After the news of the resignation of Karen Himle, the University of Minnesota official in the middle of the Troubled Waters documentary flap, I talked to Brian DeVore, communications coordinator for the Land Stewardship Project.
The nonprofit environmental organization has been perhaps the most vocal critic of how Himle and the U have handled the pulling of the controversial documentary, and called for her ouster when it happened. It also archived many of the documents and e-mails released by the U under a data release request.
Himle has denied that she resigned over the fiasco. And Bruininks said Himle’s resignation was due to the impending arrival of the new president, Eric Kaler, and that she’d always had the aim of going back into the private sector.
You could debate whether that’s just a face-saving move. DeVore told me:
It’s a good step. We wanted the person ultimately responsible for the decision to yank the film to be held accountable.
That said, the move seemed to have come out of the blue to him:
I was surprised. I figure if hadn’t happened, it wasn’t going to happen.
Himle came under intense criticism after it was revealed she had ties to agribusiness when she made the call to cancel the film’s premier. Critics such as DeVore railed against what they saw as a conflict of interest. They also questioned whether agribusiness interests had pressured Himle and university officials to pull the film.
University officials have said Himle made the phone call that canceled the film’s showing on Twin Cities Public Television — which in turn prompted the cancellation of its debut at the Bell Museum — but wasn’t necessarily the one who made the final decision.
Devore didn’t seem to buy that after reading the released correspondence. (Indeed, Himle was the most outspoken critic of the film, raising objections in e-mail after e-mail that had not been raised by others. Even Agriculture Dean Al Levine, though not a fan of the film, had warned against pulling it.)
From my looking at the e-mails, she was the one who pulled the trigger. … She was responsible. She made the decision. She was not a scapegoat. She had a lot of power, and she over-used it.
And yet just after the decision was apparently made, one staffer indicated in an e-mail that President Robert Bruininks had known about — and thus approved — the yanking of the film.
It does kind of sound like that. There were only five very brief emails from Bruininks, and they weren’t very illuminating. … We’ll never know.
DeVore said he has come to believe that the yanking of the film was a case of self-censorship, a chilling effect within the university brought on by past tussles with commercial interests over U research critical of agriculture:
I really think there was not this overt (outside) pressure in this particular case to say, “Pull this particular film. But there was this environment created where … agribusiness would go to people like Al Levine, complain bitterly, pull money and cause a lot of problems. It created this atmosphere where someone like Himle felt justified in pulling the film to pre-empt (negative reaction).
And the University of Minnesota still hasn’t — at least officially — found the root of the problem and resolved it, he said:
I think it’s really key that the U undertake a full investigation of how something like this came about. If we just replace (Himle) with someone with the ability to make a decision like this — a knee-jerk yanking of the film that had already been vetted — we may not be any better off than before. I hope (the resignation) is not just a way to fix public relations mistakes they made. We need real fixes.
DeVore said his organization has used the Troubled Waters fiasco to push the U to increase its support for “sustainable organic agricultural outreach.”
A reason the film was so controversial is that it showed (organic agriculture) in a positive light. We’ve suspected for a number of years that there’s this innate bias against any alternatives to (current methods used by large agricultural corporations). It has sort of reinvigorated us.