Monday, September 20, 2010

University of Minnesota

Experiences Backlash Over

Poor Decision on Troubled Waters

From the Star-Tribune:

The executive producer of a documentary about farming, pollution and the Mississippi River said Monday that the University of Minnesota made a rash mistake in canceling its broadcast on public television.

Barbara Coffin, head of the film unit at the U's Bell Museum of Natural History, spoke for the first time about what she called "our messy internal confusion."

"Unfortunately, an impulsive late-hour decision to pull the film from broadcast was made without wide internal discussion," she said.

University vice president of relations Karen Himle canceled the airing two weeks ago without informing any of its nonprofit and public funders beforehand. The McKnight Foundation, the Mississippi River Fund and the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which together spent $500,000 on the film, said Monday that they still have not received any explanation for the decision.

Through a spokesman, Himle has said she decided to cancel the broadcast after hearing faculty and administrative concerns that the film was not fair and balanced in how it portrayed conventional farming as one of the main causes of river pollution as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. The U has not explained who voiced the concerns or when.

Bell Museum Director Susan Weller said in a statement last week that she would establish a panel of scientists to review the film. She did not return phone calls Monday seeking clarification about what the panel would review, who would do the work and what kind of a timetable they would follow.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy is also pressing for information, and has filed a legal request under the Minnesota Data Practices Act to learn why the documentary was canceled.

University of Minnesota spokesman Daniel Wolter said he could not respond to Coffin's concerns without discussing the matter with supervisors.

Wolter and other U officials have provided varied reasons for the cancellation. One was that the film may not have been "factually accurate, objective and balanced in its presentation." Another was that it may not have met the specifications of the legislative appropriation that helped to fund it.

LCCMR director Susan Thornton gave the film a positive review after seeing a final version of it on Monday. "I think it presents a balanced approach," she said. "I think it might also speak to some things that people don't want to know about or think about."

Coffin and the film's director, Larkin McPhee, have defended the integrity of the work. Coffin provided a list of 27 scientists at the U and elsewhere who were part of the review process, as well as 17 resource managers and extension educators, 10 farmers and nine science writers and communication specialists.

Coffin said she does not believe the last-minute cancellation was the result of any outside pressures or influences, but was rather a rash decision.

"It's most concerning to me that the university has really stumbled here," she said.

And who, exactly, has stumbled? Where is the President? Is he hiding in his bunker in Morrill Hall? Why no comment from him on these matters?

It is time for the President to speak up, unfiltered by press-agentry of folks like spin-meister Wolter. The Public Relations operation of the University of Minnesota should NOT be making decisions of the type that led to pulling this film. As has been documented, some deans at the U have also had their dirty hands on this one.

Third greatest what?


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