council, an agriculture lobbying group, although he notes that the dean and and Himle deny any pressure from the group. Molly Priesmeyer digs a little deeper into the process by which the screening was spiked in the Daily Planet, and notes that the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which was one of the major funders for the project, was never told about the screening being spiked and has yet to receive any detailed complaints about the film.

The Minnesota Daily's editorial page makes no bones about its opinion on this, noting the appearance of conflicts of interest and the lack of transparency in the process. "How can the VP of public relations be so ignorant about public relations?" they ask. And while Himle says she wants the film to be reviewed for accuracy, it has, in fact, already been vetted, and nobody has offered up any accusations that the film is not factual at all. It's easy to see why The Daily took issue with Himle, as the whole affair has the feel of an institution suppressing information for no reason other than political inconvenience, which is not the sort of behavior you want from an educational and research organization, especially a publicly funded one.

The timing is rather miserable as well, as we are one month away from the gubernatorial elections, and one of the candidates, Republican Tom Emmer, has called for cuts to higher education. This is not the time for the University to be making itself unsympathetic, and even if the complaints about the documentary are valid — which is yet to be demonstrated — the process has rightfully created many critics. Fortunately, both the DFL candidate and the IP candidate have positioned themselves as being supporters of higher education — as MinnPost's Eric Black reports, IP candidate Tom Horner spoke Monday at the University's Humphrey Institute. As he has consistently done, Horner described himself as being the reasonable middle on various political topics, especially focusing on education. From the sound of things, Horner's reasonable middle involves keeping funding for higher education stable, rather than decreasing it. It's worth noting here that Pawlenty slashed the budget for higher education, and so while Horner wouldn't be cutting further, in a lot of ways what he is promising is to keep funding at Pawlenty's reduced level.

Kudos to Max Sparber for an excellent analysis of the mess we're in. Perhaps the President of the University of Minnesota should take him on as Vice President for Analysis and Reality Checking? (What the hell, everyone knows that vice presidents grow on trees at the U of M.)

Max could explain to the President how inept the U has looked under his administration, something that Bruininks does not seem to have been able to figure out for himself.

He has not been served well by his pr people, especially Pawlenty's former flak-catcher, and now, apparently, the U's chief flack, Dan Wolter.

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