Censorship blights U's reputation
While the queasiness some University of Minnesota officials felt after reviewing the controversial "Troubled Waters" documentary is understandable, the poorly handled decision to delay the film's premiere has stained the reputation of state's flagship university. Muscular new policy and a strong stance on academic freedom by the next president are needed to prevent future censorship of projects like the film, which fall outside the realm of traditional scientific research yet are something far more than institutional mouthpieces like alumni magazines.
The official whose phone call delayed the premiere was Karen Himle, the U's vice president for university relations. Himle said in an interview last week that her "most important duty" is "to protect the reputation of the University of Minnesota with the public." Given that, Himle should have recognized that while she and two deans had questions about the film's balance and commercial product placements -- concerns shared by this editorial board -- anything smacking of censorship posed a far greater threat to the university's image.
She also asked two deans -- Allen Levine and Beverly Durgan -- for their input on the film's science. When they raised concerns, Himle said she made the Sept. 7 decision to delay the TV premiere. (Ultimately, it occurred on schedule.) The intent, Himle said, was not to cancel the film permanently, but to buy time to address concerns.
Also puzzlingly left out of the loop was U President Robert Bruininks, who was en route to Morocco. Himle said she had made similar decisions -- such as rescinding a Goldy Gopher licensing deal with Victoria's Secret -- on her own and felt comfortable doing so again. Himle said Bruininks was told briefly before he left that the film was something entirely different than a previous Bell film series. Media requests for university officials' e-mails will soon shed further light on Bruininks' involvement and whether he should have acted sooner to prevent this debacle.
That the U so clumsily stood in the way of its release is stunning. The retiring Bruininks needs to move quickly to prevent future censorship. A broad commitment to academic freedom should be on the top of the list for qualities sought in his successor.
I do not believe for a minute that Ms. Himle pulled the film without approval by someone in the administration. After a recent Board of Regents meeting, I asked the president whether he had spoken with Ms. Himle before the decision was made to stop the film showing and he declined to answer my question.
This matter needs clarification and the president needs to make a clean breast of things. I look forward to any light media requests for email may shine on this sordid matter.
According to a recent faculty committee meeting the investigation of this matter will be done by President Bruininks, Provost Sullivan, and General Counsel Rotenberg.
"Upon the return of President Bruininks next week, he and I [Provost Sullivan] and the General Counsel of the University will continue to review roles, responsibilities, and processes with respect to such matters. We need to be vigilant in supporting and encouraging, through all of our processes, decisions, and actions, the important values of academic freedom."
Thursday, September 23, 2010
This is an obvious conflict of interest that is not acceptable and an independent investigation needs to be done.