After Public Colleges Suffer Many Blows, a Film Fires Back

August 30, 2016

Film still from "Starving the Beast"
James Carville, a prominent Democratic political adviser, decried the commoditization of higher education in a commencement speech last year at Louisiana State U., his alma mater. That theme is one of several sounded in the new documentary "Starving the Beast," which seeks to spur discussion of the financial and political forces shaping higher education.
The trailer to a higher-education documentary opening this week lays out its premise in stark terms: Public universities, it argues, are reeling from the effects of 35 years of underfunding, combined with a coordinated campaign by reform-minded groups to treat universities as businesses and students as customers.

Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities has a cast of characters that draws from some of the most bruising battles in higher education in recent years.

It opens in Washington on Friday, in New York City next week, and in a limited number of theaters — mostly near the featured universities — after that.

The documentary, which debuted here this spring at the South by Southwest Film Festival, includes lengthy interviews with some of the most polarizing figures who have sought to shape the futures of the flagship campuses at the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Louisiana State University, the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Carolina. In many cases, the battles being waged reflected similar philosophical shifts.

It opens with a fiery commencement speech given last year by James Carville, a noted Democratic Party provocateur, at his alma mater, LSU. He decries what he sees as the commoditization of higher education by politicians who treat it in the same way they might a barrel of oil or a stock. In this view, students are consumers and a degree is a product that they alone should pay for.

Mr. Carville contrasts that approach with the ideals of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln, who viewed higher education as a public good that benefits all of society by training future citizens.

The film’s writer and director, Steve Mims, is a part-time adjunct lecturer at the Texas flagship here. The producer, William S. Banowsky Jr., founded several theaters, including the Violet Crown Theater in downtown Austin, where the film debuted.

Mr. Banowsky, whose father, William S. Banowsky, was a president of Pepperdine University and the University of Oklahoma over a period from 1967 to 1984, said he hopes the film will stimulate public discussion at a time when people are increasingly worried about rising tuition and student-debt loads.

"The explanation is more complicated than ‘these are inefficient universities that are out of control and can’t manage their finances,'" he said in an interview. While there may be some some truth to that, "what isn’t acknowledged is the systematic defunding of public higher education over the last 35 years."

From 1980 to 2015, state support for public colleges dropped from an average of 60 percent of their total budgets to 12 percent, the documentary states.

Since the documentary was completed, stories of steep higher-education budget cuts have cropped up in several states, like Illinois, where public colleges have been waiting for more than a year for permanent state funding, Mr. Mims said.

The politicians who have been cutting support for public universities are setting them up to fail and then blaming them when they can’t fulfill their mission, critics argue in the film. Budget cuts force universities to raise tuition, and eventually could make a top-quality education available to only the wealthy, they contend.

What 'Conspiracy'?

Not surprisingly, the documentary has gotten less-than-stellar reviews from those who work in the think tanks and policy centers it accuses of coordinating an assault on public higher education.

"This notion of a right-wing conspiracy — that years ago, people got together in a darkened room to figure out how to starve public universities, and when they fail, blame them for it — doesn’t even warrant an attack," Thomas K. Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said in an interview on Monday. The foundation was an early supporter, along with the state’s former Republican governor, Rick Perry, of the highly contested "seven breakthrough solutions" for higher education (more on those later).

In Texas from 2004 to 2015, state formula funding for higher education dropped by 24 percent, when adjusted for inflation, while public tuition and fees increased by an average of 76 percent, Mr. Lindsay said.

Not only are students paying too much, he said, but "they’re learning too little," in part because there is too little emphasis on rewarding good teaching.

“If somebody wants to write about sexually dystopian themes in 14th-century epic poetry, I think that's fine. I have no earthly idea why taxpayers are supposed to subsidize this or subsidize students to learn it.”
While the documentary’s creators make no secret of their skepticism about what they see as an ideological shift toward a market-oriented view of higher education, they also give voice to those who say universities are not only inefficient but also focused on the wrong things.

"If somebody wants to write about sexually dystopian themes in 14th-century epic poetry, I think that’s fine," Frederick Hess, director of education-policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, says in the film. "I have no earthly idea why taxpayers are supposed to subsidize this or subsidize students to learn it."

The idea for the film emerged in 2001, when, first at Texas A&M and then at the University of Texas, controversy erupted over the "breakthrough solutions" championed by Governor Perry.

Jeff Sandefer, who served on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, was the author of those proposed solutions, which included separating universities’ teaching and research budgets and creating a new accreditation system that would grade institutions on how effectively they delivered on promises to students.

In the film, Mr. Sandefer describes the "solutions" as something he knocked off in an afternoon, and says they were part of an effort to make higher education more "student friendly."

Also appearing in the film is William C. Powers Jr., the former president of the University of Texas flagship here, who refused to adopt such suggestions and, in part because of tensions with the university system’s regents, eventually was pressured to step down.

"There was an agenda. I didn’t roll over on it," Mr. Powers says in the film. "By the way, I’m proud of that."

In Louisiana, where budget cuts have threatened to shut down entire campuses, the "reformers" include the state’s former Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, and Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, a group that opposes all tax increases.

The film also takes on the controversies that swirled around the University of Virginia where, in 2012, the governing board forced the president, Teresa A. Sullivan, to resign, at least in part because it felt she wasn’t moving quickly enough to embrace online education. Widespread protests led to her reinstatement a few weeks later.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at UVa who narrates part of the film, became involved in the documentary project after a call from Mr. Mims. As a graduate of the University of Texas, he saw common threads emerging.

"The reason I became an early and vocal advocate in the UVa battle was because I was not surprised by it," Mr. Vaidhyanathan said in an interview. "I was already aware of the nature of those attacks on higher education, but I was also aware of the power of alumni as a countervailing force."

When the film moves on to Wisconsin, the focus is on the state’s challenges to tenure and shared governance. And in North Carolina, the film recounts the protests that followed the university board’s decision to oust Thomas W. Ross as president of the UNC system and replace him with Margaret Spellings, a former secretary of education under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Mims said he and Mr. Banowsky had set out to create a film that would add nuance to the discussions about higher-education policy.

"The insidious part," he said, "is that if you don’t have your eye on the ball, those who do can drag it in a direction that might astonish you."

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at