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Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America's Public Universities, Written and Directed by Steve Mims

03/25/2016 08:11 am ET | Updated Mar 26, 2016
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A new documentary took the SXSW festival by storm in Austin, Texas titled: Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America's Public Universities. No film better exposes the coordinated assault on public higher education that is going on right now across the country.

The film covers events as they recently played out at Louisiana State University, the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Each case illustrates how wealthy right-wing ideologues use the same arguments and techniques to attempt to force severe changes upon the mission of public universities.

Starving the Beast shows the power of a skillfully produced movie to demarcate the parameters of a vital public battle. It combines a clear presentation of the facts with an implicit call for citizens to fight back against what could be the destruction of these irreplaceable public institutions.

Steve Mims, who wrote and directed the film (along with producer Bill Banowsky), is a prolific filmmaker and media educator who teaches at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas in Austin. Mims zeroes in on the clashes that are now taking place at public universities around the country, a story the mainstream press has largely ignored.

The introduction outlines the high ideals that inspired the men and women who founded these colleges back in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and then contrasts this original mission with the cynical market fundamentalism that some of the key players espouse who are currently seeking to "reform" these institutions.

The film explains the contours of the free-market ideology that is behind the policy prescriptions for "disrupting" and "reforming" public universities, which originates in think tanks such as the CATO Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, and dozens of lesser known groups financed by wealthy donors, including the web of organizations that receive money from the Koch brothers.

Starving the Beast unpacks the process whereby public universities have been de-funded in recent years, which has contributed to driving up student tuition (along with student debt), and has led administrators to squeeze "efficiencies" from their institutions by freezing faculty salaries, hiring large numbers of adjunct professors, and slashing programs.

Well-financed right-wing groups that lobby hard for budget cuts and lower taxes create fiscal conditions that starve funding for public universities. They then become the loudest critics of the universities and demand a radical overhaul of the colleges' entire mission that fits their ideological mold.

Starving the Beast dissects the concept of "disruptive innovation" that the business guru Clayton Christensen popularized in the 1990s and 2000s. The self-appointed "reformers" featured in the movie use "disruptive innovation" as a cudgel with which to beat down people who resist turning public universities into businesses. Inherent in the "disruptor" parable is a blind faith in markets and the notion that any institution or organization, including universities, can be more "efficiently" managed through applying business principles.

Peppered throughout the movie are interviews with some of the wealthy white men who have placed themselves at the forefront of the "reform" movement. They sometimes proudly wear the label "disruptor," like Jeff Sandefer and Wallace Hall of Texas, Jay Schalin of North Carolina, and Frederick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute.

These wealthy "disruptors" exercise their raw political and economic power to get like-minded people appointed to the boards of trustees and accreditation outfits that govern public universities. In sit-down interviews, Starving the Beast allows the "disruptors" and "reformers" to speak for themselves, which ends up exposing the noxious character of their ideology, which is wholly incompatible with the ideals of higher education.

They've dropped any sense that the public university plays a fundamental role in the quality of life in their states, or enhances young people's understanding of their responsibilities as citizens. They don't even see "students" anymore, only "customers" or "clients." They want to steer public universities away from inquiries about the meaning of life, justice, or beauty in this world, which they see as nothing more than "left-liberal" claptrap.

Their "vision" (if one can call it that) is to get rid of academic tenure, phase out the liberal arts and humanities departments, and narrowly focus "education" on the attainment of vocational skills. They apparently want a workforce of trained automatons who toil in silence and never ask big questions or challenge authority as young people are encouraged to do in university settings. Without exception, all of the "reformers" interviewed in Starving the Beast possess either an adorably naïve view of capitalism as benevolent and fair, or else they're intellectually dishonest grifters.

They see college students as nothing more than "consumers" paying for a "service" or "product" from the university; an aggregate of atomized individuals devoid of sinews connecting them to the wider society as citizens or as people who will lead the country into the future. For them, there is no qualitative distinction between people who enroll in a college class and a random collection of strangers waiting for a bus on a street corner. They view each individual student's education as solely belonging to that student with no deeper bond to any societal or civic role or obligation. It is a bleak and nihilistic view of the purpose of higher education.

Yet since its adherents are rich and powerful people and their ideas perfectly serve power their opinions get widely ventilated in the public discourse where politicians pick up on them. For political effect they're even granted a veneer of "common sense." Starving the Beast takes on the false premise that universities are no different than businesses.

It is a toxic ideology associated with rich and powerful anti-tax zealots like Grover Norquist, and self-regarding free marketeers like Jeff Sandefer, as well as their counterparts in government like Governors Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal.

It's true that public universities function in a capitalist society and after years of savage budget cuts they must deal with outside vendors with business acumen. However, their deeper calling has nothing to do with "business," but with readying young people with the skills to seek truth, learn to empathize with others, think critically, and understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens and their place in the wider world.

