Friday, September 24, 2010

Troubled Waters Aftermath

Are Certain Questions Off Limits

At the University of  Minnesota?

A film's near-suppression raises questions about the U.
 September 24, 2010

When the head of the University of Minnesota's public-relations department, Karen Himle, canceled the release of the film "Troubled Waters" earlier this month, the university did more than deny the public insights into how agriculture can play a positive role in improving water quality. It sent a troubling message to the people of Minnesota: At a public land-grant institution in which we all own a share, certain topics of discussion are taboo. 

The quashing of "Troubled Waters" goes beyond one film or the issues it covers. It goes to the heart of whether the U is truly a public institution that is "driven to discover," even when what is discovered could upset certain special interests. 

On Thursday, the U announced that the film had in fact been properly vetted and would be shown as scheduled. That's great news for the viewing public. But the troubling fact remains that a serious attempt was made by a public land-grant university to censor the dissemination of scientific/environmental information. 

 ...the censorship of a film that was reviewed by 27 scientists, 17 resource managers and extension educators, and (importantly) 10 farmers sends a chilling message to anyone who believes in an open environment for the pursuit, dissemination and debate of important, and often controversial, 

Only through such a free exchange of ideas will we adapt in a rapidly changing world. University officials claim that there was no outside pressure to cancel the original premiere of "Troubled Waters." If that's true, the situation is even more troubling: It means U officials practiced self-censorship. 

U of M President Robert Bruininks has over the years spoken eloquently about the need for the public to support the university. In fact, the U is in the process or considering a new conflict-of-interest policy that he hopes will hold the institution "accountable for our conduct" while building a "highly ethical culture."
The public outcry over the pulling of "Troubled Waters" shows that the people of Minnesota care enough about the U to correct it when it doesn't fulfill its mission. Bruininks needs to show that as a world-class public university, the U can use this controversy as an opportunity to demonstrate world-class respect for the people it serves.
Now Bruininks needs to undertake a full review to ensure that this kind of censorship does not take place again.

George Boody is executive director of the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project.

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