‘Starving the Beast’ Scrutinizes the Strange World of Higher Ed Reform

 

Wallace Hall, Jeff Sandefer, “dodgers and coasters,” Save Bill Powers, the “seven solutions,” a Cadillac education vs. a Bel Air: Terms like these have been percolating around the University of Texas for roughly the last five years. Periodic clashes between administrators and reformers who seek to run universities more like corporations—shifting emphasis from research to teaching, measuring how individual professors affect the bottom line, and evaluating higher education less like a public good and more like a commodity—almost feel like business as usual by now.

But what still isn’t clear to many, even those who’ve closely followed the headlines, is what motivates the reformers—and why and how similar changes are happening not just in Austin, but at universities all around the country. That’s what a new documentary from UT Radio-Television-Film lecturer Steve Mims, MA ’87, digs into.

Written and directed by Mims and produced by Violet Crown Cinema owner Bill Banowsky, Starving the Beast tracks the history of the public university system, explores how state funding has decreased as the cost of college has risen, and recounts some of the highest-profile skirmishes, such as the controversial firing and re-hiring of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan and the events that led to former UT president Bill Powers’ resignation last year. It also sheds light on scandals Texans may have missed, such as the 2015 closure of research centers on poverty, civic engagement, and biodiversity at the University of North Carolina, as well as budget cuts so severe in Louisiana that Louisiana State University is considering filing for exigency, the university equivalent of bankruptcy.

Mims spoke with the Alcalde about the film, which debuted at SXSW last month and is now showing at several of the campuses it features, such as Louisiana State University and the University of Wisconsin.

How did you first become interested in this topic?

[Producer Bill Banowsky and I] followed what was happening at UT while the Wallace Hall story was unfolding. Then we learned about what had already happened at Texas A&M. As we did more research, we realized this is a national phenomenon. So it just snowballed, and we kept bumping into the same characters, including all these different think tanks that are connected.

The film looks back at the history of public universities in the U.S. What did you learn from that?

Originally, the philosophy that informed higher ed in the U.S. was that the states would invest their own money into schools so that they would benefit the state. And that’s turned out to be true in a huge way. There are people all over the U.S. who’ve gotten great, affordable degrees from public universities.

But that philosophy has changed. States have cut public funding drastically as costs have gone up and debt has gone up. The new philosophy is a libertarian one that says if you walk out of a public institution with a degree that has a market value, then you should pay for that market value. That it’s not the state’s job to underwrite your education and that the role of government should be very limited. When you really drill down into places like the Texas Public Policy Foundation and other market-oriented think tanks, that’s their core message, and that’s the one that many reformers believe.

Universities are always having to adapt to all kinds of changes. There are programs at many universities now that didn’t exist five years ago. Since the Great Recession in 2008, all universities have had to find ways to control costs. And the best institutions, including UT, are always working to be on the edge of what’s happening.

What has the response been since the film debuted at SXSW?

It’s really struck a nerve. In the last few weeks, we’ve had over 170 requests from all over the country to see the film. I’ve been getting a lot of emails saying, “This is exactly what’s happening to us in Illinois!” or wherever. Madison, Wisconsin, is the canary in the coal mine. They’ve changed tenure—it used to be in the state constitution, and last year they took it out and shifted hiring and firing to the regents. It’s tied up in the anti-union movement that’s happening there.

Do you think there’s merit to the reformers’ beliefs?

They’re smart guys, Jeff Sandefer and Wallace Hall, and others like them. They’re civil and respectful, and we had really interesting interviews with them. The movie presents a range of beliefs, and we try not to pass judgment and let viewers draw their own conclusions.

And yes, a lot of the proposed reforms are addressing actual problems—there are little nuggets of truth in there. The cost issue, the issues about tenure, all those things. If you go back to Sandefer’s “seven breakthrough solutions” from 2011, universities have already addressed some of those issues.

What role do you believe alumni should take in all this?

Simply to be informed and educated is powerful. The insidious thing is most people don’t really have a clue, because it’s a story that’s happened in many ways like a glacier. It’s taken 35 years for the financial underpinnings to be severely changed, and then the reform movement is really underway in an aggressive way since about 2008. So people who graduated 15 or 20 years ago—they get the alumni newsletter and season tickets, and they may come back and football’s still there—many alumni don’t know what’s going on. Universities themselves aren’t eager to talk about these issues, and some university employees feel they have a limited ability to talk about their concerns. The reformers have in some cases removed public employees—from the president on down—and that, understandably, can make people cautious.

But the story is one that alumni need to know. The power of alumni once they understand what’s happening could be colossal and that’s what it’s going to take, I think. People can sign up for whichever side of this argument they want, but they have great potential to make themselves heard.

 

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