Troubled Waters at the U

Troubled Waters at the U

The potential harm isn't in the film, it's in the way the controversy and investigation are handled.

To: President Robert Bruininks
University of Minnesota


Dear Bob,

You seem to have gotten yourself embroiled in a kerfuffle regarding the evil specter of corporate censorship suppressing University of Minnesota thought. These are the kinds of disputes within academia that make the rest of us pine for days of yore, when academics were kept apart from the townsfolk by walls. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad tradition to reinstate (you can let us in for football games).

The University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History produced a documentary film entitled Troubled Waters, which may or may not accurately chronicle the environmentally negative impact of current agricultural practices on groundwater, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico. A number of prominent scientists, not least the university’s Professor David Mulla, who holds an endowed chair in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, were scathingly critical of many “facts” asserted in the film. The film’s premiere and your own planned appearance at a conference following the film were cancelled by Karen Himle, vice president for university relations.

In making the cancellations, Himle claimed that the film contained so much one-sided advocacy that she had to take actions to protect the reputation of the University of Minnesota. She noted that the film carried a copyright in the name of the regents of the University of Minnesota.

Let’s dispel the argument that the university has to take paternal action because a piece of scholarship bears the regents’ copyright. A lot of things bear that copyright. It is on, for example, a book recently featured on the University of Minnesota Press Web site entitled The Right to be Out and subtitled Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America’s Public Schools. Upsetting to some people, maybe even some regents?

That’s not known, but the point is, conservative commentators and columnists frequently troll through book and course offerings, and perhaps films—all bearing the imprimatur of the University of Minnesota—so they can express outrage about the contents to their readers and followers. The controversy over this film and its handling creates a moment when the university can show the value of freedom of inquiry.

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