The Politics of Higher Education

A new film explores the influence of think tanks and lobbyists on America’s public colleges and universities.

Starving the Beast

Are American colleges supposed to prepare future citizens for civically engaged adulthood? Or is their job to provide student consumers a market-driven good so they’re capable of becoming productive participants in the economy?

That’s the framing of a debate about the future of higher education in the new film Starving the Beast, which explores both the view—generally proffered by liberals and schools that rely on taxpayer support—that higher education in the U.S. is a public good to be supported by society, and the counter narrative—backed by conservative think tanks and policy wonks—that it is a cost to be shouldered primarily by individual degree-earners and private entities (who will presumably benefit in the long run).

“This is one of the nation’s most important and least understood fights,” says the narrator, Brian Ramos, toward the film’s beginning.

Steve Mims, the director and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin—one of the schools featured in the film—pretty clearly comes down on the public-good side of things. But he said in a phone interview that he mostly wants the documentary to raise awareness that a debate is happening at all.

During conversations with professors and university officials at schools in Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Virginia, Mims said he discovered that people were familiar with local efforts to reform public college systems, but less aware that similar efforts were happening elsewhere at the same time. In other words, they had no context, no frame of reference. “We met all kinds of people who had no idea that anything was happening beyond their school,” he said.

And yet, the film shows that in at least a handful of places (and in more since the film’s completion), debates about how much funding colleges deserve and what that funding should be used for have shaped state policies that affect how major flagship universities operate.

The big-picture take is one of the film’s strengths, and something Mims says people have been surprised about since its release. In an hour and a half, the film attempts to point out how, across the country, conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation and people like Wallace Hall and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, have sought to scale back funding for programs and even professors.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state and local dollars made up about 54 percent of the money schools used for teaching and instruction in 2015. While states have added some funding since the recession, it’s still about 18 percent per student lower than it was in 2008, according to the center.

How those debates are presented is a different question, and while Mims says he’s tried hard to portray the different sides, the film has received its share of criticism from conservatives who think they’re being unfairly attacked. Thomas K. Lindsay, the director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, one of the groups whose influence on how the state’s universities are run is explored in the film, told the Chronicle of 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." (Mims, for his part, said he found Lindsay’s comments “ironic” given that he “declined” to be interviewed for the film.)

On a personal level, Mims thinks higher education “should be a public good.” Why, he asked, are states divesting in institutions that “have been remarkable engines for the development of the country and the world? That’s not hyperbole.”

He devotes significant time in the film to academics who worry that state divestment in higher education will give private funders with political motivations too much power over what and how students learn. Mims worries, too, that poor but brilliant students will lose what access they’ve gained to top schools if some of the policies touted by conservatives— income-based repayment of student loans, for instance, or the widespread accreditation of non-traditional  classes offered by businesses and even churches—become reality, because he fears investors won’t see such students as smart investments.

But he also devotes time to reformers like Frederick Hess, the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who says in the documentary, "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.”

As college costs have risen and student debt has ballooned, that argument has become increasingly popular, driven on the conservative side by the notion that universities spend wildly in part because they have unbridled access to federal money via student loans and need to be reined in. Many of the so-called reformers interviewed for the film also criticized tenure and other protections that are rare in the corporate world. As the film shows, Texas A&M University for a time created a list that tracked how much funding each professor earned the school through research grants. The University of North Carolina pushed its president, Thomas Ross, out, for what it broadly characterized as his failure to innovate. (Footage of a disastrous press conference following that announcement provides one of the film’s more awkwardly comical moments.)

Reformers saw those changes as innovative and necessary. But, as the film illustrates, academics, often cast as traditionalists or incrementalists, argue that politics has played too great a role (a Republican-backed board replaced Ross with Margaret Spellings, the former education secretary under the former president George W. Bush), and say that politically motivated think tanks have no business deciding which academic disciplines or courses are worth supporting. Politics, they say, has the potential to stymie the innovation reformers say they so desperately want.

“It’s a massive war against poor people” and people of color, says Gene Nichol, a tenured law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill of one case presented in the film. Nichol had been the head of a poverty-focused center on campus that was closed by the university system’s board of governors, which was appointed by the Republican-heavy state legislature. While the board said it wasn’t a political move, Nichol alleged that it was, pointing out that the center received no state funding, and wasn’t sucking up taxpayer money. (He made a case for tenure, too, arguing that it allowed him to speak out without fear of being fired.)

For people looking for solutions, the film is not a place to find them—and that’s intentional. When asked what he wants the film to accomplish, Mims said he hopes “the film makes its own case for the historical record for what public universities have achieved” instead of offering a “vision for the future.” Mims wanted to make a film, he added, that people can watch without feeling like their “political persuasion is offended by the way the material comes across.”

While the documentary does a solid job of giving voice to reformers and traditionalists, it seems to cast the two camps as polar opposites and spends less time looking at the gray zone in between, where some compromise might occur, and where most people probably land—on the idea that universities should shape civically minded adults who are also financially secure and capable of participating in the economy.

Lack of more moderate voices aside, one of the more complicated questions the film brings up is what happens to learning, particularly for poor and minority students who make up a growing portion of college goers, if schools end up looking more like businesses. Toward the film’s conclusion, Larry Faulkner, the former president of the University of Texas at Austin, posits that if the reformers win out in the end and protections like tenure are eliminated at public universities, the best faculty members will flee to expensive private schools that still offer tenure, harming research and student learning at large flagship campuses in the process. “We’ll end up bifurcating on an educational basis into an elite educated in what people perceive as the best institutions and then the rest of us, who will not be in the elite,” he predicts.

Drawing attention to the film and the issues it raises, Mims acknowledges, is a challenge. By design, there’s massive turnover at schools each year, and students and their families are often only familiar with their own experiences, not the experiences of others or how university systems have changed over time. Where a mother might look at her alma mater as she moves her son into his freshman dorm and theoretically be able to critically examine a shift in structure or funding over a generation, Mims thinks people have a tendency to be “nostalgically happy.”

And Mims said schools are constrained in their ability to draw attention to divestment and political motivations by several limitations: their desire to attract the best students (Why would you talk about the cuts to your university if you want to appeal to students?) and restrictions in some states against university presidents lobbying legislators.

Still, while the filmmakers acknowledge that the documentary is a harder sell than some of the stuff coming out of Hollywood, Mims says the team “bent over backward” to make it easy enough to watch (For what it’s worth, I thought it was, but I’ll also acknowledge that I probably spend a disproportionate amount of my time staring at wonky government documents.)

Ultimately, Mims is looking to spark a conversation, regardless of whether people share his personal views. “It’s going to leave people unsettled,” he said. And that’s not a bad thing.