The adroit editing of the film at crucial moments intersperses still shots (backed by evocative music) of statues at public universities of great Humanist thinkers from America's past. The editing bestows nice pacing as well as a visual contrast between the bottom-line market fundamentalism that drips from the lips of the "reformers," and historical figures, like Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, who consigned unique value on the mission of higher education.

The "disruptors" who appear in this film also clearly abhor academic tenure and seek to strip professors of their influence by "reforming" the academy. They advocate using neo-liberal metrics that measure each professor's worth with dollar amounts, and they wish to impose a draconian "accountability" regime, subjugating scholars to the whims of administrators, trustees, and politicians.

They pretend to be unaware that their policies would destroy academic freedom and with it the whole scholarly endeavor. We must be aware of the growing power of the "State Policy Network" that seeks to project its market fundamentalism onto public universities nationally.

One interesting visual technique of the film is when we see Grover Norquist, Arthur Laffer, and other moneyed know-it-alls deliver their awful ideas they're talking from an open laptop sitting on a desk; somehow this effect deservedly diminishes their bogus policy prescriptions.

The most depressing part of the movie for me is seeing well-heeled individuals and think tanks stack the boards of trustees to impose an agenda that seeks to turn public universities into something no more edifying to society than a McDonald's franchise.

As we've recently seen on full display with the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, possessing vast wealth and power can breed conceit and narcissism; and there's plenty of this on display in Starving the Beast among the self-anointed purveyors of wisdom about how public universities should be run.

It's kind of shocking to hear the self-assured arrogance and unprincipled put-downs aimed at professors, students, and the mission of public universities coming from the lips of people who embrace a worldview that is a cross between Ayn Rand and Herbert Spencer. They proudly stand upon the shoulders of discredited philosophers.

It's noteworthy that so many of the wealthy right-wing "disruptors" who we see interviewed in the film are unconsciously projecting their own prejudices outward and packaging them as a critique. Weirdly, they transfer their own narrow ideological bias and agenda onto a false image of what a public university does, and then claim the high ground by insisting they're trying to stop entire faculties of professors from "imposing" their ideology on students and society. They apparently lack the ability to tell the difference between the holistic multidimensional truth seeking, critical thinking, openness and debate that take place on university campuses from their own constricted worldview that holds nothing higher than hoarding money.

Although not explicit in the film, I believe the "students as customers" trope that Jeff Sandefer, the wealthy Rick Perry donor and ally, and other "reformers" extol has another effect. In February 1960, when African American college students in the South formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) it quickly became one of the most important civil rights organizations in the United States. Representative John Lewis of Georgia is a former SNCC president, and Julian Bond was a founding member.

This group was not called the "Customers Non-Violent Coordinating Committee." (Or if you read a newspaper headline covering a direct action: "One Hundred Students Arrested in Protest"; it sounds a lot different than: "One Hundred Customers Arrested in Protest.")

Throughout American history college students have been vital agents for social change and often the conscience of the country given that they embody our future. Their activism played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, ending the Vietnam War, and demanding the voting age be lowered to 18 years of age with the 26th Amendment. To consider them "customers" or "clients" is to strip them of the dignity and status they deserve as students and demote them politically.

In Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere college students often lead the struggle for social justice. Just look at how college students today have embraced the democratic socialist ideas of Senator Bernie Sanders. In Starving the Beast there's a compelling clip from C-SPAN of Bernie in the Senate explaining the power and slash-and-burn policy goals of the Koch brothers aiming to bring American society back to the 19th Century.

The "disruptors" exposed in Starving the Beast target those who they consider their ideological enemies: educated people and those who aren't afraid to criticize their agenda often from the protected enclave of academia. This kind of insubordination drives them crazy. So they push to get rid of tenure and turn universities into Wal-Marts.

The big picture that Starving the Beast elucidates is that the disinvestment in public higher education has led to increases in class size, lower pay for professors, and the hiring of temporary adjunct professors (who were the first victims of the "gig" economy).

As state government support for public universities dries up, student fees and tuition soar, which is the product of policy choices of governors and legislatures. Unchallenged, it threatens to ruin some of the most cherished institutions American society has ever built.

"That which has taken over a hundred years to build, can easily be destroyed by starving it to death," notes one of the champions of public universities in the film. We must renew our commitment to fully fund our public universities lest the "reformers" and "disruptors," with their deep pockets, powerful allies, and unyielding self-righteousness will strip them for parts.

Future generations looking back at this era will question why we were so stupid to allow a small group of elitists destroy what has been a dependable and durable conveyor belt for the opportunity and aspirations of thousands of young people. Institutions that open doors for people who didn't even know those doors existed.

Starving the Beast is a must-see movie for students, professors, and anyone who cares about the future of public higher education. The defense of these institutions depends on our ability to fight back and this film can be a useful organizing tool to better understand what we're up against and light the path forward.

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