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After film flap, U faculty on edge over academic freedom

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Troubled Waters
The situation over the "Troubled Waters" documentary has raised broader concerns about academic freedom and pressures from outside the University of Minnesota.
Image courtesy of the U of M

The situation over the "Troubled Waters" documentary has raised broader concerns about academic freedom and pressures from outside the University of Minnesota.

This month, the U of M said it would hold off on showing the film over concerns that parts of it unfairly blamed farmers for pollution. That decision was reversed and the U of M will show the film on October 3 as planned.

The state board that financed a documentary at the center of a controversy at the University of Minnesota got a look at the film Wednesday.

Members of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources generally felt the film "Troubled Waters" was balanced in how it portrayed the causes of pollution in the Mississippi River.

Commission member Jeff Broberg said he's worried that the U of M nearly pulled the film because it may have feared a backlash from agricultural groups.

"It really scares me that a public relations person, with a single-minded view that doesn't want to disparage anybody, would think that it would be OK to squelch discussion," Broberg said.

George Boody, the executive director of the Land Stewardship project, said he's afraid the U of M considered self-censorship to avoid angering farm commodity groups.

"It does suggest that there might be a concern about what gets disseminated and what doesn't," he said.

"It could very well be a violation of our academic freedom policy."

A few weeks ago, the U of M said it was delaying the on-campus premiere of the documentary about pollution in the Mississippi River. U of M officials raised concerns that the first few minutes of the film singled out farmers as the sole source of pollution.

Though the showing will go on as originally planned, associate professor Karen Miksch said she still has concerns. Miksch co-chairs a faculty committee on academic freedom and said the perception that the U of M considered holding back the release, whatever the reason, has a chilling effect on researchers.

"It certainly raised concerns for me," she said. "It could very well be a violation of our academic freedom policy and then that raises the next question: What do we do about it and what do we do to make sure this doesn't happen again."

The university said it's reviewing how decisions about the "Troubled Waters" showing were handled.

Miksh said the controversy points to some gray areas in the school's academic freedom policy, something she hopes the university community investigates.

Some researchers at the U of M said despite the recent controversy, they've never seen evidence that outside influence affects the work they do.

Every time he releases a study on ethanol, Jason Hill, associate professor in the department of bio-products and bio-systems engineering, gets angry emails from agriculture commodity groups.

Hill's studies have found perennial grasses can be a better source for ethanol than corn, because they require less tilling, less land and less fertilizer than corn.

Since corn production is worth billions of dollars annually for Minnesota farmers, commodity groups have reacted strongly to his findings. Hill said the purpose of his research is to find ways to improve the nation's energy and food production.

"My own agenda is not one of trying to knock down corn ethanol, or be anti-American, I'm not funded by the petroleum industry -- all things I've been accused of many times," he said.

In 2009, in response to Hill's research, Mark Hamerlinck, a spokesman for the Corn Growers of Minnesota, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "It would be news if the university had anything positive to say about corn ethanol. It's how they make a living over there."

Hamerlinck declined to comment for this story.

Other researchers at the U of M tell MPR News stories of a email barrages after releasing data on ethanol, questioning their scientific findings, and accusing them of an anti-ethanol agenda.

In 2008, two Minnesota Soybean groups threatened to pull $1.5 million in funding after the U of M released a study said using soybeans and other crops for bio-fuels could worsen global warming.

Hill said despite criticism from outside groups, he's received solid support from department heads, deans, provosts and even the U of M's president.

"The whole chain has in many ways stuck up for the research I've done and has encouraged me to continue what I'm doing," according to Hill.

Allen Levine, dean of the U of M's college of food, agricultural and natural resource sciences said regardless of what agriculture commodity groups think of findings from the U of M, their concerns never translate into pressure on the work of researchers.

"That is reviewed in their journals, it is independent of any kind of administrators, this is done in a scientific manner," Levine said. "I myself have published for the last 30 years. Nobody has ever done it to me, I would never do it to them."

Levine would not comment on the talk of delaying the "Troubled Waters" film, citing an ongoing review into what happened.

Levine has told MPR in the past that he had concerns about the tone and balance of the documentary, especially the first three minutes. He said the beginning of the film seemed to blame farmers for nutrient run off into the Mississippi River. The rest of the film goes on to identify other sources of pollution, such and cities and fertilizers from residential lawns.

U of M President Robert Bruininks said talk of delaying the "Troubled Waters" documentary, which he admits should have been handled and communicated differently, never threatened academic freedom.

"That was never at risk and never at stake," he said. "In fact, I've spent a good deal of my time as president defending the rights of our faculty to publish what they think is important, to pursue lines of work that may be inconvenient and unpopular in our society."

University officials, from Bruininks, to the school's general counsel, say they'll continue to review the decisions surrounding "Troubled Waters."