Universities can’t serve two interests

A September piece in The Economist, the esteemed English business and political weekly, makes the bold statement that “America’s universities lost their way badly in the era of easy money. If they do not find it again, they may go the way of GM,” the global automotive giant that became a global lemon in less two generations.

The observation stings because it’s earned. According to lengthy studies on academia by both conservative and liberal experts, as cited recently by US News & World Report, “If colleges were businesses, they would be ripe for … serious cost-cutting and painful reorganizations.”

Facts

The Economist lists some incriminating facts:

While “median [U.S] household income has increased by a factor of 6.5 in the past 40 years … the cost of attending a state college has increased by a factor of 15 for in-state students …”

“The supply of papers that apply gender theory to literary criticism remains ample. But there is evidence of diminishing returns in an area perhaps more vital to the country’s economic dynamism: science and technology …”

“Between 1993 and 2007 spending on university bureaucrats at America’s 198 leading universities rose much faster than spending on teaching faculty.”

Harvard increased “administrative spending per student by 300 percent.”

As if to prove this brutal assessment accurate, two weeks later the University of Minnesota stepped out of the academic sunshine and into the ignorant darkness by quietly canning a 55-minute film commissioned by its own natural history museum that its ag dean claimed “vilified agriculture.”

Reality

The trouble with that explanation is its baloney content — 100 percent. The film, Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story, not only features ag school experts in its examination of how “what happens on the land in Minnesota affects the Mississippi River” but that “every fact [in it] was verified by three independent sources” and was previewed by “as many as 12 prominent university scientists,” according to the film’s producer. So what shelved Troubled Waters?

The official explanation is that the vice president of university relations, Karen Himle, pulled the plug on the film because she determined it required more “scientific review.”

More baloney, says Mark Schultz, associate director of The Land Stewardship Project in Minneapolis. “Karen Himle canceled the film for one reason: she didn’t like that it looked into the impact of intensive agriculture on our environment. The film is only controversial because corporate agriculture brooks no controversy.”

Interesting detail

Schultz — and all Minnesota journalists able to hold a pencil — jumped into story when published information noted Himle to be the spouse of John Himle, “president of Himle Horner, a public relations firm that represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council… a strong proponent of ethanol and industrial farming, both of which are criticized in the film.”

The subsequent firestorm brought even big Big U bigfoots into the fray. University President Robert Bruininks — who hired Himle for a reported $250,000 per year — rose to her defense from far-away Morocco, according to the Sept. 22 Star-Tribune, to say she “continues to be an outstanding part of my leadership team.”

Change of heart

Well, maybe. A couple of days more newspaper and broadcast stories caused the bigfoots to step backward and allow the film to keep its original campus premier Oct. 3 and its Oct. 5 Twin Cities Public Television broadcast.

The Land Stewardship Project and others, however, aren’t backing off; they want Himle fired and a public look into why the film and academic freedom — not agriculture — were vilified.

Schultz suspects an honest examination into the controversy will show exactly what The Economist essay noted a month ago: “Universities can’t serve both public and corporate interests for long before they work themselves out of a job,” he says.

Kinda’ like GM.

(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at agcomm@sbcglobal.net.)

2010 ag comm

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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