"Troubled Waters" update: Public institutions compromised by private interests
A few weeks ago, I blogged about the controversy surrounding the premier of Troubled Waters, a documentary about the dead zone in Gulf of Mexico. To recap: the University of Minnesota, one the film's main sponsors, cancelled its debut at the last minute, apparently out of concern that it might offend Big Ag interests in the state. You see, the deadzone forms each year when the Mississippi River delivers nutrient pollution from industrial farm fields in the Midwest to the Gulf. It's a problem that can't be solved without significant changes to our food system, and the film highlights innovative farmers on the cutting edge of that transformation.
After a loud public outcry the premier eventually went ahead as planned, but the incident highlighted behind-the-scenes relationships between the state's public institutions and corporate agricultural interests. The Land Stewardship Project (LSP), a PAN partner, recently obtained internal University of Minnesota emails about the incident and has just posted them online.
According to LSP's press release:
“These documents confirm what LSP and others already suspected: University officials put the interests of corporate industrial agriculture before academic freedom,” said Bobby King, a Land Stewardship Project Policy Program Organizer. “They also make it clear that major reforms are needed to ensure this never happens again, starting with the dismissal of the U’s vice-president for University Relations, Karen Himle.”
Among the documents' revelations:
- As suspected, Karen Himle, a University of Minnesota public relations official, was behind the move to quash the film. Himle's husband is the CEO of a PR fim representing agribusiness clients, and founder of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, an agribusiness lobbying group.
- University officials allowed the vice-chair of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council and past president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association to review an early cut of the film. This happened without the filmmaker's knowledge or consent.
- The University was clearly concerned that donors would react negatively to the film's content and the University's involvement, drafting a "crisis communication plan" to deal with its release.
As noted in an editorial in the University of Minnesota's student newspaper, as egregious as this incident is, it is really just a manifestation of a long-growing problem: the increasing dependence of public institutions on financial support from private corporations. The problem is particularly acute in agricultural research, where public land grant universities are signing more and more public-private research agreements with pesticide, seed, and biotech corporations. When university scientists pursue research that could threaten the interests of the institution's corporate sponsors, administrators must choose between curtailing academic freedom or risking the loss of funding. It's a dangerous situation.