Internal e-mails about Troubled Waters, recently made public, show an administration panicked about how agri-business would react to a film critical of its farming methods. What’s disturbing about those concerns is that they reflect what happens when a public university increasingly depends on private money.
The context the episode deserves is that the University of Minnesota has been stressing the role of private support as a new source of revenue. And administrative pressure on the foundations has paid off: A 2009 report shows that from 1999, funds from donations to the University nearly doubled in the proceeding decade. The catch is that increasing dependency on private support means the University must appease private interests.
That University officials have ties to private interests doesn’t help academic freedom. Al Levine, dean of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, has agri-business ties. He sent the film for review to Kristin Weeks Duncanson, the vice-chairwoman of a large farm lobby, the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. She was the past director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. In 2008, the MSGA temporarily suspended grant money to the University after it released a report critical of the environmental impact of expanded biofuel production.
President Bruininks has portrayed himself as the valiant guardian of academic freedom in the Troubled Waters drama. But increasing dependency on private support — his policy — along with the glaring conflicts of interest within the administration — his people — have put that freedom into doubt. As private money and conflicts with that money pervade the University, it needs to implement more safeguards to protect its mission as an institution of public education.
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