‘Troubled Waters’ spurs academic freedom reform

A committee recommended adding a clear procedure to the existing policy.
May 25, 2011

Almost eight months since the “Troubled Waters” controversy, the once-censored documentary is bringing possible reform within the University of Minnesota community.

A University committee is drafting a document, or a “white paper,” that would provide a clear and comprehensive interpretation of the Academic Freedom and Responsibility Policy.

A lack of understanding and official procedure emerged last fall when a University vice president canceled the release of “Troubled Waters,” a documentary about the pollution of the Mississippi River.

The documentary, however, was protected by academic freedom, which is the freedom to teach, study and publish research without restraint or fear of institutional discipline.

The Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee was charged with examining the “Troubled Waters” incident after the cancellation sparked public outrage and University officials quickly moved to green light the film’s showing.

First introduced to the University in 1938, the policy has been rewritten several times. The current version was adopted in 1995.

The committee presented a report to the University Senate earlier this month recommending attaching a clear procedure to the policy to follow in cases like that of the “Troubled Waters” ordeal.

While the University has a recognized policy for dealing with academic freedom cases, there aren’t accompanying guidelines for the policy in action.

It also recommended incorporating academic freedom in the training of all new employees and through ongoing education for current employees.

While the report directly addressed “Troubled Waters,” the committee felt it could be expanded to provide a framework for a universal understanding about academic freedom issues, thus the “white paper.”

“There has always been a policy, or a guarantee. The issue is: If there were potential violations — what do you do then?” said Joseph Gaugler, a member of the committee.

Under current protocol, all questions are referred to the Provost Tom Sullivan, the University’s senior academic officer. Faculty can also file a case with the Senate Judicial Committee if they believe their academic rights were impinged, while professional and administrative staff can turn to the Office for Conflict Resolution.

This assumed policy wasn’t followed in the “Troubled Waters” case because the official did not talk to the provost before calling for the cancellation. The provost later reversed the decision.

Karen Miksch, co-chairwoman of the committee, said that along with creating such a procedure, the committee wants to educate.

“Maybe what happened in ‘Troubled Waters,’” Miksch said, “is that we need to do a better job of training.”

There are a number of misconceptions tied to the policy, such as applicability, and there has been a problem with people thinking it only applies to faculty, she said.

This is true at some large schools, such as the University of Arizona or Purdue University. But University of Minnesota policy extends to all employees who produce intellectual and creative work as part of their employment, like when a provost teaches a class.

But the protection doesn’t extend to employees at the dean level and above because they “serve at the pleasure of the president and the Board of Regents,” Miksch said.

Academic freedom doesn’t extend to individuals hired by a University employee to do his or her creative work.

The “white paper” will provide hypothetical examples for training and workshops while expanding the discussion that began in the “Troubled Waters” report.

“We have a very strong, very broad policy,” Miksch said. But she said the challenge is to ensure everyone at the University understands it.

Kathryn VandenBosch, chairwoman of the Faculty Consultative Committee which posted the original inquires into the “Troubled Waters” case, said the document is scheduled to be completed by the end of the summer.

While there hasn’t yet been a discussion on what will need to be done after the document is complete, it will most likely be presented to the University Senate.

Miksch said she is hoping the document could be published, as she has received requests for a copy from organizations nationwide.

Meanwhile, VandenBosch said Senate committees will take up recommendations made by the Academic Freedom and Tenure report next year. She said the administration and faculty will collaborate on both the recommendations and the procedure.

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